This year in World History, we have been asking questions about how we craft a historical narrative and what is at stake in our choices.
Students have been thinking critically about what or whom any prevailing historical narrative omits. We began this discussion with our very first Block 1 homework assignment—watching Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, “The danger of a single story”—and it has continued to be the keystone of the course.
In Block 3, we have been applying this approach to the story of colonialism and independence on the Indian subcontinent. After two centuries of British rule, the triumph of independence in 1947 coincided with the tragedy of partition. The former British colony was split into two independent nations, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, prompting a mass migration in which about fifteen million people were uprooted and between one and two million died in an eruption of sectarian violence. To understand these events, we needed to look back at the preceding centuries and look beyond 1947 at the enduring legacies. We also zoomed out to consider decolonization in the post-World War II era as an interconnected set of movements that responded to shared influences and particular international developments.
In week one, we arrived at preliminary definitions of colonialism and decolonization. We used a reading from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as a starting point for a discussion of how justifications and critiques of colonialism have changed over time. With these theoretical frameworks in mind, we dove into a four-week case study of colonialism in India. In order to understand the context in which colonization occurred, students read about the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, the two periods of rule that preceded the British Raj. Students learned that for many centuries, Muslims and Hindus on the subcontinent practiced religious tolerance and defined their identities in primarily regional rather than religious terms.
As we delved into the colonial period, we examined British perspectives on colonialism through the lens of literature. Students responded to George Orwell’s short story, “Shooting an Elephant,” and Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” in the form of theatrical scripts, analytical essays, and parody artwork. In our discussions of the struggle for independence, students considered the question of how we decide whether to focus on groups (such as the many thousands of boycott participants) or individuals (such as Gandhi or Jinnah). This kind of question gives students practice in thinking like a historian.
For their final project, students are taking on the role of the teacher and putting what they have learned about making narrative choices into practice. They are designing educational resources with the goal of sharing historical content in a medium that is not primarily textual. Put another way, they are synthesizing what they have learned from scholarly readings and presenting the key points in more accessible, multimedia forms. In the past week and a half, students brainstormed collaboratively and then designed individual projects. Each student wrote a proposal in which he or she explained the objectives of his or her project and made the case for its significance. Writing proposals, as opposed to building complete projects, allowed students to dream big without being hampered by the time, resources, or technical skills required to bring their projects to fruition. It also pushed them to articulate what they wanted to teach their audience, why this content mattered, and why their chosen medium would be conducive to creating the desired learning experience.
During Build Week, students will work in groups to build prototypes of three of the proposed projects: a documentary about partition; a museum exhibit or game that simulates the decision-making processes of leaders during the period of colonial rule; and an animated, interactive map that illustrates decolonization as a global phenomenon. Of course, students will need to make some creative adaptations that take into account the constraints of limited time and resources. I am excited to see where the students take these projects!
-- Eve Simister