Saturday, May 18, 2024

Need to integrate local history and knowledge in school education


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By Melari Shisha Nongrum

In the past few days, we were sitting as a family and talking about ‘history’ and how the East India Company had come to the Khasi Hills. My children were very intrigued by the events that I narrated. I realized that my children and many others in our state may not know nor have ever read anything about the history of tribal communities. This kept me thinking. The Meghalaya State Education Policy’s vision is, “to provide stimulating and equitable education of the highest quality that will foster innovation, transformation, and facilitate inclusive growth and development in the State.” To attain this vision, one of its objectives in the mission is, “Local human and physical resources will be identified to ensure the effective participation of indigenous and local communities in decision-making and to preserve, maintain, and promote traditional knowledge.”
Countries around the world, especially those which have been colonized, are reexamining their curriculum in the process of decolonizing their education. There seems to be a common thread emerging; their heritage and knowledge of tribal/indigenous communities have been rejected, suppressed, and ignored by the education system. Is this true of our education system too? From my experience and I believe many will agree with me, this is true. I read about the history of how the British came into contact with the tribal communities in Meghalaya and other states because of my own interest as an adult. Was any of it included in our history books? Even in science subjects, we parroted the examples of herbs and trees like ‘neem’ or ‘banyan’ that we have never seen. What about geography? Nothing of local geography is included. However, my mother told me that local geography was included in their books, in the1950’s. In health education, are the locally available high nutrient vegetables and fruits included? In a globalized world, how important is local knowledge for our children and adolescents?
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in its document on indigenous education, states that when children’s learning processes are detached from their context, they are in danger of losing part of their identity, their connection with their predecessors, and the land they belong to. Reflecting on this statement, let’s look around and see the destructive ways we have allowed human activities to mercilessly destroy our heritage, our mother earth, our state. Two to three generations of formal education seem to have erased all the rich heritage so integral to our existence. We have allowed this to happen because maybe we have lost the understanding of the ‘connectedness to mother earth’, the ‘ecological balance’ that we proclaim to be ‘guardians’ of. Research by Garnett et al., (2018) in Nature Sustainability indicates that indigenous people around the world have access to over a quarter of the world’s land surface and intersect about 40% of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes (for example, boreal and tropical primary forests, savannas, and marshes). Are we part of this narrative? We have forgotten this intricate relationship we have with ‘mother earth’; we have used the capitalist lens of using ‘it’ as a resource only. Where is the gap? How is this ‘interconnectedness with nature’ that we boast of slipping away? I believe it is our mindset (which assumes the pivotal role of shaping the narrative, influences every decision, every action), which has been shaped by the education we received. An education that has been devoid of any discussion, discourse on ‘our history’, ‘our heritage’, ‘connectedness to nature’, ‘our responsibility towards the sustainable use of natural resources’.
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues nearly 20 years ago discussed and recognized the importance of inclusion of indigenous education in children’s cultural understanding, their connection to their stated environment, and the values of sustainable development ingrained in traditional knowledge systems. There are varying efforts around the world to include indigenous education in mainstream education. A few examples are the state of Oregon in the US, the Ambara region of Ethiopia, Canada, Australia, to name a few.
If we were to accomplish the vision and mission of the State’s Education Policy, we need to initiate talks, discussions, and hold consultations to include our local history, geography, agrobiodiversity, culture, values, traditional governance, traditional ecological knowledge etc., into school curriculum. We already have a State Education Commission with very accomplished educationists from the tribal communities who could play a lead role. There is an enormous amount of indigenous literature that has already been published from various fields. However, we must also recognize the fact that traditional knowledge varies from one region to another. I remember a conversation I had with a Kong Thei (name changed), a wise lady from Ri Bhoi last year. She told me that there is a type of bamboo used for construction. She added that one should know which type of bamboo, when to harvest the bamboo, and at which stage of its maturity it should be, otherwise, the bamboo does not last long and the rampant harvesting of bamboo also affects its propagation ‘ktah pat ia ka jingroi, hynrei u lah ban duh noh’. Similar knowledge was shared with me when I spoke to basket weavers from Wahsohra. The bamboo is not the same, but the principles are the same. So, instead of dwelling too much on what should be included in the textbooks, the thrust should be to develop pedagogies that promote learning from elders in their homes, neighbourhoods and communities. Part of the process of decolonizing education is re-establishing links to the community. Education should not occur in a vacuum, and these links are essential for contextualizing knowledge, deepening understanding, encouraging community involvement, and reconnecting students with our vital support system, our land and community.
Since efforts are ongoing, there is no conclusive evidence of the benefits of integrating the history, culture, and traditions of tribal communities into education though there are some testimonies indicating active engagement into one’s learning which was seen among children in Oregon. From my personal journey, I’ve found that delving into the rich tapestry of tribal heritage instills a sense of pride in my own culture, values and systems thereof which has helped me to learn and practice within my own limitations. It has also helped me to appreciate the diversity and develop a greater understanding and respect for the traditions of others.
Therefore, I believe that initiatives to incorporate indigenous knowledge into education are not only about reconnecting tribal individuals with their culture and heritage but to also offer a valuable learning opportunity for all students, regardless of their background. By broadening the scope of education to include diverse cultural perspectives, we can promote empathy, cultural awareness, and a sense of ‘connectedness with mother earth’ which will hopefully translate into us becoming the real custodians of our land.
(The writer works at IIPH Shillong and can be contacted at [email protected])


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