Updated: Nov 23, 2020
This talk was delivered as part of the 5th annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of the Indian Constitution in July 2019.
It’s assumed that education is good for democracy. What that means is not so clear. In fact, relations between education and democracy in the history of different countries, although under-researched, indicate great complexity. Neither education nor democracy are simple concepts. Therefore the assumption that education has consequences for the democratic order needs to be examined, and if we were to accept the assumption then we must understand it before we take it for granted. In the Indian context, it’s been a subject of general curiosity. No one can fully explain, nor can I, why India continues to neglect its system of education. Despite being, as everybody says, a vibrant democracy, it does not have a reformed education system nor what one might call a sophisticated education system which might serve the democratic order in such a diverse and complex society. Education and childhood both sit somewhat in uneasy positions when we discuss democracy and education. When the Right to Education Act was promulgated in 2010, quite a few people around the world were surprised to learn that India did not have education as a fundamental right until then. The Constitutional Amendment which had been done earlier, enabled by the coming in of the RTI itself, was a product of a considerable struggle, similar to the kinds of legal battles that Mr Gautam Bhatia has discussed in his The Transformative Constitution. It was a result of the Mohini Jain case that the SC read into Article 21 a right to education—that particular verdict was quite historic, in the sense that it gave education a certain status in our national and social parlance. What it said was: if there is a right to life, it implies a right to a worthwhile life and it is education that gives worth to life. Now this was truly a path-breaking phrase of acceptance that education does something so fundamental in terms of adding something to the value or quality of life that a person leads. The perspective of this judgement which paved the way to the Right to Education Act and before that the Constitutional Amendment, permitted that right to be passed in Parliament.
If one uses this whole legal and parliamentary process as our location for looking back, then the Constituent Assembly’s reluctance to put education in our list of fundamental rights does come across as a bit of a disappointment, even though it was justified at that time by referring to the limited financial capacity of the state. Much earlier, in 1911, when Gopal Krishna Gokhale had moved a bill of a similar kind in the Imperial Legislative Assembly, the arguments used were far less concealed in acceptable jargon. At that time it was argued that if all children start going to school, who will work in the fields of people with large landholdings? That was the argument that the Raja of Darbhanga, member of the Imperial Legislative Assembly, had put forward, and the bill fell in the Assembly not because of any British resistance but because the Indian members were not convinced that Gokhale’s idea was a good one. It took almost a century for this to become a reality, which would suggest that society in India was reluctant to accept what ultimately the Supreme Court articulated: that education matters.
That education matters for democracy was not such a widely accepted thing for a long time. Writers during the 1950s and 60s who commented on India’s democracy apprehended that the democratic system may not survive, that it won’t do very well with massive illiteracy and poor quality education. The fact that democracy did survive seems to have given a strange impetus to the argument that democracy can jolly well proceed in a good shape without sufficient attention being given to education. We are yet to sort out exactly what we attribute the success of Indian Democracy to. When the Constitution was being written, it perhaps wasn’t quite evident that education could become a site of ideological contestation, that in fact it could be used for ideological mobilization if the state did not take full charge of it, and take it in a serious sense. That’s more or less what happened both in India and Pakistan. Organizations critical of the democratic system as it was trying to take root, found in education a fairly free area where they could mobilize vast numbers of children and groom them into thinking in a certain way. That the use of education for indoctrination would become so rampant would have been difficult to imagine in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Perhaps at that time education was seen purely as a question of the state’s capacity; and the inclusion of eight years of education in the Directive Principles of State Policy rather than in the fundamental rights was not seen as something so ominous, that by not including education as a fundamental right it would remain a struggle for millions of children.
But childhood itself as a social category has taken a long time to emerge, and it is not very clear whether it has emerged or not. As a biological category, ‘childhood’ existed, and, as Vijaya Lakshmi’s work on childhood and Partition has shown, the enormity of the tragedy of Partition perhaps helped shape society, its political and social leaders, both individually and collectively. That struggle has moved forward but really not all that far, whether it comes to the marginalized groups of Indian society, people who are now described as Scheduled Tribes and Castes or the children of the poor in general. Our broader Indian social ethos(or our social ‘ecosystem’, whatever that means), hasn’t yet accepted that childhood forms a crucial stage of life, that it requires a certain degree of understanding on the part of the adult society about how to deal with it, that it is not an area of purely individual concern as a parent, that childhood needs to be looked at in a wider public context and not simply in the context of the family in which children are traditionally nurtured.
These words should suffice to give us a preamble to this discussion about why the Constitution doesn’t quite excite the young when they learn about it in our schools and colleges.
The Constitution is a major topic, taught more than once in school and then again in college if you take a certain kind of disciplinary trajectory. But how it is taught and what it means to the young are subjects difficult to talk about in the absence of any extensive research or dialogue in that matter. One thing we do know: the Indian education system does not distinguish between various matters. The system does not distinguish between topics based on their gravity or significance in public life. Everything is a topic, everything is a chapter which has to be covered, whether it is the crisis of water, climate change, the Constitution and the difficulties it faces, problems arising out of poverty, gender discrimination, violence in society . . . you can talk about almost any topic.
