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NCERT Text Books

De-Intellectualisation of Education

by Romila Thapar, 20 December 2001

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[Keynote Address delivered at the National Consultation on Communalisation of School Education organised by the Education Discussion Group (New Delhi, December 13, 2001)]

In a democratic society and in an educational system that is financed by the state, there is bound to be the intervention of politics. But we cannot accept the intervention of any kind of politics. We have to differentiate between the minimal, benign kind and what we are faced with today-a maximal, disturbing politics that is trying to erode both democratic society and the legitimacy of the educational system.

What is being referred to as the saffronisation of education is, in effect, the de-intellectualising of education in such a severe way that little of academic value will be left in what comes to be taught in the next few years. Totalitarian ideologies are built on cynicism and the new national curriculum is immensely cynical.

The cynicism lies in projection of the idea that education is meant to produce a generation that will think and behave uniformly and that too as dictated by a particular ideology. It will accept without question what it is taught and not even be allowed to discuss what it is thinking.

The move of a few days ago of deleting passages and forbidding their discussion has given the game away.

The end result will not be a generation of educated Indians, exploring knowledge, but a generation of young people merely repeating what is taught to them. The assault on history is part of the assault on knowledge. It will not stop with history. But history is one of the easier subjects for starting such a campaign since everyone thinks they know history and there is nothing new in it. However, the undermining of history is also essentially the undermining of the social sciences and the danger is not limited to history but to all the social sciences.

This is clear from the new school curriculum where History will not be taught from Class VI to Class X and then suddenly it will be started up in Classes XI and XII. Since there will no graduated teaching of history, moving from the simple to the complex from class to class, what will be taught in high school will have to be fairly elementary and of a diluted form. History will be replaced by social studies consisting of geography, civics and a few general notions about nationalism and patriotism. Civics will presumably discuss, among other things, India as a society organised around caste, and will also have to discuss the policy of affirmative action and reservations for Dalits. Presumably it will also have to answer questions of a complex kind such as the ones that have recently arisen in the public debate on caste and race. And how will teachers teach such subjects if they are forbidden from discussing the formulation of varna in history-how did it come about, and when, and what was the structure and the ideology that gave rise to it, and who were the groups that manipulated it to their advantage? Is the state assuming that if any OBC and Dalit children raise any questions, they will forcibly be made to shut up?

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THE recent act of deleting passages from History textbooks is motivated by a short-term and a long-term programme. The short term is the attempt to use this act as part of political propaganda in the coming elections in UP and Punjab. Voters will be told that the government has upheld the sensitivities of the upper castes over the references to beef-eating, and the historicity of Rama and the Janmabhoomi temple; the sensitivities of the Jats by refusing to acknowledge that their ancestors sometimes plundered the countryside, and of the Sikhs by refusing to concede that some of their leaders may also have plundered the land to build up their power.

Who cares about the facts in these issues — that in many cases plunder was seen as a recognised way to establish power or that almost forty per cent of the Indian population has been, and still is, beef-eating and this includes the Scheduled Tribes, the Dalits, the OBCs, the Christians and the Muslims. Only the habits of the upper castes are to be endorsed. The long-term project is to impose the pattern of the Shishu Mandir type of teaching on state schools. This is reflected in the kinds of subjects that are proposed in the new curriculum. Children will have to learn Vedic Mathematics, despite mathematicians saying that there is nothing Vedic about this kind of maths and that it is simply an alternative way of making fast calculations. It is unlikely that this in itself will provide the kind of mathematical foundation that school children require for subjects such as econometrics, or technologies and sciences of various kinds. Sanskrit will be compulsory and one does not object to this if it is taught as a foundation to understanding the structure of languages used today in India, as and where relevant. And of course an appreciation of its literature. But more likely children will have to memorise endless amounts of grammar instead of approaching it through the logical structure of the language, and the study of the language will be made into yet another channel for propagating communal Hindu theories rather than the humanism of a civilisation.

And then there are the mysterious subjects that have no pedagogy and remain guarded secrets such as Yoga and Consciousness or the concern with the Spirituality Quotient. The method of teaching in the Shishu Mandirs is through a variant on a kind of catechism-questions and answers only with no context to either. This is a convenient technique since it is possible to fabricate both questions and answers, which are then implicitly believed since the students are not taught to discuss alternate ways of looking at a subject.

This approach to education will be the death of the social sciences, where the emphasis is on testing the reliability of data, observing methods of analyses and arguing logically. The links between the social sciences have frequently led to expanding the frontiers of a subject. To take the example of beef-eating. Comparative studies of cattle economies such as those of the Nuer analysed by the anthrpologist Evans-Pritchard, or the picture that emerges from ancient texts such as the Avesta and the Rigveda, provide many insights into these societies. Cattle are not eaten indiscriminately but they are killed on special occasions as, for example, to honour guests, kings, priests and this becomes a mark of status. When such references begin to decline and eventually a prohibition is also introduced, then the historian has to ask the question as to why this happened. And often the answers come from related disciplines. Was it a matter of belief that the cow came to be seen as ’the mother’? Or was there an environmental change with a decline of grazing grounds, or did agriculture supersede cattle-raising so that livestock got reduced? And what would have been the effect of all this particularly on rural society?

