Thursday, April 18, 2013

Learning from a controversy

Learning from a controversy

Sukhadeo Thorat
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The Hindu

The insights in the NCERT cartoon report can help to make the curriculum and the classroom more inclusive

While the NCERT textbooks report has generated much heat, it has also shed positive light on the issue. It is time to reflect on this side of the debate and deal with the questions it raises.
The committee’s mandate was to identify educationally inappropriate materials in textbooks and suggest alternatives, if necessary. The committee used the 2005 National Curriculum Framework (NCF) guidelines to review the text. In the case of the cartoons, due to the absence of clear guidelines, the committee used the existing literature on cartoons besides the 2005 NCF. This literature recognised the value of cartoons in teaching, but also advised caution: cartoons should be made and used for well-defined educational purposes, they must be tested for their consequences, sensitivities of various groups should be addressed, and the use of animal images to represent human beings, and the overuse of cartoons be avoided.
Recommendations
The six textbooks reviewed contained 968 pages of written text, and 490 cartoons — 184 main and 306 mini cartoons. The committee proposed the deletion of only 17 of the main cartoons, and improvement in the note given below 18 of the mini cartoons. Improvements were considered with care, based on four years teaching experience of these books by a teacher member of the committee. In the written text, only a marginal change at three places was suggested. Thus 91 per cent of the main cartoons, 94 per cent of the mini cartoons and the entire text in the six books are free from any change. Therefore, claims of drastic change attributed to the committee are baseless. Let me now turn to the perception and motive.
Unanimous
The recommendations are hardly unanimous and M.S. Pandian's letter is cited as evidence. Mr. Pandian’s story is an unfortunate one. Out of eight meetings, he remained absent for five that discussed the textbooks in detail and firmed up the recommendations. In three meetings to discuss procedure, he openly declared in advance the appropriateness of the material. At the end, he asked for the report of which he was not a part, to sit in judgment over the other five members and also threatened to give a note of dissent irrespective of the recommendations. Responsibility and morality demand that members participate in the proceedings and then arrive at their independent views. His role and behaviour have to be judged not by the old storytelling method of historical research, but by empirical facts.
Some may still argue that after all Mr. Pandian has made valid points in his so-called note of dissent. However, his letter does not give any indication that his views are based on a careful reading of the text and the cartoons. It does not spell out the reasons for appropriateness because that would involve the hard work of reading each cartoon and the text, which the other committee members did. At one place, Mr. Pandian quotes the Advisors: “Our attempt here is not to hand over a definite opinion for the students, but to enable them to be on their own.” He failed to notice that in some mini cartoons, students receive neither support from the text nor benefits of alternative views. It is necessary that the text itself be self-contained with alternative views in order to allow students the freedom to form their views. Hence the committee suggested modifications.
Mr. Pandian also uses a phrase that has been cited by many: “what is politically incorrect may not be academically inappropriate.” One could turn that around and say what is academically correct may not be necessarily politically correct. Governments, most of the time, settle for the second or third-best solution, while academicians continue to retain their freedom to hold on to the ideal solution. Could it be said that academicians are always right because they are in the business of writing? Do we not know that the scholars in the past have committed massive wrong in books like Manu Smruti and similar texts? In fact, political and academic affiliation should not influence the judging of something as correct or not. As he was a non-participant member, Mr. Pandian’s letter to the NCERT director is hardly a member’s note of dissent; it is his individual view.
Sensitivities
The committee was required to deal with the views of various groups, such as Dalits and the political class, who found that some cartoons in the textbook hurt their sensibilities. The Dalits also argued that Dr. Ambedkar’s significant role in the making of the Constitution and on issues such as separate electorates and State reorganisation had been sidelined. Two opposing views emerged on the issue. Some see nothing wrong with the cartoons/text and support them as part of a larger endeavour to induce critical thinking. Hurt sentiments among Dalits were seen as narrowly defined imaginary community sensitivities. One writer saw this as the rift between “emotion and reason”.
Dalits, on the other hand, had reasoned out their discomfort and hurt and argued that given the continuing caste prejudice and discrimination in schools, the cartoons have the potential to hurt. It is argued that “reason’s” primary job is to “listen” to hurt and improve itself by arguing for people with less or no power to resist the “reason” of the powerful. The need was to receive Dalit views with growing empathy and feel humbled towards “the other reason”, commented one participant in the debate.
In the same mode is the point about motive. The committee’s position on political cartoons has been described as being “excessively establishmentarian and marked by an embarrassing eagerness to please.” It is an ill-conceived argument. The discussion needs to focus on guidelines. Someone like me who has spent more than 35 years in academia dominated by high castes has a different experience to share.
The academic world is not immune to caste, religion, regional and ideological networks, the barriers of which are difficult to break. I am aware of the pain of the academic exclusion of the Dalit academia which has become visible since the 1990s. Historically and in present times, it is well known who the controllers and beneficiaries are of scholarships distributed through political patronage over the last 60 years. Those who live in glass houses normally avoid throwing stones at others.
It will be appropriate to end this issue with a word of wisdom from Dr. Ambedkar. In 1946, when the Constituent Assembly had been boycotted by the Muslim League, and the Congress was not prepared to wait for it to return, Dr. Ambedkar made an appeal to all members which is relevant even today:
“Our difficulty is how to make the heterogeneous mass that we have today take a decision in common and march on the way which leads us to unity. Our difficulty is not with regard to the ultimate, our difficulty is with regard to the beginning. Mr. Chairman, therefore, I should have thought that in order to make us willing friends, in order to induce every party, every section in this country to take on to the road it would be an act of greatest statesmanship for the majority party even to make a concession to the prejudices of people who are not prepared to march together and it is for that, that I propose to make this appeal. Let us leave aside slogans, let us leave aside words which frighten people. Let us even make a concession to the prejudices of our opponents, bring them in, so that they may willingly join with us on marching up on that road, which as I said, if we walk long enough, must necessarily lead us to unity.”
Learning
A number of insights have emerged from the debate. A close look is required at NCF 2005, which in many ways is a step ahead of NCF 2000. It is inclusive in representation and provides space to people and movements that contributed to nation-building. However, there are some new issues that need consideration. In a country characterised by immense diversities, disparities and exclusion, these features have now begun to reflect in separation and segregation in schools. There is a need to understand the ways in which diversity, disparities and discrimination are experienced by students on the campus and how social cohesion and integration might be achieved.
A curriculum that enhances the understanding of students about these issues is necessary to take them to common goals of togetherness. More important is a shift in pedagogy to enhance the capacity and skill of students to deal with diversity and exclusion in the class. Countries that faced ethnic, religious, race and colour divides have developed curriculum and methods to enhance students’ understanding of the need for social cohesion by mainstreaming education for unity and also by introducing separate courses. Changes are necessary in NCF 2005 to deal with diversity, disparities and exclusion in class and on school campus.
(Sukhadeo Thorat is Chairman, Indian Council of Social Science Research, Chairman, NCERT Textbook Review Committee, and Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

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