History in Plain Sight: Heritage Sites can Help Students Appreciate the Past
Friday, 10 August 2018
By Dr Suhaimi Afandi, Senior Lecturer, Humanities & Social Studies Education (HSSE) Academic Group at National Institute of Education
Every day, we routinely walk past old buildings and stroll along historic quarters within distinct cultural districts. Sadly, the commonness of these encounters may have blunted any real curiosity for these storied survivors from different chapters of Singapore’s story.
It is time we put on new lenses that add a historical dimension to our vision, which will lead to a more rewarding appreciation of our rich and vibrant collective past.
Doing so can help strengthen our understanding of the historical legacies we “see” around us and allow us to recognize that they are actual “documents” and “testimonies” on which the stories of present and past Singaporean communities are written.
But to really learn and understand the past, we need to engage with it – to actively think about it, make sense of it, struggle with it, make meaning around it, and so on.
However, for many young students, understanding history can be an intellectually challenging task – it requires them to contemplate issues, events and people far removed from the students’ own time and familiarity.
The distance between the present and the past makes it difficult for students to comprehend what their predecessors had to go through or what life might have been like for them, both during good and bad times.
But without proper engagement with the past and a deep appreciation of the historical circumstances that shaped our development as a nation, students’ perception of what is normal in human affairs may end up being limited only to the here and now.
For them, the past and their historical heritage would have little to offer in terms of improvements to what they already have – and that only the future holds that promise.
Appreciating present continuities as extensions of our historical past or, more specifically, as present heritage from the past, will strengthen students’ capacity to use visible evidence to explain our predecessors’ needs, purposes and ways of life. It will help them make sense of today’s society’s relationship to its past.
Studying local heritage sites can also help students develop deeper cultural affinities with communities associated with specific sites in the past.
Using these sites as a means to study people’s beliefs, actions and experiences, and subsequently compare present and past values, attitudes and conditions, students are able to draw on their personal experiences to broaden their perspective on how human activities, institutions and ideas have developed over time.
All that said, students must be purposefully guided to use these sites as a means to appreciate the past and to gain awareness of their identity, culture and heritage.
As history teachers, we want our students to not only know about people in the past but also to care about them and their life experiences – to share their aspirations, to empathize with their struggles, to acknowledge their contributions, and to celebrate their achievements.
We also want these young minds to cultivate a willingness to recognize cultural, social and political diversities – to accept that people in the past, despite their differences, lived experiences akin to ours today.
Ultimately, we want our students to understand how we got to where we are in this particular moment in history. To respect the people on whose shoulders our current world was built, in the same way that we hope to be respected even in memory by those who would come after us.