The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Arjun Singh and the Great Textbook Robbery

The hullabaloo about what some friends facetiously call the Great Textbook Robbery came to public notice almost coincidentally. It came at a time when the national papers were being enlivened by contributions from not only eminent journalists, as in The Telegraph, but also concerned academics and social activists, some of whom were important members of the Central Advisory Board of Education itself like Anil Sadgopal and Zoya Hasan. On September 6, CABE had been called to meet and consider the National Curriculum Framework by the Union minister of human resource development, Arjun Singh.

Although I am not a member of CABE, many of my friends are ' all, of course, belonging to a much younger generation. Besides, I actually had the privilege of being invited to a meeting on September 5 that was hurriedly and wisely called by Mushirul Hasan, the vice chancellor of Jamia Milia Islamia, who was trying his best to cool off passions roused within the warring factions. This big fight, I thought, was going to be of absorbing interest. Also, in this fight too, as only to be expected, the most enthusiastic and eloquent participants from both sides would be mostly the historians again.

I had already heard a derisive comment from a friendly but 'suspected non-progressive' source to the effect that this tiff really was actually a friendly football match arranged between two sets of 'progressive' historians to keep others like himself out. But I knew the eye of the storm lay beyond the reach of history or even the humanities. I agreed fully with Rudrangshu Mukherjee that Clio is not for worship. But there are others today higher up who needed altars. There is Minerva, for one, first worshipped by the Romans as the goddess of handicrafts, the arts and the sciences, later as the great goddess of war. Are we reading the signs of the 21st century India clearly'

I had expected at the Jamia Milia meeting that was attended by stalwarts like Yash Pal, Satish Chandra, Bipan Chandra, Arjun Dev, Krishna Kumar and others that there would be some mention of, if not acrimony about, the saffronization of textbooks during the previous regime. Nobody even raised it. The Jamia Milia practice match went round defending or tearing to pieces the NCF 2005 and the history syllabus prepared under its aegis by the NCERT expert committee. Also, as I have already said, there was scant notice of the fact that this debate was basically not about the development of just history as a subject of study. It was about the future of education and research in all the arts and sciences in India. As it happened, in spite of the best efforts of some there was no agreement on how to come to a consensus at the following day's CABE meeting.

In the event, perhaps, destiny decided to take matters in hand on that day and allowed the Muses, Clio (history) along with Thalia (comedy) and Melpomene (tragedy), to have a bout of divine fun-making of their own. Coming down to earth and looking back, it now seems to me that NCERT had perhaps made a couple of miscalculations which made the mess look worse than it actually was.

First, NCERT had quite needlessly neglected to make the older historians privy, well ahead of time, to the proposed new syllabus prepared by their own students and iron out differences if any. The reason could have been simply that they had decided to call none of the old hands who had written NCERT textbooks earlier. Secondly, NCERT could have done more to clear the suspicion raised by some of the historians who thought that NCF 2005 had given away too many concessions to the forces of obscurantism that are just waiting in the greenroom ready for a centre-stage reappearance. Their suspicion is fed by many fears. For example, a very eminent historian found it alarming that instead of attacking and opposing communalism directly and frontally, the NCF had only lauded the virtues of secularism. This was wholly inadequate, he pointed out, because we were living in an age in which even the most rabid communalists have learnt to call themselves secular.

Secondly, the critics claimed, for six decades the progressive rationalist approach has been at the very heart of India's secularist education. That was its mainstay. Now this will be jeopardized if NCF 2005 does not reverse its over-emphasis on the need to tap the 'local' sources of knowledge to help the children construct their own knowledge and understanding of the world. Instead of learning only scientifically validated knowledge, they would now be encouraged to learn local lore and stick to local superstitious beliefs.

In broad terms, the fear which the conventional rationalist (or perhaps the old-time Marxist) seems to harbour is that simple-minded people could be mesmerized into believing the orthodox postmodern constructivist proposition that ideational factors and structural constraints are more important than material factors in understanding or determining the social or political processes (or outcomes) that really matter.

Clearly, the document had wanted to try no more than selling the idea of a process of construction of knowledge in which the child's inquisitiveness and social experience interacted with the teacher's presentation of the text. This is the simple 'middle path' kind of constructivism that many social scientists all over the world find both insightful and acceptable because it does not necessarily stand in any stark confrontation with the rationalist approach to the understanding of what goes on in the world ' though, as always, there can be extremist positions.

Such a definition of constructivism is common. For example, one finds it in one of its simple versions in Emmanuel Adler's book on international relations (Seizing the Middle Ground, 1997) : 'Humans act and interact with the material world depending on their socially constructed interpretation of that world; in doing so, they shape that material world.' On the internet, I even found it quoted with approval in a Stanford University handout on 'Reconstructing Constructivism', written by an unnamed student.

Finally, I think the suspicion that the back-door take-over by some brand of postmodern constructivism was what NCF 2005 was actually after has been a clear over-reaction. Perhaps it would have evaporated after reading and discussing the document's opening citation from Rabindranath Tagore's Civilization and Progress: 'When I was a child I had the freedom to make my own toys out of trifles and create my own game from imagination. In my happiness my playmates had their full share...One day, in this paradise of our childhood entered a temptation from the market world of the adult. A toy bought from an English shop was given to one of our companions ...this temptation obscured something a great deal more perfect than his toy., the revelation of the perfect child. The toy merely expressed his wealth, but not the child's creative spirit, not the child's generous joy in his play, his open invitation to all who were his compeers to his playground.'

Regardless of all this, the rationalists' fears obviously need to be addressed early. Since that could not be done and time was of the essence, Arjun Singh, who is also the chairman of CABE, gave the ruling that NCF 2005 was passed, but the objections to it will also be carefully considered.

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