What do ancient India and video calls have in common? It’s not a trick question. Aryabhatta (476–550 CE) was an Indian mathematician whose place-value system was instrumental to the development of zero. Over thousands of years, and further established through thinkers such as Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi (c.780 – c.850 CE), that concept of zero underlies the computing systems that dominate our world today – and operate our video calls. This is one example of how idea exchange and connection across cultures has fundamentally shaped the modern world – a notion that Alice Collett, Professor in the School of Divinity, seeks to share with the next generation through the South Asia History Project.
South Asia has a long history of cultural exchange – even including interactions with the Roman Empire – that makes it a uniquely suitable vehicle for educating students about global interconnection. Collett is extensively well-versed in this history, particularly in its more ‘hidden’ aspects. Through her past research in the role of women in Buddhism and ancient India more broadly, she found that there was a richness and complexity to South Asian history that is often unnoticed by academia – and in primary and secondary schools across the UK. Teachers and organisations around the UK have been working to diversify curricula for decades, including the Historical Association. Its 2021 report highlighted wide gaps in school curricula: 43% of surveyed schools in Scotland taught some non-European history and no South Asian history, and 42% of schools in the whole UK taught some non-European history, with only some teaching about India.
The South Asia History Project tackles this disparity. It is an educational programme about South Asian history for primary and secondary school students, with a particular emphasis on the value of cultural exchange. Collett developed the idea in 2020 in the context of calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion from Black Lives Matter movements around the world. Motivated by these movements, Collett sought to teach children from a young age about the value of diverse voices through showcasing the significance and breadth of South Asian history.
The project is launching in September of 2023 and will initially consist of lessons, workshops, and activities for students to engage with, with an aim to broaden out and include professional development courses for educators, summer schools and publication of textbooks in the future. One of these student workshops is called ‘Medieval India,’ focusing on universities in India such as Nalanda that are among the oldest in the world. Another is an interactive Silk Road activity, where different groups of students represent different parts of the world, and experience for themselves how commodities were exchanged via the Silk Road trading route. While the project is in its early stages, Collett hopes to eventually influence educational policy through the project to diversify history curricula. More broadly, she hopes to teach history as a story of human potential, made possible through collaboration and understanding across cultures. From this perspective, the South Asia History Project can inspire more students to embody collaboration in their own lives, enabling a more equitable, connected society for the future.