“Schools do not merely ‘process’ people; they ‘process’ knowledge as well. They enhance and give legitimacy to particular types of cultural resources which are related to unequal economic forms” — Michael Apple, Ideology and Curriculum.
As the CBSE and the NCERT reportedly decide to delete three substantial chapters pertaining to caste from their Class IX history textbooks, it has become clear once again that it is difficult to be free from the politics of knowledge — and the construction of the “official” curriculum. Even though we are told that this deletion is aimed at doing good for the children — reducing the heavy burden of syllabus that, needless to add, causes severe stress and anxiety — the facts are not as simple as they are made out to be. Do you reduce the burden of the “high status” knowledge streams of mathematics and physics with an equally intense zeal? Or, is this yet another attempt to trivialise what is often seen as “irrelevant” in the age of techno-science and commerce — history, literature and social science?
To begin with, I must acknowledge that the NCERT textbooks which have emerged out of a critically and creatively nuanced endeavour — initiated by a team of great scholars, educationists and concerned teachers — indicate the possibility of a new beginning. Indeed, in an environment invaded by guide books and coaching centre “notes”, the NCERT “project” — which follows as an outcome of the 2005 National Curriculum Framework — is a refreshing departure. The books, as I see, are written in a form that seeks to activate the imagination of the young learner, and aims at nurturing what Paulo Freire would have regarded as a “problem-posing education”.
Furthermore, the chapters that have been deleted, I have no hesitation in saying, are beautiful for their ability to blend bundles of information with a conceptual/theoretical perspective. They encourage the reader to see history through, say, the eyes of the wheat farmers of the US or the opium farmers of Bengal. They also, for instance, help to understand the political history of cricket in the context of colonialism, or, for that matter, probe into the dynamics of caste, class and gender through the history of clothing. In a way, far from being a chronicle of wars and treaties, and the rise and fall of empires, history becomes the people’s history. And it is always a great endeavour that evokes a sense of history among children.
However, I insist that we need to raise yet another critical question which we — leftists as well as rightists — often miss out because of our preoccupation. The preoccupation is primarily to do with the content of school knowledge rather than the actual process of dissemination and reception of these texts in the classrooms. It is in this context that I wish to make two significant points. First, I do believe it to be unfortunate that we love to equate knowledge with information: We are in a hurry, and, as a result, we burden the child with all sorts of things — mathematics, computer, history (ancient/medieval/modern), geography, physics, moral studies and even yoga. Even play, for a small child, has lost its spontaneity. We are eager to teach her counting and the alphabet through what the gift industry regards as “play”.
This is like seeing knowledge as an act of consumption rather than an experience of enchantment or creative engagement with the self and the world; and it is dangerous. It kills the joy of learning. Hence, to take a hypothetical situation, even if you want to inform the child through a series of textbooks of everything that is politically correct and sanctified by the subaltern scholars, it may prove to be counterproductive — it may be felt as a “burden”. Let learning be a continual process of exploration and self-discovery. There is no harm if, at the tender age of 12 or 13, the child doesn’t know about Ranajit Guha or Uma Chakrabarty, so long as she is encouraged to cultivate all the faculties of learning: Reason and intuition, observation and experience, besides a sense of wonder and the urge to question. Eventually, she would discover Birsa Munda and Savitribai Phule.
My second point is about the absolute asymmetry that prevails between these otherwise well-meaning texts and the actual practice of examinations and evaluation, that has a strong impact on the way books are read and received. For instance, the narratives implicit in these texts and the creative use of cartoons, poetry and even cinematic imageries, are ruthlessly murdered in our classrooms because the prevailing pattern of examinations compels them to glean only the “hard facts” (or bullet points) from the chapters. There is a need to evolve an instrumental/strategic relationship with the books. And, barring exceptions, the teachers, too, see these narratives (say, a story of M S Sathyu’s Garam Hawa, or a brilliant black-and-white picture of the traumatic movement of the people during the Partition in a chapter on the making of the new nation) as just “deviations”. Filling the mind of the student with mere “facts”, making them hyper-conscious of “performance” that is purely quantified, and, disciplining them through a cycle of weekly tests and home assignments — all this ensures our children grow up in an environment that is pedagogically impoverished and aesthetically insensitive. Neither Gandhi’s pilgrimage to Noakhali nor Pablo Neruda’s poetry, nothing leaves a lasting imprint. Everything is just a piece of information to be remembered, and then forgotten after the examinations. My anxiety is that if we do nothing about the poverty of pedagogy, even the most radical texts will be destroyed in our classrooms.
It is high time we took the debate beyond merely the content of knowledge — Aurangzeb or Shivaji, Savarkar or Ambedkar, Vedic rites or Nizamuddin Auliya’s verses. It is time we gave equal importance to the practice of liberating pedagogy that deconditions the mind, arouses creative imagination and cultivates a rhythmic/relaxed mode of learning.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 8, 2019 under the title ‘The poverty of pedagogy’. The writer is professor of sociology at JNU, Delhi