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BRING THE PAST TO LIFE

In the midst of the political disarray that the Indian right finds itself in today, the public quarrels between sets of (largely Delhi-based) historians about the priorities of the national curriculum framework and the proposed new NCERT history (and to a lesser extent social science) textbooks must seem as godsend. One wishes the right would appreciate the need for robust public debate on curriculum content and pedagogy, which is what the current discussions exemplify.

Still, the strong reaction of the old guard to the new emphasis on making the curriculum 'child-centred' brings to the fore concerns that are not strictly about education or pedagogy, but about who should have custody of the past. As long as the opponents of the new initiatives emphasize the importance of such custody, and are reluctant to relinquish their hold on interpretations of the past, the path remains open for future political masters ' of whatever political orientation ' to assert their right to revision as well. The new efforts must thus be seen and supported as a strategy that steers away from the old obsessions with secularism/communalism as the single litmus test of the quality of a history textbook.

In a recent intervention, Romila Thapar rightly suggests that the focus must move away from textbooks to the retraining of teachers and the production of conditions and materials conducive to learning. Yet her suggestions are haunted by the fear of losing custody over the past. Expressing disquiet over the suggestion of the NCF that attempts be made to use 'local knowledges', she suggests that the older national frameworks must be retained for their focus on progress and development, and on 'a larger national perspective'.

Never has the gap between professional historians and social scientists, and pedagogues at the lower levels been greater. A wide range of regional and national textbooks in circulation today have remained untouched by the new perspectives that historians have produced over the past four decades. This includes the old NCERT books which are clearly outdated in style and content. In most cases, they also remain immune to the range of issues ' pertaining to groups such as women, tribals and the lower castes ' that the workings of Indian democracy have thrown up as challenges to schools and textbooks.

Many state-level books have, on the other hand, warmly embraced the more contentious interpretations of history offered by those who distrust the professional historian. Such an embrace had not occurred only as a consequence of the interventions of the political right. The emphasis of the Karnataka textbooks, introduced in 2002 and subsequently withdrawn ' both under the auspices of a Congress government ' was an instance of this misplaced trust in the new 'scientific historians.'.

Away from the realm of state textbooks, private schools use books whose orientations are bizarre and not always written at the behest of the Hindu right. At least one leading English language (convent) school in Calcutta, for instance, on whom not the merest shadow of communal suspicion may be cast, uses a text for its third standard that devotes six chapters to the Hindu epics as 'our shared history'. Another refers to Christ's miracles, perhaps to make history more absorbing for the child. Clearly, the unprofessional and problematic approach to the invention of a golden Indian past stems not just from the textbooks and school histories alone. It has a wider and far more disturbing presence and circulation.

The encouraging news is that groups all over the country who have tried to engage with the dilemmas of the school syllabus are becoming sensitive to the problems faced by history-teachers and students.

Let me take examples from my own recent experience. Over the past year, a group of professional historians at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, including myself, have developed a series of workshops for high-school history teachers in Calcutta. The very first meeting with teachers was sobering and instructive.

Teachers despair, much less at the content of the textbook, and more at the sheer size of the syllabus, which they claim leaves them no time to talk about historical certainties in a more complex manner. Second, the ever-present spectre of the examination acts as an effective curb on discussion and learning. Third, we were told, the students' lack of interest in history has a great deal to do with its being widely perceived as a subject that builds no skills at all, with an excessive focus on memorizing and retention of names and dates.

Perhaps most importantly, we were told that prejudices, particularly communal prejudices, were rarely if ever related to actual historical detail, and indeed many attitudes were already in place before any history is taught. The examination system, which emphasizes factual knowledge, ensures that students are adept at arriving at the 'right answer' with no corresponding change in perceptions or attitudes, whether in directions encouraged by the right or the left .

Even the most well-intentioned syllabus-framing and textbook-writing thus may have only a limited impact on attitudinal change. It is precisely because revision cannot be merely an additive exercise that the NCERT curriculum framework, syllabus and textbooks are being thoroughly overhauled, taking into consideration, perhaps for the first time in post-independence history, the capacity of students and teachers to deal with a bewildering array of changes that are taking place in India today. The new efforts are also addressing the importance of inculcating the skills of evaluating evidence and arriving at conclusions among students of history.

The proposed new history syllabus for the senior classes is thematic, focusing not only on the singular commitment to build national pride but also to demonstrate the very different historical experiences, say of the North-east or the South, that make up the rich tapestry of Indian history. South India's one-and-a-half century long engagement with questions of caste, and its long historical accommodation of minority religions, will provide the necessary breadth that the 'national' narrative had long suppressed.

The new syllabus is also willing to engage with controversies in history rather than skirt them. But above all, in its attempt to historicize everyday themes such as sport or clothing, and in radically redefining the system of assessment, it will hopefully rekindle an interest in history and develop a sense of the past that the heavy and repeated emphasis on national political histories has failed to achieve. Such transformations must not be seen as trivializing history but as a necessary and urgent step towards building intellectual abilities and fresh political sensibilities that are in danger of being swamped by those who are obsessed with national pride, and also those, of the new economic order, who are intent on turning out a nation of service-providers.

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