Textbook for our time

In the last 10 years, the curricular part of school education was left to professional educationists. Academics must defend that achievement.

Written by Apoorvanand | Updated: November 15, 2014 6:25:22 am

Tavleen Singh is rightly upset that the Union human resource development minister is seriously consulting the luminaries of the RSS, who have a very limited view of education (‘Cultural renewal’, IE, November 2). Depicting the RSS as a group led by “doddering old bigots and provincial intellectuals”, she criticises them for their concerns about textbooks that they claim portray a “Western” view of history.

Singh rightly points out that the problem with school education in India is not about history textbooks alone. One cannot agree more with her when she says that our children grow up with a sense of identity tied only to their religion. For this, she blames the prevailing schooling that gives very limited courses in Vedic Hinduism, Sanskrit literature and ancient India. She feels a need for a cultural renewal for which professionally trained educationists need to be approached, and not the ideologically motivated.

Singh is talking about school education, and yet is sadly unaware of the massive transformation that Indian school education has undergone in the last 10 years. Otherwise, she would have discovered to her delight that nowadays, curricular thinking in India does not feel burdened with the task of providing “a correct or authoritative” answer, approved by the state, to the children. Instead, teachers, textbook writers and pedagogues are asked to take up the challenge of exposing students to alternative viewpoints and making their own decision. Children, the current curriculum document says, are to be seen as responsible agents, not merely passive receptors.

Likewise, teachers are not to be seen as deliverers of the “correct knowledge” that is produced at a remove from them and the children. In short, the objective the new curriculum document sets for school education is to inculcate in young minds a critical spirit that is confident enough to examine all authoritative accounts.

One must say that this is only a beginning and people still need to be persuaded and convinced that the intelligence of children needs to be respected. It was one of the major achievements of the two UPA governments that school education, especially the curricular part, was left to professional educationists. Ironically, the credit for insulating the NCERT from ideological pressures should go to the much-vilified Arjun Singh, who saw to it that the curricular discourse is freed from the secular-communal or saffronisation-desaffronisation binary. The physical and intellectual labour that thousands of teachers and pedagogues put in to create focus-group papers and the new curriculum document were, however, forgotten very soon.

Singh calls for history to be seen and written with new eyes. This is precisely what the history, political science and social science textbooks tried to do after the introduction of the National Curricular Framework 2005. She seems to be ignorant of the battles these textbooks had to fight, as they represented neither a “left” nor a “right” point of view. She also seems to be unaware of the attack the new Hindi language textbooks had to face in the Rajya Sabha at the hands of MPs, cutting across political ideologies, for “defiling” young minds. Sadly, the newly born textbooks were left alone in their fight for autonomy and did not get support from the media.

It is not surprising that the media discourse on school education is caught in a time warp. How does one explain the silence of veteran journalists like Tavleen Singh when Parvin Sinclair was forced to resign from the post of director, NCERT, for having dared to resist the attempts of the present regime to set norms for the revision of the NCF 2005? She went down fighting for the hard-earned autonomy of the curricular process. But no tears were shed and no words of solidarity were offered to her in her hour of humiliation. It speaks a lot about the callous indifference with which the job of academics is treated in this country.

We, who are in the business of academics, have a lot in common with journalists. Both of us work with language. It demands care and responsibility. That is why when veteran hands like Tavleen Singh feel a need to make hasty proclamations, like the one she has made about Romila Thapar, one feels utterly dismayed. She claims that historians like Thapar have sought to deny demolitions of Hindu temples by Muslim invaders and had she been writing about present times, she would have said that the Bamiyan Buddhas crumbled on their own and were not blasted out of existence by the Taliban. I would not normally like to claim that an experienced writer like Singh writes without basis, but it can be safely said that she has not read Thapar carefully. I am not referring to her by now famous book called Somanatha, but to her book Early India, which is more than four decades old. While discussing the exploits of Mahmud, she writes, “Added to the desire for wealth was the religious motivation, iconoclasm being a meritorious activity among some followers of Islam.” She adds, “In 1026 Mahmud raided Somanatha, desecrated the temple and broke the idol.”

As a society, we suffer from a habit of careless reading, and the otherwise well-intentioned piece by Singh is also a victim of this. History-writing has also come a long way and now, the intention of a historian like Thapar is not to reconstruct the event but “rather to see the sources as presenting various perspectives, either directly or by implication, and to search for clues as to how the event was perceived”. History has become more interesting now. It refuses to reside in the shade of certitudes. But it is hard work. As hard and difficult as journalism. What is at stake at this point of time is the threat of losing this understanding altogether.
The least we expect from our colleagues in the field of journalism is to appreciate the struggle and gains made in the last decade in curricular discourse, and their help in defending it.

The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University

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