As adults sitting in this room, we might think that some of these topics are more crucial than others, but that’s not the way the system of education is designed to make us think. All the topics are there because we are going to be examined in them—and that’s the real reason for the entire system. It is quite correct to say that India doesn’t have a system of education, never had. What it has, rather, is a system of examination, a system of elimination so that higher stages of education don’t have to deal with higher numbers of children.
The Right to Education Act is one of the few radical steps taken over the last century which attempts to address this eliminatory nature of education. And as you may know, in this very brief period of nine years, this struggling law has already faced many court actions. If we have to be grateful to anyone, it is not the board or a ministry but to the Supreme Court that has protected the Act so far. In 2012, it gave an eloquent judgement protecting the Act more or less as it was passed. But a third amendment occurred in Parliament last year, which makes a radical change in the RTE. If this new draft of the Education Policy is any indication, this Act is going to be changed further and perhaps in more radical ways, and if it’s changed by Parliament, the SC will not be able to help us protect its spirit.
Somehow on this manner of examination, not just the political class but even parents and teachers are worked up, claiming that it dilutes the examination process from ages 6 to 14 by imposing a ‘non-detention policy’. This has struck at the root of a very old service which the examination offered to the education system, the service to legitimately drop the child from the system by failing the child. This was called the drop-out problem—children were never dropping out, they were made to leave the system in large numbers. If you look at statistics from the 1950s and 60s as the late J.P Nayak has pointed out, it was impossible for a child to survive in the system if the child did not survive in Grade 1. Grade 1 was the most difficult battle in Indian schools; and between Grade 1 and 2, millions of children were forced to leave school in the 1950s, 60s and 70s because they could not qualify the Grade 1 examination. Later, Grade 2 and Grade 3 examinations became even more draconian, but the highest drop-out rate has been Grades 1 and 2. Then of course the ‘Board Examinations’ which many states in India had at the end of Grade 5 and another at the end of Grade 8. This is where the RTE Act brought a major change by saying these annual examinations are outlawed from now on, that every child will have the right to proceed from 1 to 8 without being detained on the way.
The Act promulgated an alternative system of evaluation which it called the Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation system, which required a considerable investment to be made in teacher training, preparation of material and so on. In the absence of such financial investment, the school system, teachers and custodians of the old order grew impatient and agitated. They thought this system was leading to further damage to our learning standards. Very powerful NGOs started to plead that this was detrimental to the already poor standards of learning. Large-scale surveys of children’s learning were put up to say that children were not learning enough, that there was a learning crisis in India and all these phrases became a part of the general picture that was portrayed. As a result, this Act went through an amendment which has not permitted states to re-start the pass-fail kind of examination at certain grades in between Grades 1 and 8. How this change will operate we will see, but a few states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala have decided to maintain the no-detention policy. In fact, they have had these policies for a much longer time. It’s in the battlefields of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where Indian democracy will face this battle of yet again failing the child as a means of improving education.
When it comes to the Constitution and learning about that, the examination system reminds us how difficult it is for the teacher to create any passion for the Constitution of India. Why it is so can be understood from the kind of questions typical of our board examinations and the kinds of laws that protect the system from any further reform—both are part of the same game, you might say. If you Google the last 10 or 20 years of questions asked in the Civics Paper or Social Sciences Paper of Grade 10 both in CBSC and ICSE, you will come across these kinds of questions: ‘Mention any two provisions of the Constitution that make judiciary independent’, ‘Mention any three provisions of the Constitution which give supremacy to the Lok Sabha in the context of Money Bill’, ‘What are the five major characteristics of democracy’, another year—‘What are the two major characteristics of democracy?’ These are typical board questions and, as you know, teachers have typical board answers that are supposed to reflect the prescribed textbook—NCERT textbooks in case of CBSE, and whatever textbook is prescribed in the case of ICSE. The child is supposed to reproduce the answers. In any case, these questions ask to ‘mention’—they are not asking for any idea or opinion or familiarity with the debate, nor taking part in the debate nor elaborating on a complex matter or a paradox. These questions are straightforward questions about ‘recall’, and the Indian Education System has been badgered hundreds of times since the 1880s when the Hunter Commission pointed out this problem. In fact, if you look at examination reforms within the system, the problem has got worse. Reflective questions have become rarer than they were in the 1950s or 60s. Today’s questions are almost all ‘recall’ questions, including those that CBSE proudly describes as ‘higher order’ questions. They are simply ‘higher-order’ recall, you might say.
