Texts and contexts
DEEPTI PRIYA MEHROTRA
THE recent NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training) textbooks, designed as a focused input to make school learning more relevant and effective, have become the occasion for a raging controversy. Inevitably, in today’s polarized political contexts, school texts are understood as key vehicles for furthering disparate ideologies. Textbooks, particularly in the social sciences, do play a significant role in influencing students’ knowledge base and thinking. Little surprise that they have by now been unsparingly flogged by organizations and academics of the right as well as the left, each in defence of a doctrinaire, ideologically homogenous approach to social science writing.
Appreciating the tough tightrope walking required in such a situation, the NCERT deserves credit for achieving a broadly liberal, left-oriented set of books, framed by a democratic and democratizing approach. The textbooks promise pedagogic renewal through inculcating skills of comprehension and critical analysis, clear understanding of crucial social issues, firm and flexible perspectives, support for negotiating daily life problems, and participation of students in discussion and debate. An obvious question as I scan NCERT textbooks is: do they live up to the promises made? Further, in the context of Indian classrooms, is it possible to achieve pedagogic renewal through textbooks, without adequate reforms in other components of the teacher-student exchange systems?
While the present textbooks are innovative and try to encourage active involvement, original thinking and critical analysis by students, their power to actually do so is determined by a range of factors, including teachers’ abilities and motivation. Given the morass of bureaucratic, dull and routinised teaching plaguing the school system, the injection of innovative textbooks is unlikely to succeed in the lofty aim of pedagogic renewal. I am reminded of the once-influential ‘hypodermic needle’ or ‘bullet’ models of developmental communication, which assumed that strategically prepared communication material could in itself effect remarkable changes in mindsets, and thence in the social order. Popular in the 1950s and ’60s, this theory formed the basis for national media programmes across the world, yet was soon discredited – since it simply did not work!
The present textbook writers – and their opponents – tend to similarly overestimate the impact of texts on students. In the thick of controversy over the content of textbooks, the vital role of face-to-face communication mediating the text before it reaches students, is being overlooked. Teachers’ methods and motivation, as well as socialization by families and communities, must coordinate with textbooks’ messages if coherent learning is to take place. Unless educational policy expands to include intensive programmes with teachers and wider communities, it is impractical to assume that messages will reach students without a high degree of distortion.
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that textbooks are an important component of schooling. For many students in underprivileged socioeconomic settings, these might be the only reading material accessible. A close look at some of the textbooks follows.
Social and Political Life-I: Social Science Textbook for Class VI, NCERT, New Delhi, February 2006, 86 p, Rs 30.
Democratic Politics-I: Textbook in Political Science for Class IX, NCERT, New Delhi, March 2006, 112 p, Rs 50.
Indian Constitution at Work: Textbook in Political Science for Class XI, NCERT, New Delhi, March 2006, 242 p, Rs 60.
Political science deals with power and authority, order and disorder. These elements also determine the broad contexts in which school textbooks are being introduced today – a contentious terrain with many warring ideologies. Inevitably there are disagreements, often strongly so, on the content of these influential texts. My central concern, as I examine these textbooks, is their likely impact on children in our school settings – particular government schools.
The three textbooks we look into here have been recently introduced into schools. Others in the series are under preparation. Most textbooks reinforce the status quo, but the NCERT has made an effort to reverse the trend. Gathering eminent scholars and school teachers to write these new textbooks, the institution has taken a step forward – although sensitive reorientation of teachers is required if the new textbooks are to be taught effectively.
Social and Political Life-I (for Class 6) seeks to elucidate aspects of social and political life. Similar social science textbooks are being prepared for Classes 7 and 8. In Class 6 the key ideas are diversity, interdependence and conflict. In Class 7 the focus will be on democracy and equality, while in Class 8 students will learn about the rule of law and social justice.
The Class 6 textbook tries to live up to the promise, made in the ‘National Curriculum Framework 2005 – Syllabus for Classes at the Elementary Level’, of providing material likely to motivate children to critically engage with the issues studied. By discussing the real-life functioning of institutions, students are encouraged to make connections with their daily lives.
The first section on the theme of ‘diversity’ tries to sensitize children to issues of interdependence, prejudice and discrimination. These are ambitious objectives, yet the textbook is playful, conveying serious matters with a sure, light and skilful touch. For instance, students are asked to look around and see whether there are any two identical people in class. Each student is to draw a picture of herself/himself, and compare it with self-portraits by other children. The text goes on to introduce the notion of diverse religious, caste and class backgrounds – through stories and imaginary narratives rather than dry theory. Children are encouraged to question prejudices related to religion, class, gender, caste, able-bodied versus ‘disabled’ and so on.
