Lessons to learn

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Controversy continues to stalk the National Council for Educational Research and Training as it comes out with its new syllabi for school education, which raise questions regarding general orientation and specific motives.

ON October 4, the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) announced the new syllabi for all subjects as per the National Curriculum Framework for School Education had been finalised. However, the NCERT, which has been a topic of public discussion for a long time thanks to the contents and the process of formulation of its new curriculum for school education, has not been able to avoid controversy this time either. The NCERT's travails have more to do with a certain understanding in the Human Resource Development Ministry and the NCERT about education than with any inherent problem in the structure of the Council. The controversy involves problems ranging from the content and orientation of education, the lack of democratisation in the NCERT in the matter of curriculum development and formulation, and a dubious enthusiasm displayed to rewrite textbooks, especially those of history. It is not a coincidence that NCERT Director J.S. Rajput and some others found problems in history books authored by renowned historians who are perceived either as Leftists or as opposed to the Hindutva school of thought.

Over the past one year, there was uncertainty about the future status of textbooks authored by historians such as Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, R.S. Sharma and Bipan Chandra. The NCERT headed by Rajput felt it was necessary to purge these textbooks of references that may hurt the sensibilities of certain communities. In the process if historical facts also got distorted it was at best to be seen as "collateral damage". For instance, the distortion in references to Mahavira in R.S. Sharma's book Ancient India had two intentions - to give Jainism an antiquity that may well contradict historical facts, and to assure the community concerned that its sentiments were well protected during the tenure of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre. At best, this was political gimmickry shorn of any academic worth. Although there was the criticism that some NCERT textbooks were verbose or too heavy for schoolchildren, never before was a campaign launched against history textbooks authored by certain historians.

NCERT Director J.S. Rajput.-M. LAKSHMANAN

In a September 29 statement, Rajput said that the "despicable tradition of denigrating minorities by some historians who are actually working hand in glove with destabilising forces must be terminated without delay". Apparently, Rajput was responding to some views expressed in the Delhi Assembly by Arvinder Singh Lovely of the Congress(I) regarding the allegedly demeaning portrayal of Sikh leaders in historian Satish Chandra's book Mediaeval India, Rajput's statement added: "As Director, NCERT, I am committed to undo these wrongs. Henceforth, no book shall be published which hurts the religious sentiments and injures the pride of any community or linguistic grouping in India."

The NCERT's press conference held at Shastri Bhavan, which incidentally houses the HRD Ministry, was an unprecedented one in more than one way. It was the first time that the NCERT, an autonomous body of academics, held a press briefing in the premises of the Ministry. Presided over by Rajput and R.K. Dixit, head of the Curriculum Group (who hardly intervened during the press conference), the meeting ended on a discordant note with the NCERT Director refusing to disclose the list of experts who had recommended changes in textbooks, especially those of history. However, it was clear that none of the historians who authored the earlier textbooks had been consulted. Neither were they part of any expert committee (as the NCERT denies there was a panel) that may have designed the syllabus. "They are all eminent names. It is a big country. We have other historians and teachers," said Rajput. He added that the opinions of a cross-section of people including "teachers, teacher trainers, practitioners, primary teachers and secondary teachers" had been considered.

The build-up to the release of the "thematic history" syllabus, a document titled "NCFSE: The process of development" and the comprehensive press statement, was no less interesting. In the document it is stated that eminent educationists like Professor Yashpal and others were invited to hold detailed discussions with the Curriculum Group. However, informed sources said that Prof. Yashpal, Kapila Vatsayan, former Director, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and sociologist Yoginder Singh dissociated themselves from the curriculum framework after the debate in the monsoon session of Parliament about the saffronisation of education.

While the NCERT press release mentioned that the existing syllabus had been thoroughly reviewed by a team of experts, informed sources in the Council confirmed that there was no review, at least none known to the faculty. Moreover, the final document was put up at the general body meeting of the Council, convened on December 13, 2000, held after the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) was released on November 14 by Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi. Persons who were present at the general body meeting said that the document was merely placed before the gathering to inform the members and not for any ratification or discussion.

Explaining the rationale behind the move to give a new look to the social sciences curriculum, the NCERT release stated: "Since the mid-Seventies, history and geography ceased to be treated as separate subjects by most school boards. The course content was vast, placing an inhuman burden on children." This statement is incorrect as NCERT survey reports show that the majority of schools taught the subjects separately, coupled with Civics.

In a school classroom in Chennai. It is unclear whether under the new scheme, children will find history a subject interesting enough to opt for in Class XI and XII.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Further, as if "path-breaking" concepts like 'Spiritual Quotient' mentioned in the NCF document were not enough, the new approach of the NCERT included a seemingly novel concept of "citizenship education". The NCERT said that the concept was recognised as an essential part of social science education for the first time. Just as academics felt that teaching value education as a separate subject was quite unnecessary as all education was basically about values, the imparting of citizenship values was implicit in social science education. The section "Curriculum Scenario in Retrospect" in the 1998 curriculum framework document stated: "The main goal of education was character building and not mere acquisition of knowledge. The emphasis was on evolving an educational system that would enable an individual to discover his/her talents, to realise his/her physical and intellectual potentialities to the fullest, to develop character and desirable social and human values to function as a responsible citizen." On social sciences, the document said: "The study of social sciences as a component of general education is of critical importance in facilitating the learners' growth into a well-informed and responsible citizen." The irony was that while the NCERT was trying to establish a link between a good citizen and a good educational system, it had been actually established more than a decade ago and perhaps even earlier.

