The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A leading national daily recently carried an article on its front page about the National Council for Educational Research and Training’s new textbook on world history, which contains numerous straight lifts from World Civilisations: Their History and Culture by Edward Mcnall Burns, Philip Lee Ralph, Robert W. Lerner and Standish Meacham. The “authors” of the NCERT book are Anwarul Haque, a former reader of history at the NCERT’s Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneswar (we now know that he read at least one book); Himansu Patnaik, a professor at Utkal University, (of what one doesn’t know — could it be history') and Pratyusa Mandal of the NCERT’s history department (naturally).

This should not surprise anyone. We recently had the celebrated example of the vice-chancellor of Uttaranchal University and some of his junior colleagues lifting a whole text of an article, which they passed off as their own. What Haque, Patnaik and Mandal have done is no different, except that the latter used their lifts in a textbook meant for wide use by class XII students, while the former published their article in a scientific journal. The question that follows almost inevitably is why. Why did they do something they would be turned out of an examination hall for doing — cheating, no more and no less'

The answer is, I think, in the way we teach our children and the way the teachers themselves have learned. There’s no credit given to argument and debate, to questioning the validity of what the teacher says. Students simply have to take down what they are told and learn it by heart, and the one who’s able to spew out what he learned by rote most correctly is the one who usually gets the best marks.

Polie Sengupta, the playwright, has satirized this in one of her more recent plays, Keats Was A Tuber, in which the satire begins with the title itself. It’s a part of a sentence in a textbook which read, “Keats was a tuberculosis patient”. Students were required to memorize the line, which they did, like zombies, dividing the sentence into two parts to be able to memorize it easily — “Keats was a tuber” and “culosis patient”. They then repeated this over and over again till they knew it by heart and could safely be relied upon by their “teacher” to write that down in the examination.

The emphasis, as we all know only too well, was and still is on this kind of mindless memorizing of given tracts of textual garbage; it isn’t important that the student understand it, but that he reproduce it correctly in the examination. Some of these students have gone on to become teachers, relying on the virtue of memorizing pages of texts from different books to get their college degrees. Messers Haque, Patnaik and Mandal are doubtless of this breed, so is it surprising that they think nothing of lifting whole passages from other books' To them, that obviously constitutes education.

You may wonder where Murli Manohar Joshi fits into this. Well, he’s presiding over the ministry that’s supposed to concern itself with education, and hopefully with education in the real sense of the word. So you would think he’d do something to change this kind of teaching, a kind that places great virtue on memorizing other people’s writings, which then becomes a method used by those who are appointed teachers themselves. Has he done anything at all to change all this'

He hasn’t, and of course he’ll say education is basically for the states to look into, but he can’t get away with that. He has a responsibility that he cannot shrug off; improving the manner in which students are taught is very much a part of what he’s supposed to do. In fact that is , ironically enough, a very important part of the NCERT’s mandate.

Joshi is far too clever not to know all this. That is precisely where the danger lies. He knows it but deliberately chooses to do nothing about it. That may seem to be caused by either a pre-occupation with other matters, or an indifference to the subject because he didn’t want to be the minister in charge of human resources development anyway, but given the other facts that have been exposed by the media, it’s a little darker than that.

This cannot be seen apart from the doctoring with textbooks that he’s been, as minister for education, responsible for, even if he didn’t do it himself.

It becomes clear then what the long-term intention is. If, as minister, he knows how subjects are taught, and then doctors what is taught, he can hope, in a few years, to have an army of millions of students coming out of schools who have memorized tracts which cannot but influence their minds, however dimly or even at the subconscious level.

These millions will then be more receptive to the sort of ideas that the party to which Joshi belongs, propagates; these millions will respond a little more to such ideas, and you have then created a huge power base. Many of these will go on to become teachers — will, in fact be encouraged to — and thus the process will go on.

Yes, there will always be schools and colleges and institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management that will be concerned with giving their students a more sensible and real form of education. Of course there will be; it’s to these that the children of those in the power elite of the ruling parties — and other parties — will send their children. Because they are, after all, good parents, concerned that their children are truly well-educated, and they know that without a good education here they can’t hope to get abroad to those educational institutions that’ll ensure a bright, and cash-rich future for their beloved offspring.

But the focus of Joshi’s cronies and servitors is on the hundreds of thousands of government and other lesser schools where the NCERT-doctored textbooks are taught, where the students are made to learn pages by rote like automatons. Because it’s from these that the future voters and party-workers will emerge, with no ideas of their own but the memory of passages they’ve learned by rote which will sow some half-sensed ideas in their minds, enough for Joshi’s party to work on.

The ground will have been prepared, the seeds sown. Only the nurturing of the crop would remain, something that rallies, yatras and inflammatory speeches can ensure. And then, hopefully in time, the millions of potential voters and sevaks would be ready to usher in the new India that they have been told to believe in. An India founded on hatred and untruths, to be built on murder and carnage of the kind we saw in Gujarat; an India that will be ruled by the likes of Narendra Modi and his fellow thugs.

And lest the left feel a sense of honest outrage at what Joshi is planning, they ought to realize that he’s only doing what he’s seen the left do — fiddle with historical facts, sedulously avoid any improvement in the system and methods of teaching, and hope they’ll produce cadres of young men and women eager to usher in the revolution they used to dream of. Why it didn’t happen is another story, but the fact that the Left Front wins the state elections with unfailing regularity is in part — only in part — a result of its tampering with the educational system for over two decades. As Shylock said, “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

And better the instruction he may very well do. Meanwhile we should be prepared to hear of more instances of academic charlatanism as practised by the authors of the NCERT textbook on world history. It’s just a part of a larger, darker story.

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