This endemic problem does great injustice to the child who has somehow, despite the systemic constraints, learnt to reflect, to look at two sides of a problem, or to use her own words to put across an idea. Such children are routinely unjustly marked during the Board Examinations. Many cases have come to the various courts in India where parents have argued that their children have been unjustly marked—in most of them, unfortunately, the courts have taken the side of the Board rather than an interest in what the child is saying. There was an unusual case which came up two years ago in Delhi High Court filed by a child from Mother’s International School who was very good in Political Science and wanted to study it further. She scored 90 percent in all other subjects but 70 percent in Political Science, her favourite subject. Her lawyer argued in the High Court that there was something very problematic about the way the marking has been done. He himself had discussed all the questions with her and therefore pleaded in the court for the child’s answer scripts to be procured. Now if you recall, previously CBSE had a by-law through which you could obtain a photocopy of your answer script, but that by-law has been revised and the system has gone back to its original practice of complete secrecy. In this case however, the judge got persuaded and ordered that the Board produce the answer sheet. They found that all the answers where this child was marked 0 out of 2 or 0 or 1 out of 5, were correct as far as knowledge required for that answer was concerned, but not when they were compared with the model answer that the board was using to correct those answers.
Now what is this model answer? This model answer is a prototype which every examiner is given, which reproduces ‘exact’ answers from a textbook or a guide book. If the child deviates even slightly from the language of the model answer, the evaluator can punish the child with a lower mark. Now please don’t lose your compassion for the evaluator—she has about 15 minutes to decide on an answer sheet which consists of many pages and gets Rs 20 to Rs 50 for each. Therefore you must pity the evaluator who sits all day in a room and examines 50 to 100 answer scripts, all in one go. When the court evaluated this child’s answer script, it found that she had in fact used some very creative ways to express the same idea. For example, there was a question about the American Constitution where the child had used the word ‘structure’ instead of the word ‘architecture’ which was used in the model answer. Similarly, in all other places where she had been punished for giving a different answer or ‘wrong’ answer, she had simply used her own words. The CBSE by-laws did not permit it, but the court was convinced that injustice had been done, that this was a case where re-evaluation was necessary, and ordered the Board to re-evaluate the paper. The CBSE chose to go to the Supreme Court but the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s decision and ultimately the answer sheet was sent to a new evaluator. How that evaluator was chosen was anybody’s guess. The evaluator only gave 2 more marks to the girl, so instead of 70 she got 72.
Now, I went into this story to remind you how difficult the examination system is as an area of reform, and the kind of obstacles it poses for any kind of creative or reflective effort that the teacher might like to take in the classroom. These are endemic issues of the Indian education system and the judiciary has not been of much use for reforming the boards. These boards have enjoyed enormous power since the colonial days and their power has only grown. Despite political stability in different states, the party system has not been able to do much with the Boards. Of the most infamous cases of this kind is this state itself. There are very few cases around the world where a liberal left-leaning government has been in power for 30 long years but done no reform to the boards or any of the by-laws that the boards use in order to conduct the examination; plus, they have neglected nearly all other educational reforms.
So these are some reasons why such a vibrant and substantial document like the Constitution, even though it is given an important place in the curriculum, does not arouse great interest or passion or respect in the classroom. In fact, over the last 10 years or so, I’ve had many occasions to talk to children, especially after I conducted a comparative study of History teaching between India and Pakistan. I’ve been quite keen to talk to children about what they think of politics, how they look at external relations and so on. I’ve had similar discussions in Pakistan during one or two visits, but I’ve had more frequent occasions in India in my institute where we used to train teachers. For example: Secularism. What does it mean? Quite a few children in classes 10, 11 will tell you that it is supposed to protect minorities in India, that’s all that secularism means. Or what is social justice? If you ask those questions or have a discussion around them, quite a few children and even teachers will tell you that it is mainly about giving reservation to the scheduled caste and tribes. Who are the Scheduled Caste and Tribes? There is not much interest around that, even for those who opt for Social Sciences at the Plus Two stage nor in those who are going to become teachers after their BA in subjects like History and Political Science. This kind of limited and flat understanding often leads to a sense of cynicism about some of these very progressive provisions of the Constitution on which we heard several presentations today. What does the Constitution mean to you? Well, in the preceding few years, the answer has been that it gives certain rights and that is all that it boils down to. They are aware that the Constitution gives certain rights to them and provides many more things to certain others, and somehow it’s an instrument of not just justice but a lot of injustice.
In fact, many political trends of the last decade or so can be explained by this cynicism around the Constitution and the idea of a transformative force which marked an attempt to make a break from the past and create a new society in India. Criticism of the Constitution itself has been brewing within the education system, and often you meet teachers who quite frankly tell you that their students are uncomfortable with this whole notion of reservation but that they have instructed them not to reveal any indifference towards this in their examination answers. In any case, examinations rarely test you for your passion or for your opposition to some idea. Examinations ask you to mention which provisions are there for minorities or for equality and so on, so it’s not been difficult for teachers. But in internal examinations, teachers warn the children not to write that the reservation system is unfair for the upper castes or for the middle classes, which are very commonly held beliefs which are also used to criticize the Constitution and the basis on which it has permitted democracy to run so far.
