The Unfinished Task of Teaching History | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 04, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:50 AM, June 07, 2017

The Unfinished Task of Teaching History

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Teaching history has always been tricky. I have been examining how history is taught in architecture programmes in Bangladeshi universities. Even though my focus has been on one particular discipline, the inquiry reveals multidisciplinary implications and, more broadly, current intellectual challenges in higher learning and research.

As one would imagine, all architecture students are required to study architectural history from ancient to modern times, as a way to understand how architecture as a civilisational practice has evolved over time and across cultures. This historical knowledge would then, one hopes, empower them to think about the built environment as a holistic building practice in all its complexities and connectivities.

But teaching architectural history, just like history proper, is not easy because interpretations of how things happened in the past are obviously not universally agreed on. Different historians write about the past from different political, social, cultural, and philosophical vantage points. Who is writing history and for whom leave unmistakable traces of biases, prejudices, and power relations. One way or the other, history is political.

The foundation of modern historiography was laid during the West's colonial domination of the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that the West's historiographic accounts of the East would be influenced by Eurocentric ideologies. Since, in Bangladesh, as in other developing countries, we are mostly dependent on textbooks written by western authors, it is necessary for us to understand the western intellectual politics of seeing the rest of the world. In Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, the early nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) - while stating that history marches forward with a universal consciousness of freedom - argued that the kind of social conditions that were necessary to pursue self-reflection didn't exist outside the West. In other words, the East was somewhat of history's backwater, static and unable to evolve on its own.

"A lesson is to be learned here: Teach Bengal's architectural history as part of global history, not as an independent course. Bangladeshi students should learn about the European Renaissance master Brunelleschi's Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and Khan Jahan Ali's Sixty Dome Mosque in Bagerhat at the same time.

Hegel's philosophy of history profoundly influenced how history was written during the 19th and 20th centuries. Consider British architectural historian Bannister Fletcher's A History of Architecture, which became a standard history textbook for architects around the world, including Bangladesh, throughout the 20th century and onward. Generations of architects graduating from different departments of architecture in Bangladesh pretty much learned about history through the lens of this canonical book.

Fletcher divided the history of world architecture into two types: one that evolved and one that didn't. What he called “non-historical” styles included architectural traditions of, for instance, India, China, and Mexico, regions that “exercised little influence on the main stream of architectural development.” Fletcher's contention was that most non-Western architectural styles over time stagnated as cultural forces, thereby offering little significance for world history. His rationale was based on not only Hegel's asymmetric classification of the world, but also prevalent19th-century Darwinian views of racial hierarchy. That is, certain racial groups and their culture were destined to perish because they were inconsequential in the formation of world civilisations. 

Alas, our students in Bangladesh mostly remain unaware of Fletcher's Hegelian Eurocentric attitude. Some architectural schools here still use his book with uncritical loyalty, inadvertently perpetuating a West-centric pedagogy in which architecture students quickly buy into the West's alleged superiority over the rest of the world. The situation is further complicated by a dearth of well-researched local teaching materials that could present alternative narratives. The lesson here is that educators and researchers in Bangladesh need to reduce their dependence on imported textbooks, while offering a more balanced view of the world by writing textbooks themselves.

We haven't done a good job of teaching history critically, often failing to expose hidden meanings in the things that we learn. For instance, in Bangladeshi architectural curriculum, students learn about architecture through a linear model of history that begins with Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Indus Valley civilisation, but triumphantly ends in the US and Europe, where modernism flourishes. In this linear model, things that are deemed static or culturally insignificant are discarded. For example, the Roman Emperor Justinian's 6th-century Byzantine Church, Hagia Sophia (in Constantinople or Istanbul), is taught, while contemporaneous Buddhist architecture in Bengal is not. Mahasthangarh is rarely mentioned in the required course on the history of world architecture.

In fact, history of Bengal architecture is taught only in later years as a stand-alone (often elective) course, as if Bengal was an isolated region, cut off from other geographies. Unwittingly, we indoctrinate our students with certain types of intellectual self-pity. Both West-centrism and ultra-nationalism are expressions of this phenomenon.

After the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), an intellectual shock wave hit most humanities department in the US and beyond. Said demonstrated how through different kinds of scholarship and cultural productions (literature, for instance) the West produced certain types of perceptions of the East, essentially creating the image of an inferior Other and, ultimately, a justificatory path for colonial domination.

In the wake of Orientalism, postcolonial scholars, in particular, began to question the ideological premises of Eurocentrism and produce revisionist histories, in which different cultures were studied from both within and outside. Bengal's history was no longer confined to a geographic entity called Bengal. Its history was viewed as part of a larger network of cultural, economic, political, and historical exchanges, military conquests, colonialism, and travels. Many observers thought that a history of Bengal as part of global consciousness would offer alternatives to Eurocentrism. Andrew Sartori's Bengal in Global Concept History (2008) is a fine example of this intellectual orientation.

A lesson is to be learned here: Teach Bengal's architectural history as part of global history, not as an independent course. Bangladeshi students should learn about the European Renaissance master Brunelleschi's Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and Khan Jahan Ali's Sixty Dome Mosque in Bagerhat at the same time, not only because these two masterpieces were built more or less contemporaneously in the 15th century, but also because their inclusion in a global narrative of architectural developments across different regions offers some intellectual resistance to Eurocentric worldviews.

A stand-alone Bengal history class in later academic years has the propensity to falsely isolate Bengal from global networks and movements, while giving students the troubling impression that history of Bengal is tangential in the curriculum, only to be learned after most important contents have been covered.

Unfortunately, architectural history teaching in Bangladesh is still grinding along the old Eurocentric path. The University Grants Commission (UGC), responsible for setting accreditation standards for academic curricula across universities, must be aware of current curricular revisions going on around the world in many disciplines. The Institute of Architects Bangladesh, a professional body that advises the UGC with regards to architectural education, must continually assess the changing landscape in architectural pedagogy. Both organisations should institute a built-in research cell to monitor curricular trends around the world and recommend strategies for judicious adaptation. We must realise that this discussion is about a wider culture of inability to bring pedagogy to the frontier of knowledge production, not just about one discipline and its unique challenges.

 

The writer is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist and currently serving as Chairperson of the Department of Architecture at BRAC University. He is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (2015) and Oculus: A Decade of Insights in Bangladeshi Affairs (2012).

Email: amorshed@bracu.ac.bd

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