Texts and messages
THE past poses a rather special kind of problem when we talk or write about it for the young. This arises from two distinct sources. One has to do with the adult’s self-consciousness in relation to children, and the other is rooted in the way the education of the young is conceptualized.
The first problem can be understood relatively more easily because the adult-child relationship is so common and universal. Awareness and knowledge of the past is part of being an adult just as much as the lack of that awareness, and even more obvious, lack of knowledge of the past is what it means to be a child. This difference between adult and child makes the subject of history quite unique in comparison to all other subjects taught at school. It is not only that children, left to themselves, can have no awareness of what happened in the past; the absence of this awareness extends to the fact that there was a past that has shaped a great deal of their present lives and everyday experience.
If we now look at the other subjects taught at school, we will notice that the absence of knowledge of these subjects is considerably compensated for by the curiosity that children have about the areas they cover. For instance, the experience of nature makes a small child curious to know about various things, prompting them to seek answers. In the context of language, another major subject taught at school, the child’s own urge to master it is well known. Children who have never been to school may not have literacy skills, but they are not devoid of language. As for mathematics, its need, at least in a rudimentary form, is felt as the mind matures and develops logical thinking.
If we compare these areas with the child’s response to the past, we are struck by the child’s dependence on the adult to create the awareness that there was a past, and to make this notion palpable by mentioning something that happened long ago. It is only when parents and others talk about things or people no longer around that the child realizes a missing presence. How that residual presence of the past has shaped their life is something that gradually emerges, but its beginning is dependent on an inter-generational dialogue. History at school is a part of that dialogue, along with what goes on in the spheres of religion, art, and the various media.
These different inter-generational dialogues socialize the young child’s mind in their own distinct ways. Relatively more transparent is the impact of the modern media – cinema, television, radio and now the digital media. Taken together, their approach to the past is driven by commerce although there are other drives, such as the state’s pressure and the new politics of customized addressing of the potential voter. The media lump all age-groups into a mass of consumers; children have their niche but are part of the mass. The mass-mind the various media nurture and shape uses the past with a free hand, creating new versions of history for entertainment.
The media also dabble in religion, but religious institutions have their own socializing force and resources. Religion sows the seeds of the feeling that the world is an old place and things were different long, long ago when purity prevailed. Religion and the media overlap with art in its different genres and styles which draw upon the past and habituate the young into perceptual realities which are not easily amenable to intellectual awareness and engagement. These are the tasks that schools are supposed to handle, and they do so in different countries with varying levels of sophistication and ingenuous ignorance of the responsibility these tasks involve.
Our system of education is not used to acknowledging the child and how the child is different from an adult as a civic entity simply because he or she is a fresh entrant into the social world. The school is intent on driving its messages home and ramming into children’s minds the body of knowledge it is entrusted to transmit. In modern societies, the school acts as part of the apparatus of the state which assigns to the school a selection of knowledge deemed to be necessary for governance.
A distinction needs to be made between colonized and other societies because the former are stuck in their systems and styles of governance in a past they cannot easily leave behind. Colonized societies have a peculiar problem with the past. Typically, these societies treat knowledge about the past as a resource for the present power struggles they are involved in. This is true of other societies as well, but the extent of state pressure on schools to treat the past as fodder for political socialization of the young in the former colonies is far greater. The knowledge of the past imparted in schools has been at the heart of political controversies in India for a long time. We can distinguish between the problems this curricular area has faced at the federal or central level, known as the national level, and at the level of the various states or provinces.
In the annals of education and its reforms, the controversies faced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) have dominated public and academic attention to the extent that even historians, both at home and abroad, forget that the overwhelming majority of India’s children do not study the textbooks prepared by the NCERT. Curricular reforms have faced far greater problems of consensus building and acceptance at the ‘national level’ than the reforms pursued in the different states which have largely gone unnoticed. The two levels act like separate discs, invisibly processing the collective young mind for political habituation and economic placement, leaving a narrow space for overlap and interaction.
The treatment of the past in the history class remains remarkably separate at the two levels. An observer sitting in a foreign university can be forgiven for assuming that provincial India has either faced no political or professional challenges in shaping the history curriculum or has toed the national line. Nor will such an observer recognize the forceful role performed by examination boards in keeping the ‘centre’ and the ‘states’ apart although they both perform the same function of keeping classroom teaching fully tied to the style and substance of questioning in annual exams.
Yet another systemic feature one needs to recognize is the spaces available in India’s schooling landscape for ideologically driven institutions. It is not difficult for such outfits to gain both legitimacy and a market simply by getting affiliated to the relevant state board – or even the central board – for the purpose of secondary level examinations. Thus, schools associated with religious groups, castes and corporations active in tribal belts operate with impunity for their real, not so purely educational goals. They achieve respectability and popular appeal, apart from political patronage, for their so-called efficiency.