The section on ‘Making A Living’ conveys the conditions that impact life strategies of various groups of people, and that these conditions and opportunities are not equally available to all. A thorough attempt is made to integrate gender sensitivity into the text, for instance, ‘A farmer wants a loan from the bank to dig a well in her land’ (p. 53). Such a sentence consciously strikes at stereotypical perceptions in the child’s thinking. Yet, considering that most of our teachers are themselves bristling with prejudices, I wonder whether this will actually happen. Will teachers accept and transmit secular and progressive values in the spirit required? Or will they harbour disagreement and resentment, thus turning the classroom into a site for exacerbated conflict? At the least, most teachers will need sensitive orientation to class, gender, caste, religion and diversity issues before they can even appreciate, far less agree with, such perspectives.
At times the text is carelessly worded. A caption reads, ‘At labour chowk, daily wage earners wait with their tools for people to come and take them for work’ (p. 82). A box on women’s suffrage includes, ‘Many women began organising and managing different kinds of work. When people saw this they began to wonder why they had created so many unfair stereotypes about women…’ (p. 32). In both instances, note the use of the word ‘people’. Counterbalanced against ‘people’, daily wage earners in the former case, and women in the latter, seem to be something else – the ‘other’ – not quite ‘people’. Since such wording has the potential to subliminally affirm deeply held prejudices, writers need to be more careful.
On the whole, though, this textbook is well-conceived, attractive and consistent in its approach. Children are invited to participate as active learners rather than passive recipients of preprocessed information. Instead of the rote memorisation that has become the accepted order in all disciplines and at all stages in most of our schools, this book stresses skills of observation, analysis and critical thinking. But will teachers be able to keep pace? And how will children negotiate their daily reality on finding that significant adults in their families harbour communal, sexist or casteist values?
The political science course in Classes 9 and 10 focuses on the central theme of democratic politics. The Class 9 textbook Democratic Politics-I dwells on democracy in the contemporary world, electoral politics, institutions of parliamentary democracy, and citizens’ rights. In class 10, the subject matter covers the working and outcomes of democracy, competition and contestation, and challenges to democracy.
The Class 9 textbook begins well, presenting stories about the making and unmaking of democracy in different parts of the world, notably Chile and Poland. The next chapter encourages students to evolve a definition of democracy. Political cartoons, with guides to critical analysis, are sprinkled throughout the book. These evocative cartoons are excellent tools to stimulate children’s interest, and lead them to think and arrive at their own interpretations. The cartoons more often raise uncomfortable questions than the text, for instance a cartoon about US imperialism in the context of the Iraq war (p. 18). A number of ‘activity boxes’ offer suggestions for further research to children. Such exercises at the end of each chapter will ideally help students consolidate their learning.
Packed with interesting information, the textbook seeks to expose children to what is going on in different places, and draw them into asking questions. At the same time, connections are made with children’s daily lives, as well as the functioning of Indian democracy. A question like the following is, however, ambiguous – ‘Make a list of political activities that you could not have done in Poland in 1980s but you can do in our country.’ When asked of 14 year olds, the answer will be quite different than when asked of an adult. It is not at all clear what is expected!
The textbook is sure to provide new information even to many political science teachers. Since few schoolteachers have access to rich library or other reference sources, it could be an exciting learning process for them. However, in the climate of apathy and overwork that teachers complain of, this process will have to be gently pushed. Training workshops are essential, with a fair amount of detail on the lessons to be taught, methods to be used, and activities to be guided. Teachers habituated to dictating notes will have a hard time shifting to a completely new pedagogic approach. One-way teacher training, for instance, through satellite communication methods that provide only limited scope for interactivity, are unlikely to meet the need. Many innovations have flopped due to the lack of a participatory approach. If the teacher is not convinced of what s/he is required to teach, s/he simply will not do it well.
The Political Science syllabus for classes 11 and 12 intends to lay the foundation for a continued engagement with the discipline at college level. Four courses are outlined, through which students will be introduced to political theory, Indian politics and international politics. Course I on Indian Constitution at Work, and Course II on Political Theory, are to be covered during Class 11. The third course on Politics in India since Independence, and the fourth on Contemporary World Politics will be taught in Class 12.
