The problem

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THE occasion for this issue of Seminar is the publication of a document called ‘National Curriculum Framework’. The publishers, NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) calls it a ‘discussion document’, suggesting thereby that the responses elicited by it will be used to produce a final version. Such an intention raises hopes, apart from indicating faith in participatory democracy. By the same token, it carries the burden of responsibility. A document designed to arouse a national debate must show that it has been written with consideration. This one, on the contrary, announces that it was written in a hurry. The preface refers to ‘certain compelling circumstances’ which meant that ‘it could not afford the luxury of taking a very long time in its preparation’ (sic).

The reason why taking sufficient time, so that an announcement of this kind would not be necessary, looked like a ‘luxury’ is said to be ‘obvious’, namely that ‘it would have further delayed the much needed renewal of syllabi and the new generation of textbooks.’ We are not told what the ‘compelling circumstances’ are, but we can make a guess by reading on. After giving the ‘obvious’ reason for the hurry, the pre-face says: ‘It may be made absolutely clear here that as far as some basic philosophy and guidelines are concerned, we are still guided by and also committed to the policy formulations made in the NPE (National Policy of Education), 1986 and its review in the year 1992.’ The three segments of this quotation which have been italicized give us a basis to guess what the ‘compelling circumstances’ might be. In all probability they were created by the pressure of the new government at the centre.

The new government, or at least the party forming the biggest part in the patchwork alliance, feels uncomfortable with some of the basic ideals expressed in the Indian Constitution. It has an ideological problem with the cultural underpinnings of the nation state which emerged from the anti-colonial struggle. In brief, to use Sunil Khilnani’s title, its ‘idea of India’ is different. That, indeed, is one of the main reasons why this party has such a profound interest in education, unlike other political parties, including the left parties, who treat education as an expensive and tiring chore. Education invokes images of the future; it also promises control of the future. A party which aims to remodel the India built during and after the freedom struggle, and whose ideological ancestry lies in a fundamental contestation for hegemony, not just the power to govern, understandably wants to move quickly towards redirecting education, particularly its curriculum. Speed is crucial because the political mandate this party has received is tenuous and may prove brief. As a ready-to-use tool of the government, the NCERT has no choice but to hurry up.

At the same time, NCERT must allay fears that the very mention of curriculum renewal under a BJP-led government raises in the public mind, given the record of Uttar Pradesh (see Seminar 400), Gujarat and the thousands of schools run under the umbrella of the so-called Sangh parivar. The NCERT also has a professional conscience to appease. Set up in the early sixties, it carries the stamp of Nehru’s commitment to modernity and secularism. Given these external and internal compulsions, it makes sense why the present document must make ‘absolutely clear’ that it is ‘still’ guided by and ‘also committed to’ the basic philosophy enunciated in the mid-eighties when the Congress was in power.

The need for this historical awareness notwithstanding, we must ask what that ‘basic philosophy’ of the mid-eighties document on education policy was to which this present document makes such a loud, approving reference. The NPE did name all the values one associates with the Constitution, but to say that it had a philosophy is both an exaggeration and an example of memory loss. The NPE document assembled all manner of statements to cover the violation of integrity committed during its inception. Few today might remember that the Rajiv government had initiated the debate on education policy by releasing a document called ‘The Challenge of Education’. Before the debate could mature, this document was suppressed. Its candour and professional directness were not acceptable to all in the government. The eventual NPE document failed to address a vast number of issues and facts which were listed for debate in the previous document. Barring a few statements of intent, such as the creation of a separate cadre of civil servants for education and a national testing service – neither of these intentions have been pursued so far – the NPE presented little that was either professional or relevant to the salient ills of the system.

Why the NCERT should refer to the NPE while justifying the present exercise of curriculum renewal may be politically clear, but the attribution of a philosophy to the NPE may have a narrower professional explanation as well. Philosophy of education is one subject that the NCERT has consistently neglected in the nearly four decades of its existence. Indeed, the Council has actively discouraged philosophical reflection on education by institutional mechanisms such as the wholesale adoption of behaviourist psychology as its primary orbit of research and publication. In the early years, sociology had some place in the Council’s sphere of activities; later on, that too disappeared. Intellectual or reflective activity that might put a break on the obsessive urge to dip every aspect of education in behaviourist solutions was shunned. The MLL (Minimum Levels of Learning) approach, fashioned out in the early nineties, was the ultimate achievement of this urge. It set to rest any desire or inspiration there might be among curriculum designers to refer to the ideas and legacy of teacher-philosophers like Tagore, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and Krishnamurti.

For the NCERT to claim that its National Curriculum Framework stands committed to the philosophy of the NPE and another document that followed it only shows that the Council has forgotten what it means to have a philosophy to be guided by. Repeated contradictions and the chaos of arguments and theories, not to mention the weight of platitudes one finds throughout this new document, bear testimony to this suspicion. The nine quotations of Gandhi used in the document tell the same story, in addition to indicating the advantage Gandhi’s name offers as a cover for political hypocrisy. As a professional body, the least that the NCERT might have done was to acknowledge that Gandhi’ educational ideals are intertwined with his social ideals, and that – apart from the backlog of our neglect of Gandhi – makes it extremely difficult to draw upon his ideas in any practical and honest sense in a social ethos marked by competitive consumerism.

There is little sign indeed in this document that the Council wants us to notice the professional challenges it faces in the task of modernising curriculum designing and pedagogy, let alone share these challenges. Throughout the document one confronts remarkable verbosity and smugness. The lack of context is also sharp. One finds no reflection of the India where children must beg or toil to supplement the family’s income, and where a meagre mid-day meal has been known to make a bigger impact on attendance than any reform in curriculum or teaching. Equally, the document pays little attention to the wealthier Indian where the IIT’s name is freely used by coaching shops to earn large sums of money in exchange for skills to excel in the IIT entrance test.

Even the blatant correlation between family income and success in examinations does not figure as a debate-worthy point in this discussion document, though it has a section on ‘evaluation’. Indeed, by pathetic strategies like avoiding the term ‘examination’ in the title of this section, the NCERT indicates its continued adherence to the practice of staying above the day-to-day reality of the system rather than engaging with it. Neither the tools nor the mood to engage with reality are in evidence in this document. Its lack of discourse of engagement, apart from its refusal to prioritise the numerous tasks involved in curriculum renewal in an unreformed system of education, are perhaps the two most important reasons why this document looks so mediocre. The quality of production does little to hide its mediocrity, and perhaps we should be thankful for that. In these respects, and not just its alleged philosophy, it is like the 1986 NPE. This continuity would bear a misappropriation of the poet’s metaphor: governments may come and go, but the neglect of education remains.

We may be stung and pained by such an unabashed national display of callousness towards children, but we have no choice in taking the occasion of this document’s appearance seriously. Hence this issue of Seminar.