The Telegraph
Thursday , July 31 , 2014
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You have to be somewhat foolhardy to write about school textbooks in India — as you would be if you decided to write about guns in the United States of America. There are powerful lobbies involved and you discover wheels within wheels while you go about trying to find out how textbooks are prescribed in schools across the country. But it is nice to be foolhardy at times.

Most of us have mixed feelings about the textbooks we were made to study when we were children. I remember looking forward to a brand new set of books at the beginning of each school year. I would look them over and smell the pages before covering them with brown paper.

If you ask old-timers about the text books they remember, they are sure to come up with their Radiant Readers and their history and geography books — The March of Time and Lands and Life. The five volumes of Ridout’s English Today series appear to be all-time favourites. While some remember Commonsense English and the delightful Brighter Grammar series. The Bibles of English Grammar were undoubtedly Nesfield and Wren and Martin. Most express an intense dislike for their History of English Literature book. I don’t know which publication they were referring to but they called it “HELL” for short. Those who studied in Bengali-medium schools remember Kishalay while K.C. Nag seems to have been used by all mathematics students. Whether they studied Bengali as a second language or third, everyone loved reading Sahaj Path with its magical rhymes and exquisite illustrations. Revealingly, nobody had anything nice to say about their science text books.

In some schools, teachers were very strict and did not allow students to write in their textbooks — it was sacrilege to ‘disfigure’ books, they maintained. But I must confess that I used to enjoy this act of ‘disfiguring’ books — that is, writing in the margins, underlining (we did not have highlighters in those days), inserting question marks or exclamation marks. Although the acquisition of new textbooks gave immense pleasure, I have always been fascinated by second-hand ones. Used books have a secret history of their own. What puzzles me today is the fact that we never complained, grumbled or questioned the choice of our textbooks when we were handed our book and stationery list at the beginning of term.

Today’s children, too, have ambivalent relations with their textbooks. Many show great haste to get rid of the ones they disliked with a vengeance, as soon as their board exams get over, probably to celebrate the fact that they would not have to read them ever again. I have a suspicion that they might remember some of them fondly many years hence. I’ve seen grown-ups scour bookshops and trawl the internet to locate copies of their school textbooks of yesteryears for their school-going children.

The question is, why should things as innocuous as textbooks arouse so much controversy and emotion? The answer is simple: it is the power they represent. The school textbook has long been recognized as one of the most potent instruments for spreading a chosen ideology or, to put it differently, winning over and controlling young minds. So, political leaders through the years have found it necessary to monitor what goes into school textbooks and, importantly, what goes out and remains out. Unsurprisingly, history, geography and literature books are most tinkered with. And whenever this happens, we cannot help remembering the sinister party slogan in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Stalin and Putin exercised their power over the selection of textbooks. Michael Gove the vastly unpopular erstwhile education secretary of the United Kingdom was regarded as a subtle version of these two leaders as it was generally felt that he tried to impose his personal ideology on the school curriculum. He certainly took off two American classics — Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the English syllabus in order to focus on British authors and the British tradition. Moreover, he condemned conservation-related coursework because he felt it represented a bias towards the Green Party. Hence, he urged teachers to stick to facts instead of encouraging activism.

We in India have also had all kinds of changes in our textbooks prescribed by the regional board and by Central government institutions — the nature of the changes depending on the colour of the ruling party. In many countries history textbooks have been sanitized through the ages, to protect students or prevent them, rather, from knowing certain dark truths. History should not be taught, I believe, with the purpose of instilling patriotism or spreading a particular brand of ideology.

Another purpose of textbooks is that of pure commercial gain. If you have the nerve, do try to investigate the textbook market. The scenario involves multiple ‘actors’ — publishers, authors, ghost writers, editors, vendors, schools, examination boards, state institutions and marketing experts. I don’t think the ultimate consumers — schoolchildren — feature at all. You will chance upon dubious connections, contracts and deals. Of course, you will also find reputed publishers engaging renowned and experienced teachers who write well, to produce good textbooks that will contribute to the ‘advancement of learning’ and to the company’s coffers. Curiously, the textbook business in India, with its intricate mechanisms, has never been studied till date. It is only now that, for the first time, a serious study entitled, The markets of pedagogic materiality in India, is being undertaken. I wonder if there will be any impact on the system once the findings are published.

I wish to share the story of a starry-eyed newcomer in a publishing house. His disillusionment was instant and complete when he overheard his boss exclaiming, “We have the books — now we have to find the authors.” He realized that by then market surveys had been carried out, syllabuses of different boards had been studied and ‘examination patterns’ identified. Subsequently the backroom writers and ‘content developers’ had got to work and prepared the material for the books, having taken care to incorporate the latest pedagogical trends. So, the search would start now for the authors. Well-known academics, principals, heads and teachers would be approached to lend their names and may be add a few touches. Next would come the exciting business of marketing the product.

You see, the book trade is like any other. Therefore, there are incentives, discounts, commissions and promotional events such as workshops with the author. Publishers are known to sponsor principals’ meets where, along with speeches, lunches and dinners are textbooks displayed in specially erected stalls. Publishers or their marketing managers hobnob with the attending principals distributing business cards and colourful flyers. Incidentally, there is a parallel market of help-books and guide-books, which are as much in demand as the textbooks themselves. But that’s another story for another day. While on the subject of marketing textbooks, it is important to mention the strategy of bringing out new editions practically every year with minor or mere cosmetic changes, ostensibly to match the latest revision of the syllabus. This ploy forces a student to buy the latest edition lest an examination question is set from the added portion.

The textbook has been labelled “the 20th century artefact of learning”. It has certainly simplified teaching — in fact, it is perfect for the teacher who does not wish to look beyond the set syllabus and the paper-setter who wants to play safe. Above all, the textbook has generated widespread rote learning. Textbooks have also been blamed for heavy schoolbags and curved spines and for huge expenses at the beginning of each new school session.

Now, suddenly, the internet is threatening to change things radically. Teachers as well as students are moving from textbooks to material available on the internet. In the US, open-source textbooks are created by CK12 to lower the cost of education. A great advantage is that teachers can use the CK12 platform to create books themselves and distribute them. They can co-author books and customize the material to suit different students’ needs. In other words, teachers and students can do without textbooks altogether.

However, the advent of the internet, with the consequent possibility of the elimination of the textbook, is not being universally welcomed with open arms. Some people are already expressing their irritation with the abundance of worksheets and the ‘cut-copy-paste’ and downloading activities of their children. Besides, an absence of a secure framework of reference is disconcerting for many. They want a return to the traditional textbook.

We have to wait and see how the future affects the fate of the textbook. But while the battle of book versus tablet and the printed textbook versus the internet rages on, teachers must ensure that the textbooks they use and refer to are well-researched, well-written and error-free. Most important, they need to tell their students that there are many books available on the topic being taught and that they are not expected to limit their learning and only reproduce matter contained in their prescribed textbook. I often wonder why teachers speak in terms of “chapters and pages” when they are teaching a particular topic. It sends out wrong signals to students that their syllabus comprises a book rather than a range of topics which can be studied from a variety of sources. Teachers must also encourage their students to question their books. Students must not be passive receptors. They need to engage with their reading matter, distinguish between fact and opinion, and cross check with other sources.

Neither student nor teacher should yield to the power of the textbook or be controlled by the powers behind it.