Indian Constitution at Work seeks to deepen students’ understanding of the Indian Constitution. Though most chapters sound familiar (chapters on fundamental rights, executive, legislature, judiciary, federalism, local government), the treatment is significantly different from the earlier textbooks. Mercifully there are fewer details about articles and clauses, and more focus on the rationale and real life consequences of constitutional provisions. Cases and instances are particularly well selected. The last two chapters are fairly innovative, one on the constitution as a living document (Ch. 9), the other on political philosophy of the Constitution (Ch. 10).
A positive feature of this textbook is the inclusion of two children, Munni and Unni, who are interlocutors – they keep asking questions at the margins. These questions can spark off very meaningful and far-reaching discussion, for instance, ‘I am getting confused. In a democracy, you can criticize the prime minister or even the president, but not the judges! And what is this contempt of court? But am I being guilty of contempt of court if I ask about these matters?’ (p. 127). And, ‘Yes, I know that the officers are there to serve the people. But people are always afraid of these officers. And officers also behave as if they were the masters!’ (p. 95). Through such questions, children can enquire into what is happening at ground level, identifying disjunctions between promise and practice.
Despite such astute questioning ‘at the margins’, the formal section on ‘Criticisms and Limitations’ (of the Constitution) is wrapped up in just three pages (235-8). The criticism that the Constitution is unrepresentative is dismissed by stating that Constituent Assembly members (although predominantly middle and upper class) raised ‘a vast range of issues and opinions.’ Limitations include that the Constitution ‘appears to have glossed over some important issues of gender justice, particularly within the family’ and ‘in a poor developing country, certain basic socioeconomic rights were relegated to the section on Directive Principles rather than made an integral feature of our fundamental rights.’
These limitations are extremely damning, especially from the viewpoints of women and the poor. Yet the textbook writers foreclose the issue, saying, ‘We are arguing that these limitations are not serious enough to jeopardize the philosophy of the Constitution.’ In fact, no argument at all is presented! This summary dismissal smacks of defensiveness, rather than objectivity. It is indeed a sad commentary on the text, if eventually it tries to bully children into unquestioning acceptance.
That different voices were pulling in different directions is evident not only in the textbooks but also in the ‘NCF 2005 Position Paper by National Focus Group on Teaching of Social Sciences’. If alongside this we look at the ‘NCF 2005 Position Paper by the National Focus Group on Aims of Education’, the confusion grows worse. The Position Paper on Teaching of Social Sciences notes that today ‘the social sciences are considered inadequate for securing employment’, and attempts to raise the status of the social sciences by asserting their scientific nature (p. 1). The Position Paper on Aims of Education argues on the other hand for a need to go beyond Cartesian dualism that underlies modern science – the ‘sharp lines between the rational and the irrational, knowledge and a lack of it’ (p. 7). So overall, the philosophical issues with regard to the ‘scientific’ nature of the social sciences have not been handled with consistency. Obviously, with a large number of disparate professionals involved in processes leading to production of these textbooks in a relatively short time, it has been impossible to arrive at a consensus – or even a broadly shared understanding – of such foundational issues.
The Position Paper on Teaching of Social Science discusses the term ‘Civics’, now replaced because of its association with the colonial project of cultural hegemony. ‘By contrast,’ it asserts, ‘political science suggests the dynamism of a process that produces structures of dominance and their contestations by social forces. It treats civil society as the sphere that produces sensitive, interrogative, deliberative, and transformative citizens’ (p. 3). One does wonder whether the implication is that political science, or indeed economics and other academic disciplines, are free of ethnocentric and imperialistic biases. In fact, it is well known that these disciplines developed originally with colonial rather than liberatory intent. Critical theory, subaltern studies and feminist scholarship have attempted to bring in radically different perspectives. But as we know, a great deal of political science still continues in the same conservative mould.
On the teaching of social science, NCF 2005 notes, ‘…cultural, social and class differences generate their own biases, prejudices and attitudes in classroom contexts. The approach to teaching therefore needs to be open-ended. Teachers should discuss different dimensions of social reality in the class, and work towards creating increasing self-awareness amongst themselves and the learners…. The teaching of the social sciences must adopt methods that promote creativity, aesthetics, and critical perspectives’ (p. 54). This is promising. But unless NCERT plans to reorient schoolteachers on a very large scale, they will remain trapped within the prevailing frameworks.
Educating teachers simultaneously with the introduction of the new textbooks is essential if the new vision is to be translated into action. Otherwise we may be putting the cart before the horse – radical textbooks, taught by teachers seeped in conservative thinking, often narrow-minded, their sense of inquiry stifled a long time ago. Textbooks per se cannot push teachers to change their thinking and teaching methods. In fact, there is a real danger of teachers reacting to both content and pedagogy, trying instead to reinforce their own ideas and methods and ending up transmitting extremely confused messages.
