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Secular education and the federal polity

by Romila Thapar, 16 September 2001

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[Comments made by Romila Thapar at a Conference organised by Sahmat on the Communalisation of Education, August 2001.]

Let me begin by asserting that those who do not understand the past, or refuse to understand it, invariably end up by misunderstanding the present and are unable to move forward into the future. We are faced today with the makers of educational policy in the central government who seem not to understand the Indian past.

There is a constant harking back to a remote past, encapsulated in the phrase ‘Vedic’. Irrespective of its historical or civilisational authenticity, this capsule is being forced upon us with the claim that all knowledge is contained in the Vedas and therefore the Vedic capsule amounts to a total education.

There is little recognition of the fact that in the course of Indian history various Indian thinkers discussed the knowledge contained in the Vedic corpus, and some had doubts about various aspects. This process of debate and questioning, the presentation of views and counter-views, both within India and among scholars from other parts of Asia, has been at the root of advances in knowledge in pre-modern times. Much that we pride ourselves on, as Indian contributions to world civilisation, often developed independently of the Vedic corpus and occasionally even in opposition to it. Significant contributions from the past are thus set aside in this obsessive concern with the Vedic capsule.

In saying this, I am not denigrating the study of the Vedic past, but am emphasising that the past has to be assessed in a historical context, and I would further insist that the context has to be, that of critical, rational enquiry. This is now being denied by replacing enquiry with a received version of the past which is then treated as the authentic version.

The claim is made that this is a return to indigenous knowledge, but the new educational curriculum draws its legitimacy from 19th century colonial views of India, and from the priority that European Indologists gave to brahmanical texts and world-view. Indigenous systems drew not only on mainstream texts in the language of learning but also on texts in a variety of regional languages, which could question the former if need be, as also on observed knowledge.

A major pedagogical change in the last few decades has been the professionalising of various subjects, particularly in the social sciences. Each subject is preferably taught in such a way that it also demonstrates its own methodology which draws as much as possible on evidence of proven reliability, on logical analysis and on rational generalisations. This demands an intellectual rigour in setting out the structure of the subject. The training that results from such teaching, as for example in history, enables both the teacher and the student to be aware of the difference between mythology and history.

There is now a retreat from these processes and mythology is taking over from knowledge. Mythology has a role in creative imagination but should not replace knowledge. Instead of further professionalising the subjects taught at school and college, they are being replaced with subjects that have virtually no pedagogical rigour, such as Yoga and Consciousness or cultivating a Spirituality Quotient. These cannot form the core of knowledge and replace subjects with a pedagogical foundation, although Yoga can be an additional activity.

The narrowing of knowledge is being attempted in part by giving a single definition to Indian culture and society, and projecting this through educational channels, and describing it as the sole heritage that is of any consequence to us as a society and a nation. Yet this goes against one of the fundamental concerns of the Indian experience both of the past and of the present. Among the more significant questions that have continually been at the core of Indian activity, is that of the relations between the needs of the central power in a state and the articulation of variant forms of control manifested by regional and local powers. At the most obvious level in the past, this relationship determined various structures relating to administrative and economic policy. But it is also evident in cultural expression where a distinction was often maintained between the mainstream culture, and the culture and language of the region.

Relations between the two varied from close interlinks on some occasions, to tensions or even confrontations on other occasions. What is relevant to us today is that in the past, co-operation between the centre and the regions needed an immense degree of sensitivity to social and cultural variations and an understanding of why they arose. We are facing a similar problem today. The question is whether we should accept the kind of homogenisation of education and culture that is being imposed on the country or should we attempt to define the modern, educated Indian through an educational policy sensitive to a range of social and economic concerns, and to new systems of knowledge, a sensitivity that will provide us with a worthwhile present and enable us to perceive the inter-connections with the past? Can the interface between the centre and the states in a federal polity, help us in this matter?

Education is not merely about making millions literate, it also involves teaching young people to cope with a changing society, which today means being more aware of the world than ever before, and to creating a worthwhile life for themselves. Therefore, to impose a syllabus oriented to studying an imagined past utopia is to erode the potential of the next generation. Focusing on a utopian past is also a mechanism of diverting attention from having to improve the present in order to provide a better quality of life.

Accountability to the public and transparency in governance is necessary in formulating educational policies. We must know who is drafting educational policy and who have been consulted in doing so, and what has been the participation of professionally qualified persons in the determining of the curriculum in a subject. It requires responsible people and these in turn have to be responsible for what they are doing. Educational policy is both important and sensitive and cannot be left to the whims of a small circle of politicians and bureaucrats.

A sensitive understanding of the interface of centre and region is essential to any educational policy. Two states with high rates of literacy are Kerala and Himachal Pradesh. Each is very different from the other in terms of economic resources and the way they are used; in the hierarchy of castes and the distribution of classes; in religions and religious sects; and in languages. These aspects also undergo change. Can we set aside all this and merely insist on children in both areas studying Sanskrit, Vedic Mathematics, a vague subject called social science, and Yoga and Consciousness? The imposition of the Vedic capsule would be an educational disruption in both regions, educationally negative for many people and resented by others.

But what they do have in common are the aspirations that result from education. Schooling and curriculum would have to relate up to a point to the local conditions and ethos, and these would involve a degree of interest in regional concerns. The question is how best these can be introduced without denying the importance of national concerns – a matter of some sensitivity. Educational policy has to be such that the aspirations at least of regional concerns are recognised as an intrinsic part of those that are of national interest. This would ultimately be more viable than forcing everyone to conform to a top-down policy.

