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Introduction: History and Critical Pedagogy
 
 
11 years and 17 issues in, s/pores is still obsessed with history.

But it can’t really be helped.

Quite a few of us who work on s/pores? have taught history in one capacity or another. As someone who have taught history in schools, I am always interested in the disciplinarity of the subject. How does one teach history – do we teach history by doing history? I have also used popular culture forms to teach history such as comics, woodcuts, political cartoons, films and music. I was keen to find out how others have done it and what their experience was.

In 2015, the publication of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew revealed that many Singaporeans did not know their post-war Singapore history well as they were fooled by the faked/ imagined history presented in the book interwoven with the ‘real’. Some thought Charlie Chan was a real comic artist in Singapore and wanted to meet him. But as a result of both the controversy and fame of Charlie Chan, many more gained a sense of the general history of Singapore. In her essay for s/pores, NIE lecturer Angelia Poon wrote about her experience teaching Charlie Chan to a group of undergraduates and Master’s degree classes. It was a course about literature, but by engaging with the text and its meta-narratives and issues, the students were learning about Singapore history and its unreliability as narrative.

Whether it was their intention to teach history while teaching their own subject of English Literature (in the case of Angelia Poon and Philip Holden) is something else. As Chua Beng Huat pointed out in his introduction, history can be taught in other ways, sometimes more powerful than in a ‘straight’ history lesson when one incorporates critical pedagogy.

According to Chua:

Critical pedagogy aims to teach individuals to see and think otherwise by recognizing the existing social order as historical development rather than the ‘natural order’. History is therefore subject to change, to reorganization through human activities. The social order as is can always be otherwise.

 

Critical pedagogy is associated with social justice and redressing wrongs in our social order or memories.

However, Chua warned that “critical pedagogues should guard against thinking that they have the right definition of the ‘better’ social order, lest they unwittingly slide into the position of an ideologue.”

This is where the emphasis on student agency and the eliciting of their voices in Philip Holden’s experience of teaching Writing Emergency is important. It is a process piece that appeals to me – why he chose the texts, how he taught them and what the responses from the students were. The four short stories chosen are historical texts, just as the very form of the short story itself as manifested in the texts he selected is also historically and pedagogically bound to late colonial Southeast Asia/ Malaya and Singapore. The fact that Holden was able to teach Writing Emergency in its present form in 2014 was also due to changing contexts in Singapore. “Fellow Student Shen Yu Lan” by Lim Kim Chuan written in Chinese in 1954 had only resurfaced when it was translated into English and included in The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle School Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s (2011), when more dissident voices were allowed to be heard and read.

What is valuable was Holden’s allowing the students to respond accordingly to the dissonance in the stories. One can’t help but smile at one of his students mistaking the hitherto forgotten Chinese-medium middle school student demonstrations of May 13, 1954 with the racial riots that happened in Malaysia in May 13, 1969. The student would not be the first or the last to make such an error about time, space and chronology. Hopefully we can all learn something from mistakes, our own and others.

Students’ response  and participation were also important in Joseph Tham’s experience in using comics to teach about the Holocaust in a secondary school. By engaging with a text like Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, students were able to appreciate the concepts of empathy, evidence and perspective taking. They got to learn history by practising their skills of inference, corroboration and evaluation. This is not to say that students cannot learn such concepts and skills from more traditional primary documents such as speeches, newspaper articles and colonial office records. But history comes alive for the students from narratives found in letters, life stories, literature and graphics (other than comics – photographs, drawings). And who is to say a highly stylized graphic memoir like Maus cannot serve as a primary source?

Finally, can critical pedagogy make a difference? For those of us teaching in mainstream schools (and not at the tertiary level), how does one practise critical pedagogy within the context of a national curriculum and system? Often, what Tham has shared is done as electives and made known to students such texts will not be coming out in the examinations. We still have some way to go and the space afforded to us to teach critically, especially Singapore history, is limited. The best we can do now is to show that history and education are not neutral and narratives are constructs. They shift and morph, and as we gear up for the bi-centennial commemoration of Raffles’ “founding” of Singapore next year, this is an important message to remember.

To round up this ‘lesson’, two Sonny Liew stories are offered – ‘The Hunt for Mas Selamat’, from Liquid City Volume 2 (Image Comics, 2010) and ‘Beauty World’, from ArtReview Asia, and republished in the new edition of Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History (both in 2015).

 

NB: for more on critical pedagogy, see Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and bell hooks.
 


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