Many of the words and phrases used to describe what we are going through have been emptied of all meaning — unprecedented, for instance, no longer conveys what we have been experiencing. An enormous human tragedy threatening the survival of millions, often leaves us numb and helpless. To add to this, responses from those in positions of power, our decision-makers, have been baffling, to say the least.
One of these is the series of excisions for senior school students that has been advocated by the CBSE. These include dropping chapters on environment, evolution, reproduction, ecology, mathematical reasoning, federalism, popular movements, gender, caste, citizenship, and secularism among others. The logic behind such exclusions is opaque, to say the least. Each of these themes is particularly crucial for those in search of lasting resolutions through the pandemic and the post-pandemic world, at a variety of levels, ranging from the local to the national to the global. An understanding of connections and linkages as well as a comprehension of institutional structures and processes is likely to be critical for survival.
In terms of pedagogical practices and the enormous value assigned to examinations and assessment, what would this mean? Given the over-stretched resources of schools/teachers/learners/parents, it means that these chapters will be ignored, and several young citizens will pass through the formal educational system with no incentive to engage with these themes. What will be lost in the process is the ability to understand some of the most crucial issues that impact our everyday lives and have unpredictable long-term consequences. In the absence of a reasoned understanding of these issues, learners will probably come to rely increasingly on the WhatsApp university, with its quick, rapid fire resolutions — often short-lived and erroneous — of complex issues.
We also need to factor in the immense digital divide that operates within formal education and elsewhere. In such a situation, the least privileged learners who are the most vulnerable, will have little or no opportunity to engage with topics that have been declared “optional” from the point of view of evaluation. This is surely a matter of serious concern.
If the pandemic has brought lessons, and it has brought many, often conflicting and difficult ones, it has also made us aware of the urgency of developing critical understanding, a scientific temper, and the ability to view situations from multiple perspectives. Many of the chapters that are being brushed under the carpet provide windows into just these possibilities, encouraging learners to grapple with complex, even complicated situations, and rejecting simplistic, pat, slogan-like formulations. Equipping learners with these opportunities is essential in such a situation. These themes are inclusive in other ways as well, enabling the learner to appreciate diversity and difference and are crucial for developing a holistic understanding.
The CBSE is an examination board that has a presence throughout India as well as in other countries. As such, any practices that it lays down will have a long-term far-reaching chain effect, unless these are actively and systematically interrogated.
It is true that examinations, especially as organised and conducted at present, are often counter-productive, and are often reduced to tests of rote learning rather than understanding. Nevertheless, till such time as these are reformed and re-thought, they remain a benchmark for teachers/learners/parents/employers. That is why it is important to ensure that these include rather than exclude the themes that are now being dropped.
Also, it is true that the books on which the CBSE examinations rely are now nearly a decade and a half old, and need to be updated and revised carefully, to take into account a dynamic world and equip learners to address it. However, this is a task that requires thought, dialogue, and patience, even if this proves time-consuming. As such, it needs to be undertaken carefully, rather than as an ad hoc measure. The problem with ad hoc measures is that they often acquire a certain legitimacy and permanence — sometimes because of inertia, on other occasions for other reasons.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 17 under the title “Diversity and nuance.” The writer is professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.