If the decision to make history a compulsory pass for the SPM from next year is final, at least ensure that the curriculum is done right.
THE other day I ran into an old friend. Such off-chance meetings are nice and give you the chance to recollect some things together. For those with children, inevitably it leads to talk about what the children are doing.
Her child is 16 now and studying in Form Four. And yes, history is a compulsory subject in school and from next year, you need to get at least a pass in it to obtain your Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) certificate, our equivalent of the O-Levels.
All right, I knew about that one. The Education Minister had announced that in 2010 after an Umno annual general assembly. But here is the shocker, her son was told by his school that there will a three-hour practical for history.
I was flabbergasted. No kidding, I said.
What are they going to do for the practical, I asked. This is unheard of. I have not managed to get independent confirmation yet, but if it is, imagine the possibilities.
Now what kind of practical would it be? Can we build a time machine and go into the past and ask Hang Tuah whether he really existed and whether all those tales they told about him and Jebat were true even though tall? The mind boggles.
But for now, the idea of a practical exam for history has to be mere conjecture unless the ministry chooses to clarify. Perhaps it is not a practical, maybe just a project.
Back to more serious stuff – this decision to make history not just a compulsory subject for the SPM but to require that from next year you need at least a pass in it to get the SPM certificate.
The only other subject that enjoys such a requirement is Bahasa Malaysia and up to now calls to make English a compulsory pass have not been implemented.
The Education Minister had cited lack of patriotism and lack of knowledge of the Federal Constitution as part of the reasons for the decision.
A committee was subsequently appointed to deal with the syllabus and curriculum in the wake of allegations that the history curriculum has changed over the years to place a lot more emphasis on Islamic civilisation and downplayed the achievements of non-Malays in contributing towards the nation and economy.
It is inevitable therefore that there will be lingering questions over what will constitute the history curriculum and what will be decided as facts and how the facts will be presented in a balanced manner to give a true and fair view of how events actually happened.
It is an unfortunate fact that our education system is highly politicised.
Take, for instance, the flip-flop over using English to teach Science and Maths. This was reversed after some five years and it is back to the old status quo.
And now history is to be made a compulsory pass for SPM.
That is a rather strange decision. It would have been adequate just to have made it a compulsory subject for the SPM instead of requiring that every student gets a pass in that subject to get the SPM.
Two questions arise over this issue.
First, is it really necessary to make a pass in history compulsory to ensure better understanding of how this country developed?
Two, who is going to ensure that the history that is taught in schools will be a real reflection of what happened shorn of all considerations?
The answer to the first question must surely be no because what politicians feel the public should feel about the way a country developed is seldom in touch with reality.
Students should not be forced to accept everything at face value without a healthy scepticism as to whether the so-called facts are right not.
Education is not about accepting wholeheartedly what someone else lays out as facts but the building up of the ability to assess critically facts and figures to reach an informed opinion about how things really happened.
Things are seldom black and white even in history except for (usually) dates of birth and death, wars, treaties and the like. Value systems play a huge role in what is considered to be wrong and right and part of the challenge is to discard values to be objective about what happened.
A true study of history uses facts and figures to ascertain intent and draw conclusions. Many things are simply not cast in stone. In history, most people are not completely bad or completely good – they are human and they make mistakes just like everybody else.
The second question relates to how to keep history objective and free of personal judgment and bias.
We can’t start from a viewpoint that one civilisation is superior to another but must state the facts as best as that can be ascertained and which is in line with historical scholarship, not the whims and fancies of what politicians want their wards to believe.
This is not about propaganda or brainwashing but about history. So let unbiased, fair academics come up with the truth as unvarnished as that can be. But before the curriculum stands, let it be open to the public and to public scrutiny and criticism and correction if necessary.
If the decision to make history a compulsory pass in the SPM is final, then at least properly address these two questions that have been raised so that there can be no question that history will be politically tainted or that it will be retold falsely.
Independent consultant and writer P. Gunasegaram likes this quote from Mark Twain: The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.