Therefore the kind of atmosphere that we face today—one we feel can now be attributed to the outcome of the most recent elections—has taken a while to form. It will require a considerable analysis to see whether education, both that is provided in thousands of schools which have a goal for articulating these anti-constitutional provisions as well as institutions which are committed to the Constitution, which have affiliations with different Boards and which are run by the government or by private organizations, has actually made a contribution to the ethos today, when the Constitution and the order made by it both look like they are on the brink. As a teacher I have faced this question rarely because I am not a teacher of political science and therefore do not have the experience of teaching the Constitution for a long time. But over the years I have encountered this challenge twice when I was working with First Year students of a new programme that Delhi University had started in mid-90s. This was a programme called Bachelor of Elementary Education and I discovered that I had lost my skills of dealing with first-year students. So the first batch was a bit of a flop on my part, although I did as best as I could for various topics for the first paper of this course which was called ‘Contemporary India’. That topic contained a unit on the Constitution. Before I met the second batch, I thought: I must think about it. These are 18-year-old girls in a girls’ college and they are going to become elementary-school teachers after four years. The course itself was designed to give these trainees an experience of what it means to teach, so that they will become path-breaking teachers of the future rather than people who will confuse between telling and teaching, who think explaining the facts is teaching. The idea of the Bachelor of Education Course was that the teacher must succeed in arousing lasting interest in a subject. Even if the teacher does not teach all the dimensions of the topic, she must provide for some experience which permits her students to think about the matter and develop some interest to learn about the matter whenever such opportunity comes.
Years later, this approach was encapsulated by Professor Yash Pal in a phrase he used in his foreword to the National Curriculum Framework of 2005: He said that all we need to do in teaching is to create an ‘addiction for understanding’. Now this is a far cry in a system which creates an addiction to recall or an addiction to 100 percent if possible, an addiction to doing well in examinations during childhood. The idea is that understanding would become so interesting and exciting that you develop an addiction for it. This was certainly a new way of putting across an old aim of good education. It was some 12 years before this phrase was invented by Yash Pal that I was struggling with myself for making these students think about the Constitution as something interesting, something worthy of their attention and something that might sustain their interest for a long time. I would not go into Articles and Chapters of the Constitution, so that they would themselves thought of learning further as they grew older and became teachers. What can I do to make them feel that there is something very peculiar about this document? That’s the question I asked myself. I was aware of the accommodative nature of this document—it was born out of a battle of ideas; it came at a very crucial moment in Indian history when the nationalist struggle had achieved its goal in a major sense, and the way India was going to be governed in the future was being shaped. In that moment, this document tried to become a space for democratic dialogues, contentious debates. I wanted them to figure out for themselves that the product itself was a product of such a battle of ideas because this dialogue could pose personal challenges. So while I was trying to prepare for this kind of pedagogic effort, I zeroed in on this word that everybody knew. I know that every child from Grade 8 onwards knows the word because that’s the word by which they remember Ambedkar. Who was Ambedkar? He was the chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. Now what is drafting? That is something that the English teacher is supposed to explain or provide an experience of. But most of the time drafting is something that is taken for granted—you write out something and then you edit it and your earlier version becomes a draft. I wish the drafters of our latest education policy had gone through some of this training in drafting. Certainly, our students did not have any experience in what it means to collectively draft something. After our discussion in the first class of that unit, I decided that I will give them an experience of something that was difficult to draft. This exercise might help them get used to the fact that ideas can be played off against each other, that values might be competitive, that each priority is important but when it is articulated as a priority it needs to accommodate some other priority. Therefore I thought of an exercise which today I will share with you.
This is a family tree which was distributed to all the five family groups into which this class was divided. This is a tree representing three generations of a family living together as of now. The senior generation consists of grandfather and grandmother, and a widowed grandaunt. In the present generation you have three children who are adults now, the first son, the second son and a daughter who suffers from a physical disability. There is a daughter of this widowed aunt who is living with them. Then we have the new generation. The first son has a son and a daughter, the second son has one son and two daughters and then there are the grandaunt’s children. Apart from the problems of widowhood and disability we have a problem of how these children have done in their lives. The first son has done well for himself in education, set up a business and is now a well-off person. The second son has done badly in education and earns a very meagre income on which he is trying to bring up his three children. Then we have the children of the daughter of the widowed aunt. This daughter herself is a widow who lives with them. The first son, the second son, the disabled daughter and the widowed daughter of the aunt, these are the four voices in each group and the fifth person is a member secretary who drafts as well as intervenes in the debates as she thinks fit, as they proceed. So there are five persons in each group, and they have as much time as they wish. The idea was, at the end of each two-hour class, if the debate has come to a certain point, the person who was drafting will note that, what the positions were at that point; and the next week, at the next opportunity for a two-hour discussion, they would resume from that point.
Initially, this role-taking in terms of the four available roles posed a bit of a hesitation. On Day 1, the person who had the role of the first son was very happy. But, within an hour or so, she began to feel somewhat embarrassed and said she could also argue like them if she was in their position; and it’s not easy to do well in life but she has done it and shouldn’t be punished for it. That is where the debate really started; and by the second hour, the debate had become quite intensely heated. This went on for two-hour sessions over a period of two weeks; in each week, we had two such sessions.
