Aditya Jaishankar
Guest Article

How Netflix became our favourite history teacher

The right platform and medium can make lots of topics much more interesting than they usually are. So, what are the lessons we can learn here?

Many conversations nowadays begin and end with what’s new on Netflix and Amazon Prime. People are constantly checking with each other for recommendations on what to watch. A lot of conversations are about fictional dramas revolving around crime, romance, politics, conspiracy theories. But over a period of time, another genre seems to have emerged amongst these conversations.

Historical documentaries and drama seem to be kick-starting conversations amongst friends and relatives across age groups. While this may or may not be supported by data, but if one goes by the conversations around us, this is definitely a trend worth following.

The other day, my friends and I met for dinner. Conversations around history overflowed, along with the dinner and drinks. Some of the topics discussed animatedly were the spiritual, yet flirtatious, charm of Rasputin. The ridiculous stubbornness of the last Czar as he continued to live in denial, the sheer ruthlessness of the Afghans as they tore apart the British and the Germans attack on England during World War II. These conversations kept buzzing around me. History seemed to be the flavour of the day.

The interesting thing about this was not just the conversations, but the fact that few of us at the dinner table never really spent time discussing history in the past. Surprisingly, world history had replaced movies, sports and even the never ending political drama in our nation as a topic that night.

While Netflix and other OTT channels have brought a variety of content around history, there is a lot of other fiction, drama that fights for our entertainment time. Why this sudden surge of interest around world history, even amongst those who never considered history as one of their favourite subjects or pass-time reads, for that matter?

No offence meant to our history teachers, but it probably never got the platform, or the medium, that it needed to flourish. In fact, a number of students never really found history very interesting. But isn't it surprising - how can a subject that is based on stories of bravery, greed, unbridled romance ever be boring? It was probably the chronological passive manner in which History was taught that made it boring. When your focus is on remembering when the Battle of Plassey was fought versus what actually happened, the result is a lack of interest in a topic that’s pregnant with perspectives and possibilities.

So, coming back to the point - the platform or the medium, probably the medium makes a huge difference to the interest that one develops in a topic.

Marshall McLuhan's theory many years ago was that the medium is the message. Perhaps, that is more true in the case of history than anything else. When we watch various historical events unfold on our computer, or television, screens, we are drawn to the stories much more than we realise.

Suddenly, the sheer magnetism and charm of each characters in flesh and blood makes us feel that we are living history bit by bit. We almost feel like we have a personal stake in a story that happened years ago, even though the outcome may be known to us.

Perhaps, books and articles allowed people, who love reading, to intellectualise and develop different points of views towards history. But largely, it remained as debates between certain intellectuals, or confined to academic debates amongst those who read scholars like William Dalrymple and Ramachandra Guha.

What we are now seeing is the massification of interest in a subject called history. So, what are the lessons we can learn from this?

The right platform and medium can make lots of topics much more interesting. Am I suggesting that children are taught history on Netflix? Absolutely not. But even within the confines of the four walls of the classroom, there could be different means of enacting history. Make it more interactive, keep it more open to discussions and debates. Give students the ability to predict outcomes, or place themselves in the shoes of various historical characters and lend their perspectives on how they would act in a given situation or context.

When something is narrated as a story, it becomes that much more interesting. A story allows you to picture different outcomes and debate them in your head, even when you know what the final outcome is. You feel a greater stake in a subject, which allows you to picture different outcomes.

When your mind becomes an active participant in the shaping of the truth versus being a passive recipient of the outcome, the level of involvement in a subject multiples. This possibly creates a level of interest that even the creator could not possibly have imagined.

Could creating the right kind of stories around mathematics and science create a huge surge of interest amongst not just kids, but even adults? How many of us know the real story behind the invention of Trigonometry or the Archimedes Principle? Who knows, probably conversations around mathematics and science may become the flavour of the day.

What if every subject of learning was given the right medium, platform and the right format of storytelling to flourish? Can entertainment in the form of stories create a huge surge of interest around topics that are probably being taken for granted in the classroom?

Could OTT channels be the next frontier to kindle unusual interest in subjects that probably get left behind in the surfeit of dramatic stories that are being invented around us every day?

(The author is co-founder and director at MAAD, a user-generated advertising and marketing platform.)