The Straits Times says

More to history than just recalling

The Golden Jubilee frisson, partly from reaching out to touch the past, was for many intensified by the history they related to and felt. Indeed, without such a sense of history, past personalities, artefacts and cultural representations might be no more than curiosities to be viewed detachedly. The converse, however, was strikingly evident in the case of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's death which evoked grief among Singaporeans of all ages and from all walks of life. Through him, the historical touchpoints he bestrode took on added meaning.

The phenomenon has prompted the Education Ministry to study how Singapore's history can be better communicated so that the young can "relate the past better, and relate it not just as a matter of historical facts, but also the implications for our future", as Education Minister Heng Swee Keat observed recently.

Remembrances of unique individuals and general nostalgia can help to spur historical consciousness but are not in themselves truly history - no more than the dates and formal events that loom large in old-school history lessons. Attempts to inculcate patriotism and greater appreciation of generational bequests can weigh down the subject. Nor should history be just about socialising the young into roles based on normative and ideological views of the nation's development and challenges - a reinforcement of the "national education messages" of schools' character and citizenship programmes.

History as a narrative derived from large passages of time, collective experience and emotion should engage the young and not be told with a long face. All means to accomplish this goal should be encouraged in the classroom - by harnessing pop culture, different forms of media, or even school trips to historical sites, both here and in the region. The aim should be to bring the past alive and help students see how today is shaped by events from yesterday, and tomorrow might depend on the choices we make.

Enlightened teachers also champion historical inquiry as both a way of helping the young to connect the past with the present and of fostering critical thinking. They should be also involved in the task of sifting the evidence to probe different interpretations of history. Such an approach requires an evaluation of judgments and actions in the light of what was known then and the events that followed. How did pioneer leaders show remarkable foresight in critical matters? What do national slogans and icons of different eras say about the evolving nature of Singapore society?

History should be more than just the polemics of nation-building. Rather, its aim should be to help the young realise, as British statesman Winston Churchill once declared, that the further backward you look, the further forward you can see.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2015, with the headline 'More to history than just recalling'. Print Edition | Subscribe