Over the recent decades, the school space has been liberally marketized as a matter of policy, providing generous and easily accessible room for a vast range of such organizations. They need not confine their ideological goals to extra-curricular or cultural activities. For them, education is quite simply a means of moulding the mind of the next generation towards a well-defined political future for the nation. The subject of history offers an attractive means of consolidating the mould chosen by the institution. The most popular mould today advertises an anti-minority approach, more specifically focused on Muslims. This perspective has had a considerable hold on historiography in many institutions of higher learning in several regions; therefore, there is no dearth of textual material or teachers available for copying the mould.
Then there are other moulds such as the one that promises to control and bring under a radically modernist umbrella the diverse culturally defined groups and languages. Imparting a highly edited version of history to the young from a vulnerable age onwards is an easy option for all such institutional ventures.
This broad-stroke systemic picture may not be complete, but it does help to explain why history as a subject, charged as it is with political interest, remains a territory of crude simplifications, offering little scope for kindling the young mind’s curiosity about the past or engaging with it. Curricular reforms initiated at the central or national level in 2005 were aimed at shifting the use of history teaching for political mobilization to nurturing interest in the study of history and providing intellectual resources to do so. These reforms have so far proved stable, despite political changes at the top, but their impact on provincial curricular and pedagogic practices remains limited. And it is quite likely that this orientation towards the intellectual purpose of the teaching of history at school may be set aside for a return to political aims, in the direction of religious nationalism which has gained dominance.
One might argue that the diversity of provincial curricula will provide valuable space in such a future for continuation of child-centred reforms. Such an argument is of course valid, but its actual value depends on the financial resources and systemic will available at the provincial levels.
Over the last few decades, the ideology of religious nationalism has had plenty of opportunity to shape the teaching of history in several states. Examples like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Haryana come to mind. Attempts to rewrite history at different grade levels were made, but these attempts seldom attained full scale success. The textbooks produced in these states during BJP regimes could not transcend the crudities of narration, characterization, and illustration that marked earlier textbooks, prepared under supposedly non-sectarian provincial dispensations.
This limitation has to do with the resources available at the state level, but also with the confines within which anti-secular scholarship has so far worked. It is one thing to talk about distortions in history; quite another to create and sustain outrageously incredible versions of the past in the officially prescribed school curriculum. Even the most rabidly sectarian provincial regimes have not been able to achieve this feat. Whether it can be achieved at the national level now, if the present dispensation decides to do so in its remaining years, will have to be seen. So far, in the years that have gone by since 2014 when national level politics went through a sharp shift, the history syllabus and textbooks produced under the auspices of the 2005 National Curriculum Framework (NCF) have not been meddled with, except in minor details and examples of insertions. This is not easy to explain, and it would be hard to argue that a compromise has been made.
The attempt that the NCERT made in the NCF 2005-based textbooks of history was to shift the focus of history teaching from continuous narration to investigation of situations and episodes. Children were presented with resource material and were asked to join the enquiry that historians make by considering available evidence, debates, and questions that cannot be fully answered. By encouraging children to view the past as an attractive object of enquiry, established lines of controversy got side-stepped. The past was viewed from different perspectives, such as that of women, the Dalits, the farmers and tribal groups. The teacher’s role in the new syllabus and textbooks is to encourage children to consider different arguments and the evidence they are based upon. The style in which this material was presented was deliberative and sophisticated.
The chances of these textbooks being tolerated by the new government which took over in 2014 looked slim. It was widely anticipated that these textbooks would be replaced by new ones that would reflect a pro-Hindutva perspective. That did not happen, and as the years went by, the puzzle of why it did not happen ceased to be of interest. Since a new policy was said to be under preparation, some people thought that re-writing of history textbooks would be undertaken when the new policy was finalized. But that too did not happen. The first term of the BJP-led NDA government went by without any major alteration being made in the content and certainly none in the structure of the textbooks prepared under NCF 2005. However, a great deal of noise emanated from within the different groups that constitute the Sangh network.
Demands for removal of textbooks, for deletions and for new inclusions were vociferously made and widely publicized by the daily press and television. This noise, and the voices that came to the fore, did succeed in creating the public perception that something was indeed very objectionable in the NCERT material, and that remedial action was about to follow. The absence of any real action did not interest the occupants of busy newsrooms, notably the ones associated in the public mind with the maintenance of liberal standards.
Even as the NCF-based textbooks remained largely intact and dutifully served as the basis of CBSE exams, changing of names of old towns and roads attracted attention, satisfying the hunger of those shrieking that ‘something must be done, and quickly.’ So, when Gurgaon became Gurugram, it seemed like a great achievement, not only of neo-nationalism, but also of the aspiration for setting aside unwashed vernacularity. Renaming Allahabad as Prayagraj covered more symbolic mileage, but the crowning case was that of Mughal Sarai. It is the busiest railway junction in the Gangetic belt, not far from the holy city of Varanasi. Renaming it as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhaya junction was guaranteed to make no difference to the commuter buying a ticket from Kanpur or Patna but would certainly form a high-order question in various exams including the general knowledge tests taken widely to promote India’s new aspirational political identity.