To disallow such questions is to limit history in a ridiculous way.

Similarly, if history is to be vetted by religious organisations and each one permitted to delete what hurts its sensitivities, then, in a multi-religious society with an infinite number of religious sects such as ours, there will be no end to paring down a history textbook, until we might be left with virtually nothing at all.

But this also raises another fundamental issue. Who should write the history used in schools-historians or a collection of pandits, mullahs, granthis and priests? The legitimacy of the latter is their own self-proclaimed assertion that they represent a particular religious community. And it makes no difference that they don’t understand the first thing about history.

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THE battle today is not between Marxist historians and other historians. It is between historians and non-historians where the latter do not understand the discipline of history and the change it has undergone in the last half-a-century. There was a time when history was a support to a certain kind of anti-colonial nationalism and the support was effective in the national movement. It was also embedded in Indology-culling information from sources and laying it out in an orderly fashion. Analysing the information with different methods of analyses and integrating the analyses was not what Indologists did. Over the years, from the 1960s onwards, history moved from being a part of Indology to acquiring its own methods of critical enquiry and in the last two decades has emerged not only as a sophisticated intellectual discipline but also capable of providing insights into the past which have helped us understand our past. History is now part of the social and human sciences and demands rigorous ways of looking at the past. This change seems to have gone unnoticed by those who are now controlling our institutions and writing our textbooks. They still assume that it is a story which can be a fantasy or a myth dictated by anyone’s whim and channelled into whatever propaganda the politicians and their minions choose to support.

This is not a situation that we can live with quietly and hope that it will pass. It is a situation that needs to be opposed and the opposition has to be visible. I would like to suggest three ways in which this visibility could be made apparent.

We have to assert the academic foundations of the discipline of history and insist that these be prominent and be encouraged wherever history is taught or historical matters are under discussion.

We also have to watch out for attempts to erode other social science disciplines. Archaeology, which was beginning to provide evidence on material culture and which sometimes raised doubts about statements in texts and sometimes corroborated these statements, is now being distorted in various ways. Questions of origins and identity determining who is indigenous and who is alien, cannot be answered by archaeology, yet archaeological data is being forced into supporting political theories. A spurious sociology and social anthropology are likely to be the next disciplines to be falsified, since they are both concerned with concepts of caste.

Secondly, I think that we have to take the initiative and start investigating what is taught in the Shishu Mandirs and the madrassas and other similar institutions. Are they all motivated by the same philosophy or are there differences and if so what are these and why. These institutions are becoming the articulation of large groups of people. We should investigate their courses and methods of teaching and possibly even reach out to the students by presenting alternative ways of looking at a subject. The latter may be too ambitious. But the absurdity of the way many of the subjects are taught in such schools, as for example their question-answer format on geography, needs to be critiqued more publicly. People need to be made aware of the fact that a school education is concerned as much with the contents of what is taught as with the obtaining of marks: and further that the content of education is what goes towards the creation of the future society. There seems to be an increasing disinterest in these matters. The obsession with marks will have to give way to content if there is to be a quality education.

Finally, and most importantly, I would like to raise the issue of transparency in procedures and the right of any state institution to appropriate and reconfigure the texts of authors. For many state activities in India, procedures have been established even though they may not be closely followed. In the sixties when the NCERT textbooks were written there was a procedure : a committee of historians selected the authors, the drafts of the books were vetted by the committee and discussed in considerable detail, the drafts were sent to other historians, if thought necessary, to get an opinion and were then printed. Even after publication if any changes were suggested by any organisation or historian, these were discussed with the author by the committee and a decision taken on whether or not to make a change.

This basic procedure of getting historians with acceptable credentials to write the books and then put them through peer group review was fundamental to the writing of these books. This was also a great source of strength to the author.

None of these procedures are now being observed. Passages are deleted at the whim of the Minister, the NCERT, the CBSE. There is no reference to other historians but only to some representatives of religious organisations. The authors of the new books that are being written to replace ours are unknown to anyone. They are writing in hideouts and with a secrecy that would be envied even by Osama bin Laden. Where is the need for all this secrecy? The books will in any case be judged by historians once they are published. Or is it the intention that however good or bad the books may be they will rapidly be put into circulation and that will be a fait accompli which no one can oppose. Do we have to have all this infantile cloak-and-dagger stuff when it comes to the responsibility of writing textbooks for schools?

That the state should take it upon itself to delete passages without review and disallow discussion, is perhaps the most odious aspect of what has been happening. This is a matter that does not concern textbooks alone, although it has been projected as an assault on history. Once a state gets infected with totalitarianism, it will not stop at excising textbooks but will excise all manner of rights and principles essential to civil liberties. This is the greater and more enveloping danger and it requires of us that we be alert to even more major deletions of other kinds.