Another retreat of reason

Print edition : October 07, 2005

Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh receiving a report of the Central Advisory Board of Education Committee on `Autonomy of Higher Educational Institutions' from West Bengal Minister for Education Kanti Biswas, who chaired the committee, on June 29. - R.V. MOORTHY

The National Curriculum Framework 2005 glorifies "local knowledge traditions" and fails to provide adequate space for the voice of reason.

THE Draft National Curriculum Framework, 2005, was under preparation for quite some time and its revised version (NCF) was released as a public document in August . Already, there have been several responses, ranging from outright rejection to wholesale adoption. The document was adopted by the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) at its meeting on September 6 and 7. In one of the strongest endorsements of the document, Professor Shahid Amin made a strong plea for studying the "local" ("Ride the learning curve", Hindustan Times, September 1). More than that, he pitted it against the "national", as if the two are mutually exclusive. Amin is an internationally renowned historian and the leading light of the subaltern "school" of history writing, which is the current rage among budding historians of the elite universities in India and abroad. It is ironical that Amin's defence of the "local" against the "national" appeared on the day that most of the national dailies in English prominently reported the deliberations of the National Integration Council.

The NCF is a massive document of 124 pages, which is loud on words, not so clever in its conception and quite evasive in creating any structure (both human and financial) that would really deliver the goods. It is a deceptively challenging document insofar as it ducks the responsibility of identifying the source of the accumulated "critical mass of discomfort" that is supposed to have provided "a special ignition" for those who got involved in its preparation (page iv). It may be recalled that the unconstitutional and Jhandewala House-inspired NCF 2000 (released with great fanfare by Murli Manohar Joshi, then Human Resource Development Minister), trying to bulldoze a skewed notion of fragmented nationalism, was solely and squarely responsible for creating this nationwide "discomfort".

The NCF puts considerable emphasis on the language potentials of children, language education and knowledge creation. (Page 37) "The language environment of disadvantaged learners needs to be enriched... within a broad cognitive philosophy (incorporating Vygotskian, Chomskyan, and Piagetian principles)". Are these the indicators of the parameters through which the "local" are to be given the messages of acceptability (mark the patronising tone) of "their homes, communities, languages and cultures"? Notwithstanding fervent pleas for creating spaces for "tribal" and "street" (possibly of Aamir Khan tapori type) languages, the search for identifying the principles of "cognitive philosophy" has miserably failed to locate any Indian thinker.

The NCF recognises in many places that all children are potential "knowledge creators". However, the conceptual definition of "knowledge" in the document derives its raison d'etre from the postmodernist Foucaultian version. The NCF's formulation is: "Knowledge can be conceived as experience organised, through language, into patterns of thought (or structures of concepts), thus creating meaning, which in turn helps understand the world we live in... Human beings, over time, have evolved both a wealth of bodies of knowledge which includes a repertoire of ways of thinking, of feeling and of doing things and constructing more knowledge" (page 23, emphasis as in the original). Elsewhere, the document states: "The creation or recreation [sic] of knowledge requires an experiential base, language abilities, and interaction with other humans and the natural world. Children entering school for the first time have already begun constructing knowledge of the world. Everything they learn later will be in relation to this knowledge they bring into the school. This knowledge is also intuitive... " (page 32).

It is true that feeling, intuition and experience - all form the basis of "knowledge". But where is the space for reason, rationality, scientific spirit and "information" based thereon? Why is "information" seen as antithetical to "knowledge"? Amin's thrust on the "loosening of the informational noose" is almost a mirror image of the NCF formulation: "the tendency to confuse knowledge with information must be curbed" (page 96). The document leaves no one in doubt that "local knowledge" and "local belief systems", rather than the scientific spirit, constitute "a rich storehouse of information" (page 29). As an afterthought perhaps, the NCF concedes: "However, all forms of local knowledge must be mediated through constitutional values and principles" (this proviso was missing in the original draft). It still falls short of providing adequate space for the voice of reason.

Former Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi.-RAJEEV BHATT

Speaking about language education, the NCF says: "In the non-Hindi States, children learn Hindi. In the case of Hindi States, children learn a language not spoken in their area. Sanskrit may also be studied as [a] Modern Indian Language (MIL) in addition to these languages" (page 35). Why this special accent on Sanskrit? How and when does Sanskrit graduate from being a classical to "Modern Indian" language (notwithstanding its listing in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution)? One wonders if the present formulation is inspired by Murli Manohar Joshi's NCF 2000: "Sanskrit has a special claim on the national system of education because it has consistently been need [sic] in India for thousands of years and is still inextricably linked with the life, rituals, ceremonies and festivals of vast India masses... the language is to be treated as a living phenomenon... " (pages 53-54).

