The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The strange twist that the study of the past takes in India

Through the pages of the National Curriculum Framework 2005 ' that extremely important exercise Yash Pal and his eminent colleagues have placed before the Central Advisory Board of Education ' comes out a repeated call on the writers of textbooks for all schoolchildren from class I to class XII to try out a new paradigm: Make your writings child-inspired rather than just child-centred. Borrowing from this, Yash Pal's most felicitous phrase, I told some friends, half-jokingly, I must from now on try to get out of my growing addiction to writing on children's education ' for I had been inspired in this by very adult concerns like cost of education, Supreme Court rulings on constitutional issues, the 86th amendment and so on. Since I cannot help being inspired by adults, I have to move on and try to find for myself my adult-inspired subjects outside the education sector for a change. However, as my readers will presently find out, I have not been able to make any great progress in following through my resolution.

My inspiration for this two-part article I owe to two entirely different sources. First, there was this exciting argument going on in the media through these very columns recently on the question of what role popular lore and imagination can be allowed to play in the history books.

The second source, almost entirely coincidentally, is a crucial debate that has been triggered off, again in recent weeks, by the advent of NCF 2005. I must add, though, the importance as I see it of this latter debate for the development of not just history as a subject of study, but all arts and sciences, has remained somewhat fudged, thanks to some impatient bickering going on among us within the academe.

The first debate, that broke in these columns was frankly concerned with history alone. The second debate is basically much wider for the National Curriculum Framework 2005 addresses all the disciplines. But this too was spearheaded by mostly historians in which the others joined issue.

I thought the two sets of debates were somehow related in which one encounters the same set of basic questions of long-term choice in the field of education. This field obviously includes textbook writing. Equally obviously it also includes the field of research. NCF 2005 sees school education as a process of interactive construction of knowledge in the mind of the child helped by teacher, textbook and the surrounding of the school. This process has no natural 'class' barriers, for it commences at whichever class level the student joins school and can continue indefinitely. The NCF 2005 approach in this way is frankly constructivist. Some of its critics are describing it as an exercise in 'post-modern constructivism' which for some progressive rationalists is a derogatory term. I will come back to it in the second part of this article.

First then, the media debate: On one side there was Rudrangshu Mukherjee's invocation of Clio, the muse of history, to demythicize and demystify all past happenings great or small.('Clio is not for worship', September 4). There is possibly an oxymoron here but Mukherjee makes the point very strongly that scholars practising scientific historiography are pledged to uphold only the truth and so they cannot take sides when they are looking for it. Which means they have to seek the whole truth and nothing but the truth even if it is a drab truth.

In doing so, the historians are honour-bound to remain unswayed by all kinds of glorification of the 'heroes', real or card-board, that they are bound to come across. History does not need any hero whether created by popular imagination or conjured up on the silver screen by the lure of the box office, or commissioned in history books as and when dictated by the party line. In fact, to make the theorem stronger, Mukherjee says history does not need any heroes at all, not even the genuine ones. He quotes the words Brecht had put in unfortunate Galileo's mouth, 'Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.' This, I thought, was excellent forward defensive action. But would it stem the spate of attacks against historians as authors of textbooks'

Swapan Dasgupta ('Heroes and charlatans', September 9), for one, did not think so. He disparaged what he saw as the mindless emasculation of our national heroes by too much science. He was disgusted with the 'scientific' historian's insistence on the production of documentary evidence at each turn of every famous deed that ordinary folk wanted to celebrate. As Mukherjee himself put it, 'Indian historians, the charge has been levelled, have singularly failed'because they chose to concentrate on boring economic and social history instead of the heroic deeds of individuals. Indian historians have failed to make the subject of history popular because they have tried to make the writing of history more rigorous and scientific.'

Dasgupta therefore has a point when he says, 'The negation of individual-centred story telling made the study of history an abstruse specialized discipline. With post-modernists and the humourless disciples of Edward Said chipping in, history became a rarefied and, occasionally unintelligible, conversation between historians. Since communicating with non-specialists was no longer obligatory, historians began talking in code'.

Understandably he casts his vote against the boring, and uninspiring though well-researched, history textbooks that discarded national idols. Less understandably, probably just for a lark, he votes for a new and rare demigod of the screen ' a hero that failed.

Two questions that now remain to be asked are: First, how are the children voting' Second, what then is the fight really about' I talked to the child I know best. My wife and I often visit her and discuss with her various things about her studies and her aims in life, some of which she would not share with others. The girl is doing her history honours in one of the best Delhi colleges and is nearly top of the class. She comes from a rural background, and as the first child of non-affluent parents with five children, she has many things to keep in the secret chambers of her head. Yes, she is bored and feels overloaded by her textbooks, her syllabus, and the vast amount of information she has to pick up from history books to store up in her head and periodically reproduce in English, a language in which she is still not very comfortable.

Nevertheless, she tries out her English skill with us when others are not listening. She already writes well. She knows she is collecting a lot of information that will not broaden her mind. However, and here is the crux of the matter, she is determined to stash away all this information carefully as a weapon to use in battle. She is secretly preparing for the civil services examination, that she will take a few years from now, where this game of 'trivial pursuit' is highly prized. Nobody else in the family and probably very few among her newly acquired friends in college know she is aiming this high. She wants to be a CBI official or magistrate and fight corruption in high places.

We encourage this child in all this, and I am certain that my many distinguished historian students will only be happy to hear this, but here is my second question: Is this what Clio had wanted, this strange twist that history takes in our country, as does every other subject of study'

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