An interesting and depressing interview of Prof Tirthankar Roy. Much is already known though but one would hope he says things are getting better.
He reviews a lot of trends in Indian economic and business history:
Do you think the detachment of social and economic history over time is problematic?
In the 1980s when we were doctoral students, the history departments in India used to teach a lot of economic history. That interest in economics from historians gradually died down, for a number of reasons. The major reason was the influence of postmodernism, which turned the whole field towards cultural history and away from economics. Postmodern historians did not like economic history because they thought that there was a hidden modernising and Eurocentric message behind the preoccupation with economic growth. A slow turnaround has now begun. Economic history is creeping back in history schools. But in South Asia the trend is still weak.
Over the past few years, neither historians nor economists have been willing to venture into this field in India. What would you say are the reasons for this?
For someone contemplating doctoral research, one of the motivations to choose a specialisation is job prospects, and there are not many economic history jobs. But again this is changing for the better. There are more teaching and postdoctoral positions in economic history worldwide.
Sadly, the trend is almost invisible in the Indian academia. Economic history jobs dried up in the 1990s and there is no immediate sign of a revival. It is a very small specialisation whether in history or in economics, almost invisible. I have often given public talks in India, but more of these were arranged by corporate executives than by academic economists or historians. The surprising thing is that the teaching curriculum is not as indifferent to economic history as research or the job market is. From the examples I know of, the teaching is typically handled by a non-specialist.
I imagine that the irrelevance of economic history is a bigger problem in Pakistan and Bangladesh. For after all, India has several hundred universities, and who knows where the interest in the subject or the problem of long-run economic growth still inspire classroom discussions.
How is history treated and taught in UK:
In your experience, how is economic history in India taught differently than in the UK?
One obvious difference is that in the UK, at least in the courses we offer in the Department in LSE, the focus usually falls on the historical process rather than the regions as such. For example, my course on India during the British imperial era reminds the students that the processes of change were not necessarily unique to India, but that studying India helps us to create a richer idea of the empire itself. In India the same subject will be taught with reference to India’s own distinct trajectory of change. In short, teaching here is more global than regional in spirit, whereas it is the other way round in India.
What do you think they can learn from one another?
From the Indian side, the lesson to be learned is that global history needs to be taught widely. Many emerging nations have this problem, they take their own national histories too seriously. This needs to change, and the lesson to be learned is that there are other ways of doing history and that the nation is not necessarily the best unit of study. National history is especially unsuitable when we deal with such world-changing forces as trade, migration, cross-border investment, and the processes of learning. These are the standard ingredients of a global economic history. Teachers of the field in India are, in fact, sensitive to global history, but a radical revision of courses and programmes takes time because the university system is bureaucratic and state-dominated.
From the UK end, the main lesson to be learned is that global history cannot just be about comparing and connecting world regions, it simultaneously needs to engage with the social and cultural particularities of regions. Some of the contemporary debates in global history, like the ‘great divergence’ debate, have not always paid sufficient attention to the complexity of Indian history or Indian geography, in my view. There is scope for a better collaboration between region experts and global economic historians.
It is all so ironical really. There is perhaps only our knowledge of our history and connections with today’s world that differentiates us from the powerful Western academic world. But we have let it disappear and just busy with learning whatever the western schools have to offer..