In-service teacher training through intensive workshops, guides, manuals and interactive sessions is essential if they are to transact this syllabus effectively. We are dealing with delicate, emotive, and highly charged issues. The democratizing intent of the textbooks is clear, and indeed highly laudable. What is not at all clear is why or how a teacher, who has deep stakes in a given class-caste-gender-religious structure, will want to teach something subversive. And, even if s/he wants to, does s/he have the skills to do so? Even those (few) teachers who will accept the new textbooks, and try to teach them well, will require tremendous support.
Most classrooms are seething with suppressed class, caste, religious and gender prejudices, which are likely to come out into the open when there is discussion on these issues. Strong emotions will inevitably be evoked – anger, guilt, pain, shame, defensiveness and so on. Teachers have to learn to facilitate such sessions, creating a space that is safe and non-threatening to all students. This is easier said than done. But unless it is done, such textbooks can prove counterproductive. An effective teacher will help students reflect on their experiential realities, moving from these to theoretical understanding of social structure, inequalities and injustice, as well as modes of struggle. There has to be an effective strategy to radicalise the teacher, before the teacher can be at all effective in teaching these textbooks. All this, let me repeat, is far easier said than done.
Another danger, particularly in many elite schools that profess a liberal-secular ideology, is of making children ‘politically correct’ without really rooting out the prejudices in their minds as expressed in their behaviour and actions. This can pave the way for a more sophisticated hypocrisy, even more sophisticated than what society anyway teaches these children!
Way back in 1966, the Kothari Commission noted, ‘…it is a long and burdensome task to convert a school system based primarily on memorization into one involving understanding, active thinking, creativity and what has come to be called ‘problem solving’. Each step is not a step but a leap into the unknown…’ While the present textbooks are one step ahead – and an extremely courageous one at that – they will not magically transform minds. Particularly in the context of political science textbooks, where unforeseen consequences could convert the classroom into a seething hotbed of open conflict, creative thinking and problem solving skills have to be nurtured in teachers, as well as children.
Insights from the emerging disciplines of ‘Conflict Transformation’ and ‘Peace Studies’ might help. Learning from these, political science textbooks today could usefully integrate ideas about nonviolence, peace and the handling of conflict. The Political Science Course II textbook for Class 11, on Political Theory, does project having ‘Peace’ as a theme for study. But its short elucidation in the Syllabus for Secondary and Higher Secondary Classes is disappointing: ‘What is peace? Does peace always require nonviolence? Under what conditions is war justified? Can armaments promote global peace?’ These questions fail to meet the need of the hour, which is to question the roots of violence and war. To ask, right at the start, a question like, ‘Under what conditions is war justified?’ is disconcerting, since it assumes that there are conditions under which war can be justified.
In fact a section on ‘Peace’ should provide an opportunity for children to learn what it means to be nonviolent, diverse conceptions of peace and nonviolence, as well as sufficient argument to appreciate that wars, armaments and violence cannot, in the wider context, promote peace. Children’s innate sensitivity to the human tragedy of war should be nurtured through recognising that there are other ways of resolving and transforming conflict, such as dialogue, negotiation, reconciliation and nonviolent resistance.
Dialogue is, in fact, a key to the success of any endeavour that seeks to radically transform education. Unless a widespread process of dialogue is set in motion, the present textbooks run the risk of remaining yet another attempt at social engineering ‘from the top’. Meaningful engagement of large numbers of ordinary schoolteachers will require concentrated efforts towards this end. Indeed, it will also be essential to reach out to parents and local community groups if the transformations envisaged are to become ground level reality.
Eklavya’s method of creating textbooks as part of a holistic intervention is salutary (this NGO created textbooks in Madhya Pradesh over several years). Such an intensive process may not be replicable at the national level, but its elements are far too significant to ignore. One critical element is the inclusion of voices of ordinary people, of children, of marginalized viewpoints – within the texts. Another is the long-term, intensive, and respectful engagement with teachers, as central figures in the teaching-learning process.
Change towards inclusive education, and indeed inclusive democracy, entails following up these textbooks with other broad-based holistic interventions. Writing a textbook is, clearly, a deeply political act. The responsibility it involves goes beyond, and is far graver, than suggested by the mere word ‘writing’. The challenge lies in the next steps, in stepping deeper into the veritable thickets, the jungles, of classrooms, and clearing space for the light to pour in untrammelled.