The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- How Arjun Singh might make education mean something to the young

When he was presiding over the ministry of human resource development, Murli Ma- nohar Joshi had a carefully formulated plan. This was to alter the perception of the minds of children — their ideas, values and their view of the world around them — to what he thought was the right, the true perception. He couldn’t alter the geography, since the mountains and oceans were already there, but he could, he realized, alter what the children thought was how people developed as societies, what their ancestors really did in the centuries that had gone by, which culminated, as it were, in the world they knew today. In other words, he worked out a plan to fiddle with history.

Aided by some willing fellow travellers, he had textbooks re-written, altering them ever so gradually so that they would see events in a perspective quite different from that which had been taught to the generations before them. These, it must be said, were made to the books prescribed by the CBSE, because his writ did not run beyond that august body.

There was, inevitably, outrage from all those who had written the previous books — scholars who saw historical events from a viewpoint that for lack of a better word can be called leftist. Words like “saffronization” were used indignantly, and many saw the end of civilization looming as Joshi’s view of historical events spread through schools into the minds of the young.

And then came the elections, and now there’s the redoubtable Arjun Singh doing a second term as minister of human resource development. He has, unsurprisingly, lost little time in setting in motion a process to undo what Joshi had done. The scholars belonging to the leftist group — “secular” is the more acceptable word, I believe — have hailed his action and now see the dawning of a new age of enlightenment, as the young are told the true story of what happened centuries ago, who the baddies were, and who the heroes. So now textbooks are being re-written again, this time by the enlightened secular group of scholars. And what will happen when, in the fullness of time, political equations change, and someone like Joshi — someone who shares the same views but does not necessarily have his urbane and suave manner — takes charge of the ministry of human resource development' Well, it doesn’t need much research and study to conclude that the textbooks will be re-written once again.

All of this is based on a basic and ludicrous mistake that both Joshi and Arjun Singh have made, and which, in all probability, their successors in office will also make. That is the assumption that what their textbooks contain actually influence children; that they imbibe ideas from them, that what they are taught from the materials in these books alters the way they think. It’s absolute nonsense; no child does that, and the thought that these very solemn, senior ministers actually think so is very amusing. If children were told that this is what the ministers think they would find it hilarious.

The fact is that children simply do not regard what their books contain as anything beyond material to be memorized and regurgitated in examinations. It’s a ritual they know that they have to go through to get past the examinations. True, there are a number who do absorb ideas from books, but these are, for one, not many, and for another, they are helped in this process by wise, insightful, sensitive teachers who use books that they know are true works of scholarship, not the kind of stuff churned out for use because they have been prescribed by the CBSE, which in turn gets them presumably on the NCERT’s advice, and that, as we know, is rather like a monkey capering to the tune played by its master.

There will be many in the NCERT and CBSE who will probably want to know why I think I know what children do and don’t do, and why I assume that they, the specialists in education, do not. The answer is in the question itself. It’s because they are specialists in education — teachers who have, over the years, developed and lived in a special relationship with children, a relationship that is, for the most part, a dead one, except in the case of some true teachers, the ones who stick to teaching and don’t aspire to hold positions in the bureaucracy of the educational system. I am not a specialist in education — just a grandfather with a kind of easy, familiar and affectionate relationship with my grandchildren. Many grandparents have that kind of relationship, a relationship parents can’t have, for a variety of reasons, all very practical and unavoidable, but the fact is that they can’t.

And one is not trying to pronounce universal truths on the basis of a few exchanges with children who go to private, English-medium schools. I have had the privilege of meeting youngsters from a number of schools and from different backgrounds; this does not make me any kind of expert, but it has shown me that what is being “taught” is a travesty of teaching in most schools, be they government, municipal or even private schools. The respect for the teacher that has been dinned into children is a mechanical business as long as the children are very young; as they grow older, it becomes first a sniggering caricature of teachers, and then manifests itself as insolence. This has nothing to do with the nature of school students; it has to do with the nature of the teacher-student relationship.

The ideas which the young imbibe are, as most of us know, from their peers, and from what they see and hear at home. In ancient days, gurus were venerated, and their ideas and attitudes imbibed with reverence by their disciples. But we are talking of the present, and the ideas being imbibed come more from television and from the friends that children hang out with, which could be the club or adda in the para or the pals they chill out with in various joints where they play computer games. Home is a very important place for all young people, to state the obvious; but not because earnest parents gather their young around them and tell them of their ancient heritage in lowered voices — it’s because of what they see and hear there, some of which may well be unedifying, to put it mildly. But through it all, ideas filter through, and attitudes firm up. None of these is from the books being memorized in their classrooms.

Of course, it does matter what’s written in those books — one certainly isn’t making a ridiculous point that the young should be encouraged not to read the books which they are asked to. But it’s important that our ministers of human resource development realize the limitations of what the books can do, and the wisdom of leaving the business of who should purvey ideas to the young to those who know about it —practising teachers, those who work with the young.

Above all, they must keep at arm’s length all those so-called educationists who gather around them as bees round a honeycomb — the ones who have ceased, long ago, to have any ideas that are worth considering and look only for position and the perquisites of office. It will not be easy, particularly, to push through their own parties and allies, the “secular” ones, and those in the party who will try to persuade, threaten and demand. But it’s worth a try, if they really want over time — a long time — to make education mean something to the young.

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