In the third week, drafts were exchanged. The persons drafting in each group were told to prepare their drafts as best as they could, and the person dissenting would present their dissent notes to the drafting person if she had not been able to accommodate everything. The drafting process was immensely difficult, as some of the secretaries told me, and in two out of these five groups the dissenting note was much longer than the draft themselves. The dissenters somehow could not be accommodated, even though the best possible attempts were made by the drafting person to do so. The exercise turned out to be of enormous interest when we began to discuss its outcome in the third week. Even during the presentation there was considerable discussion about why a certain position was not being represented in a fair manner, or a certain irony had come into the text or a certain satire was being tried out here against a position which was not the case during the discussion. All kinds of complaints were made about the oral presentations even though we were sticking to the written text. The amount of passion and identification with the roles that the exercise generated was absolutely amazing, because I had never been a votary of role play as a method of teaching. This was not really a role-play exercise, it was more an exercise of being put into a certain location and of being asked to look at the problem from that location or learn to be disciplined by the perspective which that location offers you. This was the whole purpose of the exercise, but the identification with those roles had already taken place, and the knowledge of what it means to be a widow in Indian society or what it means to be a handicapped woman was very intense. Already much of that knowledge was coming into play in a manner that was enough to make others feel lacking in compassion or as cynical and indifferent and so on.
This turned out to be a highly gratifying exercise as we proceeded to learn about some of the provisions of the Constitution. In the next couple of weeks, various other classes were carried out on other provisions of the Constitution like the Fundamental Rights, the Directive Principles of State Policy, etc. We also made our students take a survey, which was an appendix to this exercise. Looking back, even after so many years, I can clearly recall that there were four major gains for this group of 18-19-year-olds. One, they learnt what it must have meant for the Constitution to be drafted. They were enormously sympathetic not just to Ambedkar but also to everybody else involved in that exercise. They admired them. The playing out of one condition against another; the paradoxical situations in which they were caught where there was no way that a certain ambivalence could be overcome; where a compromise was forced upon them despite a very just cause not to make a compromise—all this made them appreciate what it means to accommodate remarkably contrary positions. They had learnt in many classes that India is a country of great diversity, hierarchies, conflicts, many of which go back to more than two millennia. In fact, there was a unit on ‘Civilization and Culture’ in that course in which they had talked about such things historically. This was a personal experience of what it means to accommodate different positions if you are to act in the interest of ‘creating a basis for the future’. That is the second major learning from it. They learnt about what it means to anticipate the implementation of a document, and what it means to anticipate the possible misuse of a document in the future. They became capable of imagining to a great extent how a document can be grossly misused—that I thought was a very interesting outcome. Three: creating an impetus for learning how these categories work in real life. In the weeks that followed, they were learning about caste, class, gender and so on. During that period, I once asked them to go to five or six houses in their neighbourhoods and note down the castes and sub-castes of the servants involved in keeping the house clean. Even though it was quite a brief survey, they came back shocked and in some cases exhilarated that they understood people who belong to different classes also have different castes. They hadn’t thought of this before. The idea of these two hierarchies running parallel and in some cases getting merged was quite new to them. To understand the contending claims of caste and class categories in the Constitution is a difficult exercise to accommodate—but it became quite palpable, or a manifest reality to them. Gain four was an interest in politics. They didn’t have to be told to read the newspapers. Newspapers were not under as much duress as they are now, as we learnt from Mr Varadarajan; television wasn’t as bad as it later became. They were charged up with this idea that news is about the life they are a part of. In the weeks and months that followed, I noticed that they were able to distinguish different strands in this period’s early nation building. The gap that had already emerged between the nation-builders who were looking at the state as the major custodian of the nation, and those who were looking at society as the real locus of nation-building. This gap was something that needed to be understood better. I recall facing questions about Gandhi and why he wasn’t keenly involved in Constitution-making. As you know, Gandhi went into a sort of anticipatory disillusionment with the planning, the making of the Constitution and so on right from the mid-30s onwards; this becomes more and more evident in his writings. By this time, Gandhi’s idea was operating on a very different plane altogether.
I close with that issue, reminding ourselves what education is all about and why education did not find a clearer place in the Constitution as a major maker of a democratic nation, why the Constitution makers did not give the status which ultimately the SC gave—at least of eight years of education—why the Constitution left that territory a bit unclear. At the time that the Constitution was being made, there were two possible directions that educational provisions might have taken. One was suggested by the Sargent Commission(1944), where education of the kind that was already available in government schools and other schools was going to be enhanced and reformed with improved teacher training, but along the lines it had proceeded so far under the auspices of the colonial rule. But Sergeant Commission’s Report would have been extremely expensive to implement if it were to be implemented after independence in its full spirit.