NCF 2000 , calling itself "Frontline Curriculum" (page 32), was notorious for seeking to perpetuate several divides, such as class/caste, rural and urban, brahmanic/Sanskritik vs. non-brahmanic/non-Sanskritik and, of course, the great divide of genders. How does the present NCF fare on these counts? Sure, one can offer it some kudos for showing legitimate concern for bridging the gender divide and also outlining some strategies to achieve it. There are, however, indications of some overkill when it seeks to provide feminine gender even to such neuter-gendered words as "child" and "industrialist" (pages 35 and 71). The NCF is convinced that teaching grammar is "often boring" (page 36). Incidentally, it is the rendering of these words in the "local" idiom that often makes them gender-specific. Thus, it would be baccha, bacchi (boy and girl, respectively) and udyogapati (industrialist) in Hindi. Similar examples from other regional languages can be easily cited.

On other divides, the document occasionally, and perhaps ritually too, invokes the relevant provisions of the Constitution. If enactment of laws and expressions of pious hopes through such provisions were enough, India would have become a reasonably egalitarian society free of sectarian rivalries rooted in hatred, prejudices and discriminations of various hues long ago. The Constitution abolished untouchability and forbade "its practice in any form" through Article 17. Parliament, too, passed the Untouchability (Offences) Act exactly half a century ago (made more stringent and renamed the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955) to implement Article 17. And yet, the nation witnessed the celebration of the golden jubilee of these enactments through the burning of scores of Dalit houses in Gohana (Haryana) and Akola (Maharashtra).

The NCF does not even venture to suggest the need for bridging the gap between the "state" and the so-called "public" schools, which has perpetuated such divides. Having been a product of a government model school (one of the many that were established in Delhi in the 1950s), this writer knows for certain, that this gap has widened manifold in the past 50-odd years. As a result, even the struggling lower middle class cannot resist the craze for the "public" schools. As long as the expanding ruling elite continues to patronise these monstrosities, there is no hope of lessening the disparities. The NCF proposition that all subjects may be studied at two levels - "Standard" and "Higher" (NCF, page 108) - is bound to further widen this gulf for "public" schools would continue to retain distinctive edge in multifarious resources.

The Vocational Education and Training (VET) programme envisaged in the NCF (pages 110-12) has many parallels with the NCF 2000 (page 90). The vision of honing "skills in crafts" through Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs), polytechnics, Krishi Vigyan Kendras, rural development agencies and so on implies that these would largely be catering to the dire needs of the socially disadvantaged groups. A carpenter's child can only hope to be a better skilled carpenter. Upward mobility would perhaps remain a vain hope for such children. This is hardly a recipe for obliterating caste divides.

COMING back to the "local" vs. "national", Amin argued: "The fear that when it comes to a national curriculum, the `local' has to be kept at arm's length (from the properly national) is such an article of faith with all regimentalists [no points for guessing who are being targeted here] that to question it is to have crossed already into enemy territory." Evidently, he thinks that the "local" and the "national" are mutually exclusive orientations and that the "local" constituted an anathema for the so-called "regimentalists". Where and how does one draw the lines between the "local", "supra-local", "regional" and "national"? The so-called regimentalists, even at the risk of being dubbed anti-national and terrorist (remember M.M. Joshi and colleagues saying so?), have always stood for India's pluralistic identity. On the other hand, inspired by Edward Said's brand of "indigenism", Ronald Inden could only produce Imagining India (first published in 1990 at the height of the Ayodhya movement) with an unabashed plea for the "hegemonic Hindu state" clothed in neo-colonialist, communalist and racist strains. For example, the book contained frequent allusions to "the Dravidian mind" and such gems of wisdom as "Hindu kingship was the constitutive institution of Indian civilisation", "collapse of Hindu kingship" was brought out by the "Muslim Turks", which in turn, led to the formation of "caste", "Hinduism epitomises the Mind of India" and the 13th century conquest of northern India by "Muslim Turks" heralded "the mind that is made to preside over divisive Middle Ages, which is not the mind of the West - of will governed by reason... ". No wonder, Inden became a darling of "patriots" such as L.K. Advani. It is also no wonder that "All India", for Amin, "has no lived existence".