Educational policies in states that do not have a BJP government have a greater responsibility to defend secular education and the continuance of multiple cultures. This is often easier at the state level where multiple cultures are more visible, but would require considerable thinking about education in terms of what is being taught and which groups are appropriating educational facilities. Where parties not belonging to the NDA, tie-up with the Sangh Parivar to harass those supporting secular education, the acts of such parties should also be questioned. Education should not be made the scapegoat for dubious political manoeuvres.

We may well be taking a risk with the future of the next generation by giving them the type of schooling that will not equip them to handle the complexities of our times. These are serious matters that concern the future of an entire generation of young Indians and should be critically discussed and reviewed. But then the Indian middle class is notoriously unconcerned about what it taught to its children through schooling. All that matters is the game of numbers, marks and percentages.

The new policy it is said will reduce social disabilities and the replacing of subjects at school will reduce the burden on the child. Social disabilities can be met to some extent by professionalising what is taught, in other words teaching mainstream subjects as systems of knowledge, without mystifications. The way a subject is taught has a social context and this has a bearing on social disabilities. For example, will Vedic mathematics be taught through memorising shlokas in Sanskrit or essentially as methods of calculation? In the former case, obviously upper caste children will have an advantage; in case of the latter, the quality of what is taught will have to be assessed comparatively with other mathematical methods. If it were to be something more than a slogan, would this kind of mathematics prepare a foundation for the child to handle contemporary technologies requiring mathematics?

Education is related to the social structures that it endorses or wishes to change. The suggested curriculum is essentially intended to construct a middle class ideology producing pliant citizens. The problem will however be intensified when this regimen is imposed on the under-privileged, and when they become aware of this package being a further denial of quality education to them. With this kind of schooling, dalits and scheduled tribes and other marginalised groups such as women will continue to be employed only for lower level jobs. This may be the other agenda of the new curriculum. The package makes no concession in the curriculum to societies that function differently and require adjustments to educational programmes, such as a greater emphasis initially on technical courses.

Those who are privileged and can afford private schools will continue to have a quality education, but the rest, in terms of educational requirements today, will remain virtually uneducated. Such a two-tier system is implicit in the suggestions on educational programmes made by sections of the corporate sector as well, as was discussed on the first day of the conference. This is likely to be a bigger problem in schools run by individual states and at local levels, since the disaffection will be closer to the ground reality in these schools. Yet the curriculum in the states can explore the links between education and the social context more closely, as also the links to aspirations through education. This does not mean a tailor-made education for each caste, religious sect, or tribe, but can consider incorporating variations in the handling of knowledge.

The question of the preferred language for education poses other problems. There is today a relationship between English and the regional languages, between Hindi and English, and among the regional languages. Regional languages have become basic to the administration of the states. But given the aspirations to managerial jobs, corporate sector jobs, technologies of various kinds or employment outside India, English is likely to remain in demand. The greater the investment of the multinationals, the greater will be the requirement for professional English. Economic policies could well dictate educational demands giving rise to yet other problems.

A current misconception lies in the belief that education in the medium of English, or an education in the sciences, automatically results in rational attitudes. But rationality has to be cultivated. Rationality is necessary for the study of technologies, for instance, but those who use it for this purpose do not necessarily apply it to understanding other aspects of knowledge. Those that theoretically should be more enlightened often support outdated views about Indian society without a second thought. Education in the sciences and technologies, is divorced from other areas of thought, and often results in a dichotomy between scientific and technological knowledge on the one hand and knowledge related to the social sciences and the humanities on the other. The necessary integration between the two is frequently absent.

An interesting case in point comes from the Indian diaspora. NRIs often demonstrate this dichotomy, where despite having been trained to enquire critically and rationally into professional areas of work, they make uninformed generalisations about other areas in which they are not trained, such as the Indian past and what goes under the label of Indian culture. This is startlingly evident from their websites. Some of the most untenable theories about the past come from Indian computer scientists, engineers, and such like, and some also claim that because they are scientists, their theories about the past are value-free, a claim that is now much doubted even in scientific circles. Such persons are among the role-models of the Indian middle class. We give legitimacy to their obscurantism because they are technically qualified in the sciences. The reasons for this dichotomy are often explained as due to their lack of adjustment to an alien culture or from the consciousness of being a minority in that culture. If we are now going to have university courses in Vedic rituals, to help create cultural support for such NRIs, then surely we have to concede that the tail is wagging the dog.

If the essentials of critical and rational enquiry in the sciences could be part of a comparative interface with methods in the social sciences, this would result in a far greater awareness of what it means to be educated and how one looks at the world. One is not suggesting that children have to be tutored in the nature of paradigm shifts in all kinds of knowledge, but at least they should know that knowledge changes, that some knowledge becomes out-of-date, and that there are ways of recognising the change. Ultimately the debate between orthodoxies and heterodoxies is essential to advancing knowledge. This debate is a lynchpin in education. The learning process is not a matter of memorising questions and answers but of being encouraged to explore ideas creatively.

To say that educational policy and curriculum should legitimately be replaced with every new government is to make a mockery of the process of education. It is not the monopoly of any government; it is the responsibility of those who are involved in educating the young. What would be useful would be to work out an essential educational structure, incorporating the major debates in various disciplines, and these should not be tampered with whenever there is a change of government. Changing the content of subjects must be recognised as being a professional matter and not a matter of political ideology.

Education widens the mind and encourages an exploration of ideas and actions. But if it is confined to thinking along a single track, then it closes the mind. In the wider context of planning education, if the direction of change points to a federal polity, then the interface between the centre and the states relates not just to education but to many activities, although educational policies often highlight the nature of the connections. If a federal polity is what is required it cannot be brought about accidentally; it has to be forged. Hopefully, this will be a process that strengthens an inclusive nationalism, secular in its essentials and drawing on creative inter-relations between the centre and the states.

Romila Thapar