The other idea was the Nai taalim idea that Gandhi had proposed 10 years before independence, which became a ground of great contention between those who approved of it and became votaries of Gandhi, and those who were critical of it and in fact saw the idea with great suspicion. This is not an easy polarity for us to understand today—it was not a polarity between progressives and conservatives, because in many ways the Nai Taalim was a very progressive idea and resembled many things that had happened in Soviet Union and America under Dewey and so on. The man who was chosen by Gandhi to chair Nai Taalimhad just finished his education in Germany—the late Zakir Hussain who had personal experience of Kerschenstiner’s idea of introducing work in education. So it was not a clear division with Gandhi’s idea being a conservative idea, but it was attacked by many progressives like Mulk Raj Anand for example, who wrote a whole booklet against the idea in 1947.
One wonders whether the wide gap between the idea of a very expensive improvement to the existing system of education and a not-so-expensive method which marked a radical departure from the existing system of education, led the Constitution-makers to an impasse in the Constituent Assembly itself, even though these intra-educational issues like whether education was essential for the democracy, did not feature in the Constituent Assembly debates. The first Minister for Education, even though he was a great Congress leader, is known to have been disappointed at having been made the Minister for Education. We are thinking of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who in fact created so many great institutions of higher learning. As far as the portfolio is concerned, no leader has been particularly happy with it, barring one or two. Where we are today, education is a much more open field and it’s very convenient to forget that education is about teaching, that the teacher acquires her dignity by being in the middle of the young, and that interference by anyone else undermines that dignity—we can call it autonomy if you wish. We can have a whole debate on whether she deserves to have this autonomy. But any number of intruders has come up with their right to intrude in that territory of the teacher. You have the parents who are now a very big lobby, not just in private schools but also in government schools. You always have the bureaucracy which always knew more about teaching than the teacher. You have political leaders, NGOs of various kinds and then of course the corporate sector which is now involved in education in historically unprecedented ways, not just as producers of new technology but also as the custodian of the pedagogy market on a full scale. Although the teacher is still alone, the teacher is unprotected and the butt of the nation’s criticism for not having done well enough or not doing well at all.
A verdict on democracy can be passed by referring to a poorly running education system and we can all join together and declare that we are all running so poorly since the teachers are of such poor quality. This kind of collective action against the teacher is so common and uninspiring that we can only say that we are moving from one plateau to another. The plateau that existed at the time of India’s independence—a plateau about what to do with education, indecisiveness about which path to take, which the priority areas are, that plateau has been replaced by another on which we are. It seems as if the teacher’s job is not all that complex because the teacher can be subjected to offering only a pre-scripted curriculum under the glare of supervisory eyes, not just those of inspectors but also CCTV cameras. We are truly in a kind of an Emergency as far as education is concerned. We have been so used to being in a crisis for so long that the word doesn’t carry any meaning any more, but the word ‘Emergency’ does. If we believe that education matters for democracy and for democratic life, then we have to cross this plateau and come to somewhat more fertile lands.
Questions and Answer session
Tina. Thank you so much for coming to the defence of the defenceless teacher. My question is: What is it going to take now for all those people who enter our classrooms—from the parents to the bureaucrats to the CCTV camera, all those people who are there alongside us in the classroom—to turn their energy to the educational system and away from the teacher who is only following the dictates of the system?
KK. There has to be resistance, which would be the implication of my presentation. Some of these ideas have acquired a certain fashion, of involving the community in order to make the system more efficient. If teachers are still going to be in charge, they have to take charge of the situation.
Question. A teacher is given a textbook and syllabus and told: this has to be done. In the years that I have seen education in India, all we’ve done is pile on more and more for the child to study, and then we ask ‘Where has the child’s childhood gone?’ People who have crafted curricula for children have done everything to destroy their childhood. At two and a half, the child is expected to go to school and then keep learning/memorizing until she goes to college. How does a teacher resist this?
KK. It is the teachers who have to organize themselves to figure out how to find a systemic voice. Many forums exist and India has a long history of associations of English teachers, Science teachers and so on. For some reason, and we have to investigate why, many of these have dissipated over the last two or three decades. Of course they will have to be reinvigorated, re-invented and so on for the teachers to find their voice in the system. Otherwise, the subjugation of the system will continue. And today’s technological ethos is very conducive to that subjugation.
Supriya. Sir, I’m a History and Political Science teacher and I completely agree with whatever you said today. My question is: How do we resist this? You spoke about the forums, but they don’t exist. I will share my experience with you. I went to my school authorities and told them that I refuse to go for corrections any longer because I unlearn whatever I have learnt as a History and Political Science teacher (there). The marking system is such that we don’t have the freedom to judge a child’s knowledge and understanding—it is a diktat. Just the words, the key words and so on matter. How can I fight against the entire system?
