Transacting sociology at the school level

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THE body of ‘sociological knowledge’ included in the syllabus of the CBSE textbooks, provided and compiled by scholars of the NCERT, covers a wide gamut of sociological thought. They are indeed broad, all-encompassing, information-giving sociology textbooks. Starting from Auguste Comte’s ‘science of society’, the pages fleetingly cover concepts of Durkheim’s division of labour and linger over his ideas of the forces of mechanical and organic solidarity! The book then introduces Max Weber’s ‘interpretive sociology’ that lays stress on the study of interpretation and recognition. A typical paragraph reads, ‘Max Weber is obviously influenced by the German idealist thinkers particularly Kant, Hegel and Dilthe. Weber agrees with these thinkers about the role of thought and consciousness in bringing about social and historical change’ (sociology textbook for class XI, page 18) What may I ask, can anyone make out of this verbiage, leave alone impressionable and earnest 16 and 17 year olds, trying to come to grips with a new subject?

While class XI sociology grapples with introducing basic concepts, the class XII sociology text moves on to understanding Indian society. Ploughing through chapters on India’s unity and diversity, the caste system and so on, one encounters a number of statements that are value loaded, contradictory and jargonistic. The chapter on religion reads, ‘Max Weber was the first to mention a Hindu ethic consisting of the principles of samsara (belief in the transmigration of souls) and karma (doctrine of compensation). These two principles together formed the basis of the caste system. Consequently upon this, according to Weber, the caste system did not have a this-worldly rational ethic.’

The other problem with these textbooks is that they were written more than a decade ago. Thus, chapters on the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward castes are restricted in scope, coverage and terminology. Most of the time spent in class, students must negotiate the subtle differences between caste and jati that are clubbed as SC/ST or OBCs! Otherwise, they are forced to memorise the highlights and recommendations of the obsolete Kaka Kalelkar Commission and controversial Mandal Commission reports. Significant movements of the backward classes and dalits in UP, Bihar and Tamilnadu do not find a place.

For a teacher of sociology, it is indeed a Herculean task to outline caste distinctions and traditional hierarchy patterns of the caste system. Even after years of study and experience one has not been able to fathom caste hierarchies that are usually portrayed in common parlance, i.e. the four-fold varna system of caste, most commonly found in north India. It would be a good idea for sociologists to be a little more sensitive while outlining patterns of stratification; viz in Tamilnadu, other than the Brahmins, all other communities can avail of the backward caste status and thus reserveration upto 65 per cent for admissions to colleges. And in Kerala, other than the Namboodiri Brahmins no other community is designated as a ‘twice-born’ caste and neither can be graded occupationally as in the varna system. Tell me, how does one transact these nuances and anomalies to students born and bred in New Delhi who have no idea of how people live their lives in rural areas? And, is it necessary for them to know various theories and controversies at the school level? These are concerns which should involve them at the postgraduate level.

Presently, it is important to situate the ‘new science’ and understand its vast unimaginable potential for deciphering critical issues of today. Even more, teachers must be equipped with a sociological imagination, which alone will help practitioners of sociology to draw on other disciplines like economics, politics and information technology, help stretch the canvas so that students can relate micro happenings to macro issues, and study the dilemmas we face and reflect important commonalities.

Sociology has the power of instilling students with a weltanschaung or worldview. It can lay the foundation to help study social facts objectively. Most importantly, the subject matter can infuse students with critical and analytical thought processes. The subject matter of class XII has immense scope for the pedagogue to engage students in a meaningful dialogue. Understanding India’s great traditions, student’s must/can ponder over why only the brahminical code of ethics take on names like ‘great’, while cultures and life-styles of those outside the varna system are described as ‘little traditions’. Who were, or are, the indigenous populace of Hindustan? It is also important that teachers pick out major trends, and locate them in region-specific contexts so that students learn to relate with social action in more concrete terms. Sadly, in classroom transactions, children are made to use a curriculum which leaves out the messiness of society totally from their worldview, thus making it difficult to relate reality with concepts.

This science of society has the capacity to sensitize young adults to social phenomena. It can prepare students to deal with issues which are going to affect their cocooned lives when they encounter admission policy at the college level based on reservations and not merit. Unfortunately the present textbooks, though topical and of valuable content, have been systematically hollowed out.

No wonder then, most teachers of sociology resort to picking out main trends from textbooks and dictate copious notes that students spend hours in taking down. Also, in most cases, teachers do not want to be burdened with any more ‘thoughts and ideas’ over their syllabus for the board exams. Somehow teachers remain mired in completing the course with the least amount of dialogue. And so the study of sociology deteriorates to ‘concept-surfing’ and dictation by the teacher and regurgitation by students during the CBSE examinations. Even while it is undeniable that no subject is better equipped than sociology to let precious lives understand the world they live in.


Latha Govindan