In consonance with the stated objective of reducing the curricular load, the NCERT announced what it described as a "thematic structuring of history". To introduce India's past through selected events/episodes, developments and cultural heritage rather than a comprehensive treatment of the subject seemed unacceptable. Moreover, the important question is who will decide the broad themes to be included in the curriculum and basis for deciding the same (apart from the stated objectives of curricular load reduction and making history more interesting), and make the list of events of India's past and cultural heritage. According to Rajput, history "will be interesting to the pupil, a subject to be enjoyed, not feared. It will promote a deeper understanding of the core values that have kept Indian civilisation ticking through the ages. A route to instilling pride in India's background as a great contributor to human progress. It will be a history free of rhetoric, stereotypes and objectionable attributes to any one stream of Indian culture." The outcome of such an understanding is bound to be rhetorical, jingoistic and also historically inaccurate if sensibilities of communities take precedence over historical facts.

It is envisaged that up to Class X, history will be an integral part of the environmental and social science curriculum. From Classes III to V it will be in the form of interesting stories, though it is not clear whether these narratives will draw also from world experiences that have shaped man's life, as envisaged in the 1988 document. In the upper primary and secondary stages, history is a component of social sciences. In the higher secondary stage, a serious study of history in itself will be offered. However, while the old syllabus offered the student a fairly good idea of world history and Indian history, it is unlikely that the new one will offer the same.

A LOOK at the themes indicate that they have been formulated in a hurry. In the upper primary stage (Classes VI to VIII), there are three themes - People and Society in the Ancient Period (Class VI), People and Society in the Mediaeval Period (Class VII) and People and Society in the Modern Period (Class VIII). Under Ancient Period are listed, among others, "Beginning of Civilisations" and "Major Religions". However, nothing more is mentioned about these civilisations and religions and their nature. There is no mention of social stratification and of various world cultures.

For project activity, the suggestions included collecting photographs of historical monuments of the ancient period such as Asoka's pillar at Sarnath, the Sanchi Stupa, the Iron Pillar at Mehrauli, the temples of Konark, Lingaraja, and Nataraja. Among world monuments, the pictures to be collected included those of the pyramids and the Sphinx, the Great Wall of China and the Buddha statues at Bamiyan. The inclusion of the Bamiyan Buddhas was a curious one given the fact that they were destroyed by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Golden Buddhas at Bangkok or Nara (Japan) do not find mention. Whether the Harappan culture or the advent of the Indo-Aryan speaking people and its ramifications for Indian history will find mention later is not known. Only the textbooks that come out in January 2002 will reveal what historical themes have been included.

In the section on the Mediaeval Period, as in the case of the Ancient Period, the exact period to be considered is not mentioned. The meaning of the Mediaeval Period in Indian history as exemplified in the previous syllabus is missing. A composite study of the developments in culture does not find mention though the project activity has some references to saints and Sufis. It is also left unsaid what aspects of the Mughal empire will be taught, retained or dropped. Compared to the previous syllabus, the new one seems to have been drastically pruned, as even the salient features seem to be brief. The disintegration of the Mughal empire features in the Modern Period, though it should have found its place at the end of the Mediaeval Period.

In the secondary stage (Class IX and X), world history and civilisations are completely missing with no mention of the Central and South American civilisations, contributions of the Bronze Age civilisations, or even pre-history. Similarly, words such as imperialism, capitalism and revolutionary movements are not mentioned anywhere in the curriculum. The Russian Revolution does not find mention in the syllabus despite its momentous impact in determining the course of 20th century world history. The focus is on Indian national movements and the international role of India. In the latter section, there is a reference to India's relations with the two superpowers - the United States and the Soviet Union.

For Class X, the history syllabus comprises only of cultural heritage. It is unclear whether the historical background or the process of the formation of Indian society will be taught. The previous syllabus had outlined the study of art and architecture from ancient to modern times under the title "Cultural Heritage of India". In the new syllabus the period is not mentioned, which leaves room for speculation on what aspects may be left out.

The previous history syllabi for Classes I to X were designed in such a way that by the time the pupil completed Class X, he/she had a general understanding of Indian and world history. However, one cannot be sure that under the new scheme, children will find history an interesting subject to take up in Class XI and XII, after having a "thematic understanding" of history. By not elaborating on the "themes", the NCERT has played it safe and deflected controversy for the time being. However, it reflects on it somewhat poorly that after almost a year of discussions at various forums, it could produce only a sketchy and unimpressive history syllabus.

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