KK. If you’re talking about resurrecting the professional dignity of the teacher, then surely it cannot be an individual fight? It will have to be a fight where the entire profession is involved, and that is the history of struggles anywhere in the world. Consider the Japan Teachers’ Union(JTU), one of the most powerful unions in the history of education, a union in which every teacher in Japan from the nursery to the university was a member. JTU fought countless cases against the examining authority, bureaucracy or even political leaders in order to assert the teachers’ right to have the mandate on what will go on in school. This is just one country’s example, but you can multiply that example from any other countries around the world. If we are looking at the next 10 or 20 years to resurrect the system from all the damage that has been done to it in all these years, then we are looking at formation of a collective professional viewpoint in various subject areas or across subject areas.
Lakshmi. I am Lakshmi from Pune. Thank you so much for reminding us that education is in a state of emergency. Drawing from what she said: when a teacher refuses to correct papers, the school gets a show-cause notice, a Rs 50,000 fine and a veiled threat that its affiliation will be taken away. So we are caught in this terrible chakravyuh—it’s not just the teachers but the entire system. What is the way out?
KK. I’m afraid our assessment is wrong. The Boards are human institutions—in fact, if you look into the boards, they are quite skeletal. The Boards we are talking about function with representatives from schools who are principals and teachers. If we decide that these boards will have to be reformed, we will realize that this is not a chakravyuh at all. This is very much a kind of a modern invention that we have got used to living with. Even the most powerful school principals don’t feel that this is worth bothering about so much. Otherwise any number of legal, administrative and various other precedents and documents exist to guide us along the path of reforming the boards from within and to make them less arbitrary, less draconian and opaque. There is no reason why you should feel so lost as to invoke such a figure from the Mahabharata like Abhimanyu. I think we are too used to being Abhimanyu. We have to give a good try to the possibility of coming together, to at least understanding it. I remember reading the late Professor Amrik Singh’s report from the early 90s, commissioned by the Government of India on functioning of different examination boards. He reports on the pathetic condition of the various boards, the lack of finances, the lack of academic support, how they function with shoestring structure, with old acquaintances used for subject committees, assignment-evaluations and so on. Many of the reforms he suggested are still very relevant if teachers’ associations or associations of schools were to take it up. You have to study some of the cases fought against various exam boards, like Maharashtra Board, CBSE and Uttar Pradesh Board, look at the potential opening points for improvement in the examination system and the ways in which the boards use examinations to control curriculum, school life and then the teacher—you will then find numerous openings in these judgements. It is just a matter of finding some space and time within our own occupational lives and organizing your own mind about how to proceed on this matter rather than just invoking poor Abhimanyu.
Speaker Two. The textbooks are far too prescriptive when it comes to the appreciation of the Constitution. Of course, a lot depends on how the teacher is dealing with the content, but the text does not give any scope for imagination or interpretation because the student has to interact with the text. Though the new NCF textbooks in the middle school had gone to the next level, they had beautiful storyboards providing different perspectives. However in the 11th and 12th levels, there is a lot of text material without much interpretation. So how can that go to the next level? As you rightly said, the reading of the text has to be more deductive through case histories.
KK. See, this business of the textbook and how the textbook acts as a constraint for the imaginative teacher is a very old subject. The National Curriculum Framework exercise tried to clarify that the textbook was not something that should shape classroom life: it recommends multiple books and textbooks if possible, it further recommends that the examination system be independent of any textbook. These are in the area of recommendations—how will they get into the system as common ideas? Of course, it will require an organized effort. But who will take that effort apart from the teacher, so that we can move forward on this rather than get stuck on this matter which we have for any years? Some improvements have been made, as you said, in the NCF textbooks, but they have not been made in the State Board textbooks. If you look at Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka or even Tamil Nadu textbooks, you will find such a huge variation in terms of quality and presentation. But if we keep referring to the textbook as our problem, we are demeaning ourselves by implication as professionally qualified teachers. ‘The idea that the teacher’s job is to teach the textbook or from the textbook, is itself an idea that diminishes the teacher.’ Who said this? Mahatma Gandhi, in 1939, explaining basic education to a group of visitors from the Hindusthani Talibi Sangh. Now that idea should inspire us as teachers, to not see the textbook as the be all and end all of our life. Principals demand it, managers demand it, parents demand it, but if we succumb to those demands individually then we are no more professionals who can be compared with professionals in Law or Engineering or Management or any other areas. This is not a case of an innovative teacher not having space; this systemic condition is something from which teachers will have to think about ways to emerge and recognize what it means to teach—which has nothing to do with the textbook. Many documents have said this. But that’s no help because we have to solve this problem in our class, in our teaching, and it cannot be solved by an individual’s way of teaching. It will have to be dealt with systemically.
Arundhati. I’m Arundhati Roy and I have headed the B.Ed department for a very long time. I am surprised and shocked that the word ‘examination’ is being used instead of ‘evaluation’—examination is an archaic expression. Sir, you headed the NCERT which is a very important organization. Did you ever think of giving autonomy to the teachers? Why should the teachers be limited to teaching some chapters written by some people? Why aren’t there more projects in this tech-savvy age? Unless we import technology into the classroom and do more projects, I’m afraid neither teachers nor students will enjoy the class. But autonomy must be given, it cannot be restricted to external rules and controls. We have to give autonomy to schools because I know many teachers who have very creative minds but who fall into a certain school-pattern rigidity. I think a kind of project method might relieve the tension of both teachers and students.
