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Organic-Personacratic History as pedagogy

In my previous column I wrote about 9/11 as a semiotic representation of modern world history. In the column before that, related to today’s opinion piece, I wrote about the “self as khalifah”, borrowed the Arabic term, loosely meaning “steward”.

I want to share an opinion on teaching about past, within the paradigm of “existentialist historicizing”, which means looking studying and embodying history as a subjective and personalizing enterprise of learning and self-reflection.

The essential question is: How must we teach History in this age of chaos and complexity in which the self yearns to be free? I wrote these recently in crafting statements of pedagogy in my course syllabus on Modern World History:

“ … Through this course of study, we will acquire the skills of thinking and feeling like a historian: mastering the art and science of historicizing, discerning patterns of change, understanding “the butterfly effect” and causal relationships in historical changes, and learning lessons from past events, so that we may understand how we can build a better world and plan for a peaceful and sustainable one.  … “

What about the concepts we ought to teach? I wrote the following:

“… We begin with the idea that we are entering a “Brave New Normal”. I borrowed this term from the work of the American writer Aldous Huxley, entitled Brave New World.

Historicizing. Connections. Transformations. Transcultural Migrations. Causal Relationships. Complex Systems and Human Evolution. Chaos Theory and Human History. Big Data, Big History. Auto-Bio History and the Nurturing of Personal Memory. Futurism and Alternate History.

These are some of the main concepts we will should be directly and indirectly exploring as we guide learners in their journey to appreciate the study of the past, so that we (students and teacher alike, the (Paulo) Freirian tradition of “subjectivizing the objective) may plan our future as sustainable, ethical, creative, and cognitively resilient human beings, living in peace with one another. History is an organic field of study, as we will discover in our journey.

These are big words: the concepts and the those in the phrases used in narrating what History is. Nonetheless, as the Russian social learning theorist Lev Vygotsky would say, we’ll bring these down to the level of manageable and most importantly, meaningful understanding. Similarly, the American pragmatist philosopher and the educational philosopher of the Progressive tradition would agree that this is a meaningful way to educate: putting the child/learner at the center of the curriculum.

I also wrote these in my first day message to students: “I am excited to guide you through this journey. I will, most importantly, learn from you and what you will bring to our classroom (virtually or physically), your experiences, your culture, hopes, creativity, and the ability to understand what ‘the power of knowing’ means.”

What about the skills I wish to impart?

Besides helping them explore the key concepts will I want them to also acquire the skills of thinking and feeling like a historian.

By the end of the academic year, I want my students to be able to do the following with expected degrees of competency:

–        Evaluate primary and secondary sources

–        Analyze the claims, evidence, and reasoning you find in sources

–        Put historical developments in context and making connections between them

–       Come up with a claim or thesis and explaining and supporting it in writing

–       Bring history closer to their “lived experience.”.

Learning is also about effecting a change in attitude. I wrote:

“… Learning will be most effective when meaning comes to the learner. As the 5th. Century BC philosopher Socrates would say, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. So is with learning. Meaning will also come with a change in perception and believes that will then direct action. In other words, as it relates to what we will be doing in studying history, learning ought to shape our attitude.

It should make us realize that we are masters of our own destiny and makers of our own history.

The larger personal goal of learning history is to appreciate the stories that chronicle and characterize the “Grand Narrative” (of other people’s glorifies stories and how major events shape today’s world). The next level after appreciation is to find patterns in them and to make personal and family, as well as “ancestral” connections– so that we may learn the value and the meaning of justice, peace, joys, sufferings, transformations, sense of liberation that color the human experience.

Essentially as you may realize, we are makers of our own history and writers of own stories. The stories in our study of world history are merely sub-texts (larger contexts of shifts in human evolution) that can guide us hopefully, into finding similarities of experience within ourselves. A special mention is this: we are living in yet another threshold of human experience, in a world yearning to be free from the pandemic of Covid-19. We will factor this significant historical-evolutionary marker in our journey through world history. … “

Essentially and to close this brief opinion piece relate to learning, I’d say that we ought to break away completely from the teaching of History that buries our children in the avalanche of facts to the regurgitated and loading them with information they will later find useless. Rather, we must begin with the notion that learning becomes joyous and liberating when we bring meaning to our own lives. In short, History and the teaching of it must be made organic and personacratic —so that we may appreciate our own stories, rather that be forced to carry the burden of history by memorizing other people’s “gloriousness” which may in fact be stories of vainglory, crafted to funnel in our mind this and that ideology.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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