In the past year, the NCERT, whose school textbooks are used by the CBSE and which provides the model for state boards, has made alterations in textbooks developed during 2005-9. What has been done has been highlighted in the press and changes in the Social Science books relate mainly to History, Political Science and Economics. The textbooks are now in use in the school year.
In the case of the Social Science textbooks, unlike changes made both before and after 2014, the current alterations, over 300 in number, show little regard for the established process of revision where the Textbook Development Committee (TDC) that produced the textbooks, was consulted. The changes have been made in-house by the NCERT, bearing in mind the suggestions received. According to reports, these include direct instructions from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which has no right to give them, the NCERT being an autonomous body.
In format and approach, the books remain unaltered. Among the “winners”, in the changes, are figures such as Shivaji and Rana Pratap, who have been provided larger space. A host of new visuals has appeared. Significantly, most of this supplementary material is not part of the text that the student reads as a crucial argument. The material in no way provides grounds, in addition, on how to engage with the arguments in the text. There is no clear sense of why the insertions have been made. The space of the textbooks, it appears, is becoming a field for stray information that various influential individuals and groups hold dear, and that the NCERT has been required to include.
A lurch in a different direction is subservience to public policy — where government measures and steps such as demonetisation make their appearance in a rosy and uncritical manner in economics and politics lessons that may have elaborated the larger issues raised by such policies.
This approach to alteration goes against the spirit of the textbooks as they were formed and developed. The aim of the NCERT books of 2005-9 was not to provide a location for a free-for-all to all those who had power. The aim, if it is to be couched in national terms, was to produce learning and teaching material that would allow the value of the nation and its experiences to be drawn out through attention to all sections of its citizens. This was to be accomplished with encouragement to notions of global citizenship and critical individual self-awareness, building on and engaging with social and personal experience.
In history, this was to be achieved with due attention to the formative processes in Indian and world history from a plurality of perspectives; in economics, sociology and political studies, commerce and geography, it involved a wide invocation of the experiences of India’s various communities while preserving the interactive domain of the Social Sciences and the value of the disciplines individually. A series of NCERT Focus Group Reports of the mid-2000s articulated aspects of this agenda.
The latest NCERT insertions and revisions appear to have nothing to do with all of this. In a major break with practices until 2016, in the current process, there was no consultation between the chief advisors and the TDCs that prepared the books during 2005-9. There was no alert to writer-contributors who had not waived their rights over their contributions. Nor is there any indication that a prevailing system of revision, referring to TDCs, has itself been officially revised. The names that figure on the books as “textbook development committees” remain the same, though most of them have not been involved in the insertion/revision process.
In principle, change in textbooks — through the updating of “facts”, the correction of mistakes and alterations in argument — is desirable and necessary. But it must be borne in mind that such change, where not corrective in an elementary manner, touches on a complex combination of social awareness, disciplinary development and sound pedagogy; that all of this reflects in a textbook, which is a crucial learning tool in a developing country.
Random addition and change lead to confusion among teachers and students.
Normally, change that is more than corrective in an elementary manner comes with the involvement of the public in education and also happens with research and revision at the NCERT itself. Adaptation of textbooks to revised perspectives among educators and specialists, and in keeping with ever-changing views on pedagogy and the nature of the subjects that are concerned, is also important. Such review requires the participation of professionals involved in these areas.
The current set of NCERT textbooks was prepared 10 years ago, with this sense of their job. They replaced textbooks that had done good service but had seen their time. The “new” books were not the product of any individual or group. Their content and articulation were reconsidered a number of times to adjust to the language of different levels of schooling, varying capacities to understand and tools to ensure maximum flexibility and children’s involvement. Textbook preparation involved not only subject specialists of the NCERT and the universities and colleges of India but also teachers, educators and textbook producers.
The effort was large in scale, and, in the long run, involved cross-regional television exchanges between textbook writers and teachers, the use of the RIEs and DIETs in the educational system and involvement with state boards. Nationally and internationally, the effort attracted appreciation as a conjuncture of sorts not only in India but the developing world.
The fact that much of the textbook material has been left alone in the latest NCERT changes indicates that the pedagogic purpose and outcome of the initiative are still able to argue for themselves; and that the initiative is still valued in the NCERT establishment. This, in turn, raises questions about why the current changes have been made as they have. The long arm of political directive is suggested — in an autonomous body that has shown its ability to take an imaginative course while generating a discursive relationship with all those involved in education, without rendering itself an arm of the state. It appears a line is being breached in India’s educational establishment by those who have little idea of what they are dealing with.