"Holding on to a single national thread at all cost, in the manner in which religious texts ask adherents to latch on to the `rope of belief', is being neither scientific nor historical," avers Amin. If espousal of the "national" is regimentalisation, concern for the "local" as a pedagogical strategy (in times when children in the United States are getting their lessons in English from tutors located thousands of kilometres away in Kochi in India) is perhaps no different. Those who have followed debates centring round subalternists' and post-modernists' construction or rather deconstruction of `nationalism' since the early 1980s are familiar with the ordered regimentation espoused by Amin and other members of his Regiment.

Take a look at the following classroom situations where the "local knowledge" and "local belief systems" would form the bases of the construction of the child's "knowledge" - schools in Tamil Nadu teaching, according to the decree of the four Shankaracharyas, that the Adi Shankaracharya was born on April 3, 509 B.C.; children in Rajasthan being told that along the great river Saraswati were Kapalmochan and Ranmochana where "the Pandavas took their bath" and that practices such as jauhar, sati and parda were results of "evil" Muslim influences; schools in Godhra emphasising through textbooks that the varna system was a precious gift of the Aryans to mankind; thousands of Vidyabharatis and Shishu Mandirs all over India telling their students that the entire pre-Ghori period of Indian history was the Vedic period, that the Kaba in Mecca is in fact a sivalinga, and that foreigners, including Christians, are anti-national; children in madrassas being told that the sole criterion for considering kings as good or bad is to see if they are "God fearing" or not and that "from Harappan seals it appears that people were making different deities as partners of Allah"; children in Gohana (Haryana) sharing their local experience derived from the inscription scrawled on the back of a lorry: Buri nazar wale tere ghar mein ladkiyan paida ho (You evil-eyed people, may girls be born in your home).

The NCF would justify the perpetuation of all such myths, prejudices of caste, religion and gender, based as they are, after all, on "local knowledge traditions". One wonders if this enthusiasm for the "local" is something like the brahmanical tradition of recognising the primacy of the shruti (supposedly divine oral tradition) over the smriti (written tradition).

Given the postmodernists' view of the "national", it is only to be expected that the growing communalisation of the society, polity, and, more significantly, of education is a non-issue for its practitioners. The remarkable silence of NCF 2005 on this issue is perhaps not a coincidence. Equally conspicuous is the absence of any reference to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Muslim League in the draft syllabi of history prepared on the basis of this document. It should interest many that in the postgraduate classes in history in the University of Delhi, where Amin's writ runs in organising teaching arrangements of modern Indian history, the existing course on communalism is not being taught at all.

The NCF is allergic to the "textbook culture" and yet it argues for "plurality of textbooks" with space for their production in the private domain. To the best of my knowledge, the use of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks has never been mandatory. Schools all over India have enjoyed full liberty in this respect and private publishers, too, have been in the field. One fails to understand the logic of the argument (may be, it is too creative an idea which is beyond my comprehension, for, I am devoid of "native wisdom") that children should be encouraged to use multiple textbooks in a subject, along with dictionaries and reference works, particularly when the guiding principle of the NCF is "Learning Without Burden". This obsession with the idea of reducing the child's "burden" was set out as an objective in NCF 2000 as well. We have seen the creativity of its drafters when they almost eliminated the medieval period of Indian history from the history syllabus to achieve that goal.

A known devil is better than an unknown angel. We have known this adage for long. In the past two decades, specially after the Ayodhya issue flared up in the 1980s, some intellectuals (mainly social scientists) have adopted a posture of being apolitical, claiming to maintain a distance from the so-called orthodoxies of the Right and the Left. I find this breed to be more dangerous than people of known ideological commitments. Significantly, almost all the defenders of NCF 2005 belong to this breed of apolitical beings. I do not want to insult the Right by calling them Right sympathisers, for, they lack the guts of the former. But what does one make of the stark commonality of the two, that is, bashing of the "Left"? Some have referred to the so-called "regimentalists", others are looking for "life beyond the project of BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] bashing", and yet others have accused renowned historian Prof. Irfan Habib of carrying a "fascist agenda", when he warned us of the grave danger lurking behind "glorification of primitive beliefs contrasted to scientific concepts".

Among several common frontiers shared between NCF 2000 and NCF 2005, rejection of the voice of reason stands out prominently. If the former was a document of fragmented nationalism, the latter can be expected to reduce the "nation" to a mere metaphor in the glorious style of the Chicago Manual.

K.M. Shrimali is Professor of History, University of Delhi. His book, Dharma, Samaj aur Sanskriti, was released in early September.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor