Neeru Ailawadi, Associate Professor at Delhi College of Arts and Commerce (University of Delhi) with an experience of 38 years of teaching History to college students, answers the questions concerning the phobia of studying history, especially for the UPSC Aspirants in an interview with Manas Srivastava.
It is sad to admit that many UPSC aspirants find History a difficult and boring subject. There is a kind of phobia of studying History in the minds of the aspirants. It is unfair however for history to be viewed in such a negative light. History is not only an important subject for UPSC-CSE but also important for how it shapes our minds and personalities.
(Relevance of the Interview: Queries on History subject for UPSC-CSE Prelims, Mains, and in general)
Many UPSC aspirants have a kind of phobia of studying History. What do you think is the reason behind it?
Not only UPSC aspirants but students, in general, have some misconceptions about History as a subject. They think that History involves a lot of mugging up and it is all about memorization of people, places, and dates. Therefore, they find it boring at times and may develop a kind of phobia of studying history as a subject. This attitude towards studying History needs to change.
As mentioned by you, memorization of facts and dates or mugging up is one of the reasons aspirants are afraid of studying History. What do you think should be done about it?
There are two points to understand here. The element of learning and memorization is present in every subject. Even a Mathematics student has to learn the theorems and formulas. It is just a phobia created in the minds of students from the very beginning that History is just about learning dates. This phobia takes a student away from understanding and internalizing the subject. The notion of just mindlessly memorizing all the information is wrong.
Secondly, History is not just about dates. Timeline and chronology in History are important but it is unfair to see History only from that perspective. History tells us about social, political, economic, and cultural aspects of the past. Students need to have an overall big picture of the events of History. To substantiate that point, try to look at the previous year’s questions of either the University Examination or UPSC Examination. Questions revolve around the social, political, economic, and cultural aspects and not just dates.
Many aspirants are not from a Social Sciences background. Some of them are studying History seriously for the first time in their lives. How should they approach History as a subject?
The approach to History as a subject for anyone new to it lies in the word “history” itself. Start looking at it as a story. If possible, try to imagine yourself being a part of that story. Whenever reading anything, keep asking yourself- Why, How, What, When, etc. Do not see History as a subject just about dead people. History is so much more than that. Change that perception about History.
One of the reasons why some aspirants find History irrelevant and boring is because it talks about dead people.
What do you mean when you say that this perception has to be changed?
History has to be viewed differently. Aspirants or any student need to understand that history applies to the present as well. From political changes like human rights to economical advances, everything involves History. Technology, for instance on which we have become so reliant, has its own history.
Also, do not forget that it is one of the most interdisciplinary subjects. Can you study Polity without knowing the historical background of the Constitution?
Can you suggest a few ways in which History can be made interesting in both understanding and learning?
Each student has to develop their own style of studying any subject. Nevertheless, I will like to mention a few things which will help. Visual impact is very sustaining. Try to watch some visuals. They can be pictures, films, documentaries, vlogs, or interviews. Especially for UPSC aspirants, I will suggest forming small groups of fellow aspirants to discuss a topic. Discussions remain in mind for a long time and can be very useful when writing examinations and appearing for interviews. Though I know UPSC aspirants have a paucity of time but whenever they are free, they must go on a walking tour around the city or they can visit a museum, etc. You gradually start internalizing the subject and find it interesting.
Revising History is another area where aspirants find difficulty. What do you suggest?
As mentioned earlier, every student should develop their style. What is most essential for any student is to go through the past year’s question papers and map down every sub-topic from a bigger topic. Try to understand how questions can be asked about the same topic. If the questions are frequently repeated, make sure you prepare good answers for them. Note-making is very important. Either one can go for short notes in bullet form which has its revision benefit or one can go for essay-type notes which are all-inclusive.
History does need multiple revisions but if one has understood the topic instead of just mugging up, it becomes easier. Remember, keywords in each topic are very important. It is around the keywords that the questions are framed and an examinee is expected to answer using those keywords. For example Swaraj and Satyagraha in the National Movement, various ideals of the French Revolution, etc.
Some students in college want to start with CSE preparation in their graduation years. What is your advice to them?
I have a strong opinion that students should first focus on their college studies. Sailing on two boats will lead you to nowhere. Nevertheless, if they think they have the time they can use it to strengthen their basics. A lot of my students utilize their time reading newspapers. Newspaper reading habit is very beneficial. For History, students can utilise time in reading basic and good books. Form peer groups to discuss topics. College years are the best time to improve your writing skills.
What will be your message to all the aspirants who have a phobia of studying History?
I would like to address them as “Future Bureaucrats” and not just as aspirants. Dear future Bureaucrats, the Phobia of History must go! Our Country needs thinking bureaucrats who have to come up with many new ideas and implement them for the benefit of our people. Our country needs courageous bureaucrats who should not be afraid of taking up challenges. Coming over the phobia of studying History is just one small challenge out of many other challenges you are going to face in life. See it as an opportunity to learn something new and devise innovative ways to do it. Most importantly, enjoy the subject and the process of studying it for your examination.
I also would like to request the teachers to try and bring an attitudinal shift in the minds of the students concerning History. Captivate their imagination. Just don’t focus on giving notes. Interact with students and UPSC aspirants. Help them to approach the subject differently rather than going for blind memorization.
Neeru Ailawadi recommends for aspirants:
The Wonder That Was India by A.L.Basham
History of India by Romila Thapar
Bharat Ek Khoj – Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India directed by Shyam Benegal (available on Youtube)
Western Civilization Ideas, Politics, and Society (Marvin Perry, et al.)
Point to Ponder: What are your takeaways from this interview as an Aspirant?