Historians and integrity

I MUST say that it is a sad day for historians when the nation fails to take stock of the grouses raised by various quarters since the subject of history syllabus in school had been highlighted in newspapers since last year. It must be noted that the main grouses were with regard to objectivity in writing history/doing away with moral lessons. Unfortunately the term of reference for the committee which will be reviewing the syllabus seems to be focussing on the content of secondary school’s history curriculum and textbooks to ensure they are able to nurture patriotism and loyalty to the country and strengthen their identity as Malaysians. If this is so history will be repeated with the new history textbooks emphasising moral lesson for every historical event. I cannot understand how the committee could agree with the terms of reference set by the ministry. As a historian, I’m sad that historians fail to be objective. Historians must adhere to their own rules of fairness, reason and logic while constructing stories about the human past. In addition, they must support their claims with actual evidence as the basis for plausible and valid inferences. When all this is complied, it will fulfil the requirements of objectivity.

Any attempt to cultivate patriotism through historical events means we are not teaching history but merely being propagandist. I’m afraid the next generation will curse this committee for not being able to stand up for the discipline of history which they belong to. If patriotism is the ultimate aim, it will lead to value judgments in the narratives and affect evaluation of the facts. If special facts are chosen to instil patriotism, the chances of skewing the story in one way or another are enhanced even more.

The flaw in not recognising objectivity in history but merely a tool for propaganda to instil nationalism had also affected the institution of higher learning. My experience as a lecturer in the history department has witnessed students who are majoring in history unable to appreciate the subject as it is or objectively. Graduation exercises and assignments are slanted and full of sermons/glorifying events in history. The reason being, this is what is being taught in schools. It is time this problem is addressed in the school history textbooks.

The committee would be doing a disservice by not informing the ministry what history should be and not as understood by the government. If the learned professors in the committee were to subscribe to the term of reference outlined by the ministry, the history syllabus shaped would be like what Voltaire, the French philosopher and historian, has to say about history. To him, “history is a pack of tricks we play on the dead”. Historians are truth tellers and must stand against attempt to overturning reasons and evidence. Epistemological integrity does count for something. I rest my case.


Assoc Prof Dr Sivachandralingam Sundara Raja
Department of History
University of Malaya
to the discipline of history

Updated: 09:51AM Thu, 12 May 2011


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