Prejudiced Ghosts of the Past

 

By J.S. Rajput

 

The Hindustan Times, 29 August 2001

 

Is education witnessing a churning? Or, is the ongoing media debate over everything from 'saffronisation' to the appointment of professionals to key positions in the education administration a lot of hullabaloo over nothing? It's a bit of both.

 

Consider the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT)' s National Curriculum Framework for School Education. A perusal of this document would bear out NCERT's concern over several ills plaguing the country's education system. It addresses the problem of curriculum load on students which makes them victims of a pernicious private tuition system and a faulty evaluation system which drives scores of our children to suicide every year. Also, there is the inequity which persists even after three decades of paying lip service to the virtues of vocational education. And the divorce of values from the cram-cram-cram regime which breeds ignorance and intolerance in one Indian towards his fellow-man.

 

Besides, we see empty rhetoric alleging "motives" behind what is easily the first ever, honest attempt to modernise Indian education by upholding not only the deepest but forgotten values of Indian civilisation, but also the sagely advice of the founding fathers of our nation. Biased individuals have attempted to read between the lines of the document.

 

The phenomenon of rubbishing the contents of a syllabus where none has yet been developed is quite unique. Their arguable clairvoyance does betray an ill-concealed rage at the sight of newcomers, all professionals, usurping what they perceived their right over the past 40 years. The right of dictating what is to be taught to our children, and implicitly, dragging the country's education system to the dumps.

 

Therefore the ghost of 'saffronisation: a gimmick evolved to strike a chord with the masses. These NCERT-bashing exercises are organised, like the one seen early August in New Delhi. Every conceivable apprehension is sought to be stirred in the minds of our young by twisting select portions of the framework document to suit their partisan goals. It is wilfully forgotten that the framework was adopted after wide consultation involving not only education ministers of the states, but also NGOs, think-tanks, parent-teacher associations and the chambers of commerce and industry.

 

Much is made out of NCERT's "side-stepping" of the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE). As if one was in existence since 1994! A previous government had evolved the practice of banishing CABE from every consultative process. But, by far the most pungent allegation is that the government is imposing a "coloured curriculum" framework on the nation through NCERT. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

 

The NCERT is a professional advisory body and it is for the third time that it has brought out a curriculum framework. Even in the past, states exercised their right to scrutinise the NCERT framework and the textbooks. Nearly 97 per cent of school texts fall in this category. The NCERT encourages development of expertise at the state level, participates in their curriculum development and textbook writing exercises.

 

The 1975 framework, prepared by NCERT for the 10+2 system, was not implemented in Madhya Pradesh before 1994. Disagreements, debates and reconciliation are but part of the process. Even if the NCERT tries, it cannot force its will on the states, because education is on the concurrent list.

It is pertinent to recall that the West Bengal government was the most vocal critic of the National Policy on Education developed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in the late Eighties, particularly on the question of Navodaya Vidyalayas. It refused to allow a single Navodaya Vidyalaya to be opened in the state for several years, before falling in line a decade later.

 

I am confident that the recommendations contained in the latest framework too would be eventually accepted. When the political storm abates, right-thinking people will respond positively because the proposals are scientifically sound.

 

Another glaring misrepresentation, which found its way in the speeches of our respected parliamentarians in last week's debate over 'saffronisation' in the Lok Sabha, is that the process of curriculum renewal began after the present government took charge in 1998. The facts are different. In March 1997, an outlay of Rs 11 lakh was sanctioned for curriculum renewal in social studies. It was followed by similar approvals in 1997-98.

 

What can be criticised is the non-progress for more than two-and-a-half years. Those who should be accountable for this lapse are now the most vocal critics of curriculum renewal. Serious work began only in the second half of 1999 and was completed in November 2000.

 

The areas selected for criticism are social studies, vedic mathematics, values and religion. There is a comprehensive reference spread over three pages in the framework document, but vedic mathematics merits only one sentence: "The students may be encouraged to enhance their computational skills by the use of vedic mathematics." Everything else has been ignored except this statement, which, to our blinkered intellectuals, would result in the "Talibanisation of education".

 

The concerns of the contemporary world need to be kept in the forefront and thus the quantum of history may have to be reduced. This means new history books and breaking the author-publisher monopolies which have flourished for more than 35 years.

 

The critics of the curriculum have no concern for the young who suffer the load of a largely irrelevant course-structure. The NCERT's recommendations are based on critical inputs gleaned from interfaces held with teachers, experts, learners and others concerned about the huge drop out rate and failures in the examination system.

 

The campaign against 'value education' is also strategic. Marxism upholds atheism, calls religion the "opium of the masses". So, for 53 years, religion was black-balled from school rooms. Government appointed committees one of them headed by the redoubtable Servapalli Radhakrishnan criticised this omnibus on universal values which can be derived from an appreciation of all religious texts.

 

Finally, a parliamentary sub-committee, headed by Congress leader S.B. Chavan, came out with a report in January 1999 which said: Truth (satya), righteous conduct (dharma), peace (shanti), love (prema) and non-violence (ahimsa) are the core universal values which can be identified as the foundation stone on which the value-based education programme can be built up. These five are universal values and respectively represent the five domains of human personality intellectual, physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual. They are also correspondingly co-related to the five major objectives of education knowledge, skill, balance, vision and identity."

 

Paragraph 13 of the Chavan Committee report says: "Another aspect that must be given some thought is religion, which is the most misused and misunderstood concept. The process of making the students acquainted with the basics of all religions should begin at the middle stage in schools and continue up to the university level. Students have to be made aware that the basic concept behind every religion is common, only the practices differ. Even if there are differences of opinion in certain areas, people have to co-exist and carry no hatred against any religion.

 

The NCERT's framework gives pride of place to these observations. It states (page 35): "Value education and education about religions would not form a separate subject of study or examination at any stage. These would be so judiciously integrated with all the subjects of study in the scholastic areas and all the activities and programmes in the co-scholastic areas that the objectives thereof would be directly and indirectly achieved in the classrooms, at the school assembly, play grounds, cultural centres and such other places."

 

Further, to allay fears of those swayed by propaganda, it is clarified (page 19): "What is required today is not religious education but education about religions, their basics, their inherent values. These need to be inculcated at appropriate stages. Students have to be given the awareness that the essence of religion is common, only the practices differ."

 

Sadly, this debate has left the poor school-goer completely out of its scope. Their real needs are freedom from textbook pressure and the teacher-private tuition nexus, a new evaluation system which does not lead to tragic suicides and, above all, social justice in the form of more vocational courses for the poor. These may be too earthy issues for some but not so for the NCERT.

 

(The author is Director, NCERT)

 

 


J S Rajput, 2002.