“Can history contribute to peace?” is part of the larger question: Can education contribute to peace? The record is not particularly clear. Some of the most educated countries in the world have been responsible for some of the most brutal experiences of the 20th century, and even in South Asia, the first country to implement a universal education system, Sri Lanka, became the site of severe civil strife. And if you look at the world at large, the most aggressive country in the world, which does not shy away from intervening anywhere with messages of democracy and bombs to back them, is widely believed to have the world’s most advanced system of education.

Education, then, in a generic sense, cannot necessarily promise peace. A number of philosophers have drawn the distinction between education as an idea and as a system. And though the idea or concept of education holds promise for humanity, it must wait for historical circumstances to manifest in a system. Looking for this idea in a historical vacuum is somewhat silly. To seek some clarity on this question, we can turn to a chain of peace thinkers from the 20th century, including Jiddu Krishnamurti, Bertrand Russell, and Maria Montessori. To clarify, when I pose the question “Can history contribute to peace?”, I am referring specifically to the history taught in schools and colleges.

Can this history play a role in promoting peace? This is the provocative, stimulating and promising question we will explore before returning to the broader question of whether education as a whole can promote peace. Our historical education begins during childhood and has far-reaching consequences for the individual as well as for the collective life of the society, nation, and humanity.

As we consider the role of history in education, it is crucial to situate ourselves in the modern world, which is unique compared to any previous era. In this world, education is an idea that has almost achieved universality. We expect education to be inclusive and fully universalised, an idea that holds unprecedented value. However, we do not know how this expansion will affect knowledge, whether it will create shared understandings or become a mechanism for regimenting the mind with certain common parameters. Unfortunately, the history of education does not provide answers to these questions in any part of the world.

The experience of expanded education systems is relatively new, especially in South Asia. In India, this idea is so new that the right to education is still being contested in court, and the Right to Education Act has already been amended twice. India’s discomfort with this idea is quite evident. Sri Lanka is the only country that has some experience with universal education, yet it has struggled to cope with the consequences of an elementary-level education system. Therefore, we are venturing into uncharted territory.

This is a complex undertaking because, in the modern era, education expands under the auspices of 4 the state, making the processes of acculturation or socialisation extremely intricate. Socialisation, in particular, is a highly specialised term in educational theory. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s seminal book, The Social Construction of Reality, reminds us that socialisation is not a unitary process, nor does it occur uniformly throughout childhood. They have broadly categorised socialisation into two phases: (i) an emotionally intense period of primary socialisation, and (ii) the subsequent phase where schools come into play – secondary socialisation. Primary socialisation, the foundation of various studies in psychology and social anthropology, covers the first three to four years of life, critical years during which children are imprinted with essential beliefs, attitudes and anchors of the mind. The child is not yet capable of questioning and is still situated within the family at home. Can secondary socialisation have an impact on primary socialisation? Can schools teach children to question what they have learned and internalised before reaching school-going age? This question remains unanswered by research and warrants introspection, especially concerning history, because history, as a discipline, does not fully acknowledge how children learn.

Advances in the field of cognitive science and psychology in the 20th century have not quite influenced the teaching of history. It seems to many that the age at which history is taught in schools may not be appropriate for children to fully engage with the subject. According to the philosopher John Dewey, whose work predates that of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, a more mature mind is perhaps required to learn history. But what is a mature mind? Dewey recommended introducing history at around the ages of 14–16, the time at which the normative achievement of some of the skills required for engaging with history might be expected. Furthermore, the development of the sense of time in children is slower than that of space and perspective. Therefore, introducing historical figures and events to young children may not achieve much at very young ages. But history as a discipline is organised with its own academic rationalism, its own history, and it leaves very little room for the school-curriculum designer or teachers.

Excerpted with permission from Learning to Live with the Past, Krishna Kumar, Seagull Books.