KK. There are various shades in your intervention which can’t all be dealt with. But this hope that an apex body of some kind can bring about such systemic changes is problematic. NCERT did what it could to improve the quality of certain textbooks in certain subjects in certain areas. But the NCERT does not have much say on how they are put to use in schools, and this is where the multiplicity of institutional responsibility comes into play in our system. Why can NCERT have no say in the way its textbooks are used by CBSE schools? How can ICSE remain completely aloof from the reforms that the National Curriculum Framework recommended? There are questions which require systemic interpretation and thinking. In the beginning, I said that we are saddled with an unsophisticated system that hasn’t served our democracy well—in many ways it has weakened the potential of our democratic system. Your hope that the teacher’s autonomy will be reformed by technology in a way repeats the cycle of hope of the teacher getting autonomy back by using some other toy. The textbook was also a toy from an older time. The teacher has to be defined as somebody not dependent on any toy. Which company or institution has produced this? The teacher’s autonomy as a professional person requires a deeper method than to say there should be more space for project methods—you can buy any project you like in the market, you can download readymade projects from the internet and satisfy the teacher and the principal. The matter has come to a pass where older progressive methods like project works mean absolutely nothing any more. We cannot resurrect innovative energy by these older discourses. This requires more deep answers if we are going back to the question of what it means to educate children to live in a complex democratic system. Then teachers’ own abilities and capacities to reform teaching have to be thought about more seriously than simply referring to this or that method of teaching.
Speaker Three. When I listened to you talk I went back to my childhood. For me and for children from where I come, schooling was a sort of threat, it destroyed childhood. My first question is: How can we stop this? My second question is: Even though we talk about democracy, how can we expect Constitutional values to be protected in an atmosphere where schools are not democratic, where the child is never asked what she wants or the teacher does not have any autonomy?
KK. The problem is that you are saying that we should inculcate these values. But you cannot teach values unless the need for them is felt—the value should organically grow in a person. You cannot teach values—you can practise it yourself, you can become an example. The problem of a teacher’s life is that she thinks she will be able to inculcate values simply by asking the students to do so. Many children will be able to recite the Preamble from memory like the national anthem. But what the relevance is of such ideas for social life, is a far more difficult question. The teacher is used to thinking that there is no difference between teaching and telling. You tell them everything; but then you say: they don’t remember anything, so they are not worthy of me. This conflict between the teachers and students has to be resolved by the teachers—not the students. The teacher has to interrogate why she is failing, and this failure is reflected in the crisis of our democracy. It is the teacher’s failure that she is unable to interrogate the present situation in the classroom, and the result of this failure is only evident after many years. We see the result everywhere around us—the language of civility is replaced by the language of violence; people are unable to engage in dialogue. If the teacher does feel challenged by this situation, the teacher can try to overcome the restraints and look for her own path. Why should the teacher seek answers from others when she is a professional herself?
Mallika. When my child went from Class 5 to 6, the number of subjects became 13 from 5, but he was asked not to ask questions and he started getting D in Art. In light of this, my question is: How do you get the child to understand the Constitution and to live the Constitution?
KK. The late Justice Leila Seth, the first woman Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, wrote a book for children, published by Puffin and titled We The Children of India—you can use some of those ideas to explain at least the Preamble to such young children. It tries to explain concepts such as equality to an 8-year-old. I looked at that book while preparing for this lecture and, interestingly, concepts like equality, fraternity and freedom come across very nicely but it is justice that Justice Seth couldn’t quite explain, because it is a very difficult concept to explain. Nevertheless, it is a great effort and I think we ought to have more such books at every level to go along with the Constitution. We need that kind of commentary from people who understand the Constitution.
Mallika. But I wanted to go beyond the textbook. The school today itself is very divisive, it divides the class along the lines of caste, class and religion. In light of that, how do you teach children diversity?
KK. Look, the school is a replica of society, part of the social ethos, therefore it is not surprising that such things happen in school too. Each incident, where you see caste or class coming into play, should be used as an occasion to learn. That is what it means to educate ourselves with our life experiences. Therefore, to imagine that the school can be sent along with the Chandrayan to re-establish itself on the moon where there will be no class, no caste, is to engage in a fantasy. It is certainly not an educated fantasy. If we have to create an educated imagination, it has to happen within the school which is showing signs of all these kinds of suffering which are in society. The school has to find ways of healing that suffering.
Krishna Kumar taught at the University of Delhi and served as Director of NCERT. He is currently an Honorary Professor at Punjab University, Chandigarh. A bilingual author, a columnist and a writer for children, his major books include Politics of Education in Colonial India, What is Worth Teaching, The Child’s Language and the Teacher, Prejudice and Pride, Battle for Peace, A Pedagogue’s Romance and Education, Conflict and Peace. The Routledge Handbook of Education in India edited by Professor Kumar has been released recently.