The dilemma of editing history is now clear enough. Changing a place-name, toppling a statue or redesigning a historical vista are easier and at the same time more satisfyingly dramatic than getting a group of historians and educators to come together and redraft a chapter according to specifications given. Those who vandalize a statue do not have to worry about copy-editing, illustrations or page layout. Those who order the change of a place name can depend on a painter of signs to come along to the railway platform with his brush to do the needful. Textbook revision by contrast, is a lengthy business.
The wait for new NCERT textbooks in history and other subjects is now said to be looking towards a new national curriculum framework. It is believed to be ‘coming now’ in the wake of the new National Education Policy (NEP) which was released after the first Covid-19 wave had begun to abate. Not much is being heard about it these days because the silent din of the virus is louder. Perhaps when the anticipated third wave abates, we will have the benefit of finding out what the new curriculum will look like and who all will be involved in the preparation of new textbooks.
It is too early to say whether neo-nationalists in India will emulate the curricular policies developed in Pakistan during the Zia years (1977-1988). In its basic structure, the system of education in Pakistan is quite like ours, in that it is sharply divided between an elite layer of schools run with considerable freedom from state authorities and most government schools completely under the control of bureaucratic authority. During the late 1970s, intense pressure was put on state-run schools to Islamize the curriculum and pedagogy.
Under the impact of the Islamization drive, promoted from the top, the teaching of history as a subject was altogether dropped. Rudimentary traces of knowledge about the past were accommodated in a new subject named ‘Pakistan Studies’. As one can imagine, the history component of this subject was highly edited and shallow to fit into an ideological straight-jacket. The textbooks of this subject showed little regard for facts or children’s curiosity about the past. The exclusive aim of ‘Pakistan Studies’ was to nurture loyal, unquestioning citizens wedded to the idea of a militaristic, masculine nationalism.
While children of the masses were subjected to this kind of moulding, the elite groomed their children for a larger perspective and a more open, global market of opportunities. The textbooks used in these elite schools had room for a more complex view of history as my analysis in Prejudice and Pride (2001) shows. The subject called ‘Pakistan Studies’, with its truncated history, has proved difficult to remove over the years. It has socialized more than one generation of young people into a flat, anti-India predisposition.
In the meanwhile, an altogether new landscape has emerged across South Asia. It is dominated by different kinds of digital media which cater in a highly customized way to the various economically divided strata of society. Pretty much like the division among schools for the elites and the masses, the digital material also provides suitably tailored stuff for urban and rural consumers, and educated and semi-literate classes among them. Against the power of the social media and the internet, children are defenceless. As a society, we have not even recognized this crisis. The vast variety of information and images that school-age children are now exposed to as ‘historical knowledge’ cannot be fully imagined by well meaning historians and teachers.
To give just one instance, a grade six teacher told me about a video a boy had brought to the class. It showed, with credible photography and commentary, a nuclear test carried out in ancient India during the glorious period of Hindu civilization. The boy asked the teacher why this knowledge had not been given in the textbook.
We have entered a period of modern history when the conventional educational resources and procedures have been forcefully marginalized under the patronage of socio-political formations that are determined to subvert the sanctity of democratic procedures and values, and rationality itself. The problem is a lot wider and deeper than what can be addressed by educational reform alone. In all likelihood, the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in educational settings will exacerbate the situation in the coming years.
In India, a purely professional reform process in education is unlikely to start soon. Political recovery of lost ground in our society’s fledgling democracy will have to precede any significant recuperation in the system of education. History textbooks, good and bad, will go on serving as the basis of examination, but the digital access to the child will constitute the real difficulty for those concerned about the misuse of history. The material, images and conclusions that children are swallowing can be guaranteed to have a decisive impact on their mental make-up in a schooling system which imparts passivity at the earliest stages.
Those who want to improve the teaching of history and retain the gains made in child-centred reforms will have to worry about the larger systemic conditions. Undoubtedly, the upper strata of schools, many of which are now affiliated to international boards, will find their way to saner learning in the jungle in which the rest of the children will be condemned to grow up.
During the covid years, children’s lives and education have been severely affected in ways that may take quite a while to understand – that is, if an effort is made to understand. What online learning and teaching meant as a routine for children’s psychological development will remain a subject of worry for a while to come. The attempt made to digitize text-books, by providing additional references, inserting QR codes in the hard copy and giving access to unverified resources, will also need closer examination. Such an endeavour will need to keep at bay the glamour that any official claim to introduce IT-driven solutions to endemic systemic problems inevitably carries.