Politics of knowledge : The Tribune India



THE inevitable seems to have happened. In order to give some relief to young students — particularly, at a time when the pandemic has caused acute stress, and disturbed the process of normal learning, the CBSE has decided to reduce the contents of the syllabus. In an ideologically charged politico-cultural milieu, the deletion of some chapters from classes IX to XII textbooks — say, the chapters dealing with democracy and diversity, or citizenship and secularism — has led to a debate on the ‘motives’. In a society fast losing the values of democracy, egalitarianism and cultural pluralism, it is possible to argue that the CBSE (or its not-so-innocent academic bureaucrats) too has begun to devalue what a child needs to learn to grow up as a responsible citizen in a pluralist/democratic society.

Beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’, students should be encouraged to remain open, dialogic, tender and receptive.

However, in order to go deeper, we need to see beyond the ‘rightist’ move and the ‘leftist’ reaction. Instead, we need to ask some honest questions relating to the culture of schooling, dominant pedagogic practices and politics of the official curriculum. It has to be realised that knowledge is not mere information; and wisdom is not the pride of knowledge. However, for schoolchildren, knowledge has been reduced to a heavy baggage of information. Science and history, civics and geography, moral education and biology, mathematics and computer technology: our children are compelled to carry these heavy loads of information, or consume these ‘knowledge capsules’ as depicted in textbooks. With weekly tests, meaningless summer projects and constant performance anxiety — our educationists, policy makers and academic bureaucrats have already deprived these young minds of what is really needed for any meaningful learning — the lightness of being, the joy of seeing things deeply, or the spirit of being a wanderer. And my interaction with a group of parents suggests that even at this time of the pandemic, schools have put unbearable pressure on children in the name of online teaching and completing the syllabus.

As everything is success-oriented (the fetish of 99% marks in board exam), creative/reflexive pedagogy loses its meaning. Quite often, even many ‘leftists’ fail to realise that even if you give them the texts written by the likes of Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, or introduce a chapter on Birsa Munda and Savitribai Phule, the prevalent pedagogic practice and the pattern of evaluation would destroy everything. Because everything is just a ‘fact’— a 2-mark question! It is dead; it has no soul; it doesn’t cause any inner churning. Not solely that. Even democracy is taught in a non-democratic way, or in a way that, as Paulo Freire would have regarded as a ‘banking’ form of education: the ‘all-knowing’ teacher dictates, and the ‘passive’ student receives! Ask an average school student of class XII about Pablo Neruda and Kamala Das (their poems are in the syllabus); you would find no spark in her eyes, no poetic ecstasy. The fact is that poetry has already been killed in a dull/routinised/prosaic classroom. Hence, we need not have an illusion that a chapter on democracy and fundamental rights does necessarily create wonders. Amid CCTV cameras, monologue of teachers, popularisation of quick/instant answers to objective questions and reckless hierarchisation in the class, children see the gap between bookish knowledge and the lived reality.

I am not denying the significance of what is included in the syllabus. And I am also aware that what we see as ‘worth learning’ cannot be separated from the larger politico-economic ideology. And these political biases characterise the educationists of all colours — Ambedkarites, Marxists, rightists and centrists. And possibly, the entire trajectory of the NCERT textbooks reveals the dynamics of the political context of the curriculum. As a teacher and concerned citizen, I too believe that our children should be aroused and encouraged to explore the ideas beneath the freedom struggle, the spirit of Gandhi, the intensity of Bhagat Singh, or the questions Ambedkar raised. They should know about the art of living amid plurality and diversity; they should be encouraged to cultivate the art of listening — even listening to one’s opponents. They should be motivated to walk with science and poetry, religiosity and egalitarianism, patriotism and cosmopolitanism; and they should be inspired to see the beauty of a non-hierarchical/inclusive mind. In other words, beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’— they should be encouraged to remain open, dialogic, tender and receptive.

Possibly, all great educators — Gandhi and Tagore, Tolstoy and Krishnamurti, Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire — strove for an ideal of this kind. Beyond the burden of knowledge, the heavy baggage of information and the celebration of exam success: they stressed on the quality of the teacher-taught relationship, the spirit of joy and wonder in the continual play of learning and unlearning, and the cultivation of love and compassion. It is sad that we hardly bother about these fundamental issues. Instead, petty politics, bureaucratic dullness, pedagogically impoverished classrooms, politically engineered textbooks and life-killing exams characterise the educational scenario. What saddens me is that seldom do we see beyond the usual rhetoric: rightists propose, leftists react; rightists seek to valourise Shivaji and Rana Pratap, leftists speak of the peasant upsurge and the Soviet Revolution, or the Nehruvians seek to prioritise the contributions of the Indian National Congress in the freedom struggle, and Ambedkarites debunk it. However, none seems to be interested in the true spirit of learning — an environment that encourages the child to wonder and learn, relate and love, and create and discover.