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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 1 New Delhi December 21, 2019 | ANNUAL NUMBER

Has Indian School Curriculum Neglected the Modernisation of Mind?

Saturday 21 December 2019

by Arup Maharatna

The following is a piece based on one chapter of the author’s recent book titled, The Indian Metamorphosis: Essays on its Enlightenment, Education and Society, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.  

In global historical perspective, there can be no denying that a mass transformation— ideational, attitudinal, socio-cultural—in line with reasoned rationality, democratic spirit and humanistic secularism serves as a foundation of modern economic growth along with sustained scientific/technological progress and socio-political stability. And this socio-cultural-ideational-attitudinal modernisation was globally achieved, in a large measure, through a crucial agency of universal elementary education. Oddly enough, post-independence India’s leadership chose to deviate from this pragmatic time-tested route by ever postponing such momentous projects as universalisation of school education, people’s ideational modernisation and secularisation. This, arguably, resulted from an unwavering dominance of a Nehruvian perception (backed, often tacitly, by other influential quarters at the time) that people would get ideationally and attitudinally modernised almost inevitably as a by-product of modern industrialisation, economic growth and techno-logical upgradation, with little necessity for independent initiatives for the former. My book (The Indian Metamorphosis: Essays on its Enlightenment, Education and Society, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan 2019) illuminates not only that this perception has proved bitterly wrong and illusory in India, but it also argues how this delusory line of thinking found its lasting reflections in the development of school curriculum which persistently missed the crucial importance of mass ideational/attitudinal modernisation in line with objective reason and reasoned rationality over the entire post-independence period.

Myron Weiner shows that India’s nearly scandalous neglect of compulsory basic education is attributable, in the main, to the blinkered ‘attitudes of government officialdom, especially officials of the State and Central Education and Labour Departments and ministries’. This official standpoint, of course, is consistent with, and even sustained by, a typical ‘fabric of Indian politics’ since the early Congress days, namely a ‘combination of radicalism in principle and conservatism in practice’ and/or ‘discrepancy between precept and practice’. All this is concordant with, if not rationalised by, the widely revered Gandhian precept that ‘ideals are important but their realisation must await a change of heart’. This, however, leaves open an obvious question as to how or when does the ‘heart’ actually change—a question that has remained unasked/unanswered within the Indian political/official circles. In this context, it is indeed pertinent to ask—as is done in my book—whether or how far India’s state-sponsored educational content/curricula has served as a vehicle for infusing core Enlighten-ment ideas/values such as centrality of reason and rationality inter alia in country’s modernisa-tion/developmental project. The book undertakes an objective scrutiny into this question, keeping in view that the content of school education has globally been a key instrument for shaping citizens’ values, attitude, and outlook in a mould that the state deems fit for nation-building.

 British colonial rule from its early days had been careful not to interfere with the Indian ‘religious feelings and opinion’ and thereby with its socio-cultural domain. As I. R. Sinai posits, Western rule in Asia did not care to radically transform and modernise ‘colonised’ people/society who acquired only a ‘veneer of Western life’ but not ‘its health and vigour’. ‘And this distressing consequence’, Sinai adds a little sarcastically, ‘far from being a source of regret, is in fact considered as a badge of pride by many educated Asians’.

Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister declared in 1948 that the tendency observed hitherto to maintain ‘existing system with slight modification’ should be stopped, and ‘[t]he entire basis of education must be revolutionised’ —albeit its exact forms, manifestations and means being left undefined/uncharted. In fact, Nehru’s professed ‘educational revolution’ has never materialised not only in his lifetime but even today because of its ‘path-dependence’ effects. Most of the countries in East Asia (and Sri Lanka of South Asia) and Latin America did begin their post-colonial ‘tryst with destiny’ with a clear-headed emphasis/programmes on achieving universal elementary as it is perceived to be a foundational ingredient behind a country’s rapid socioeconomic development. India, in contrast, thanks to Nehru’s nearly ‘romantic’ affinity towards immediacy of latest science and technology, set out by forming a University Education Commission (UEC) in 1948 with a view to overhauling the higher education system deemed essential for meeting the demand for scientific, technical and other manpower.

Its Report defines the role/purpose of education thus: ‘Education should be developed so as to increase productivity, achieve social and national integration, accelerate the process of modernisation and cultivate social, moral and spiritual values.’ This is a mongrel educational project of marrying the ‘traditional’ with the ‘modern’ and hence of creating ‘a possible synthesis of all that is advanced in the West and with all that was abiding in the traditional’. The protagonists of this synthetic vision virtually wish away its highly plausible impracticability that stems from an intrinsic irreconcilability between two opposite ideational milieus, namely, spiritual (mental) make-up founded on religious faith and rituals, fatalism and otherworldliness and a modern secular mindset premised on primacy of reason, rationality, critical outlook, and free spirits of enquiry into the tangible/physical world. This dilemma-laden educational vision held by a majority of Indian educationists and political leaders procreates in them an obdurate ambivalence towards the crucial need for fostering, through a matching school content/curriculum, what Martha Nussbaum calls ‘capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s tradition ... for living “the examined life”’.

Following the UEC’s emphasis on a necessity for improvements of secondary education in an effort to advance higher education, a Secondary Education Commission was set up in 1952, which recommended, apropos curriculum and textbooks, an increasing inclusion of materials that would not only ‘give joy and insights to students’, but they would also promote the ‘habit of independent thinking’. This, thus, bypassed the momentous necessity for citizens’ ideational/attitudinal transformation through suitable curricula/textbooks at elementary and secondary levels that could instil a firm hold of objective reasoning, humanistic rationality and true secularism. On the contrary, the Ministry of Education, Government of India formed a Committee on Religious and Moral Instruction 1959-1960, which recommended inclusion of ‘moral and spiritual values’ in curricula at different stages of education, thereby overlooking the latter’s intrinsic incongruity with the constitutional goal of inculcating a scientific, secular and rational temperament.

Under persistent pressures from the electorate, an Education Commission with D.S. Kothari as the Chairman was set up in 1964 to advise the government on the general principles and policies for educational development at all stages and in its all aspects so as to facilitate the emergence of a national system of education. The Report of the Kothari Commission (KCR) sets out with its following goals:

‘what is needed is a revolution in education which in turn will set in motion the much desired social, economic and cultural revolution. The main concern of this Report is to identify the major programmes that can bring about this educational revolution which has three main aspects:

- internal transformation so as to relate it to the life, needs and aspirations of the nation;

- qualitative improvement so that the standards achieved are adequate, keep continually rising and, at least in a few sectors, become internationally comparable; and

- expansion of educational facilities broadly on the basis of manpower needs and with an accent on equalization of educational opportunities’.

Notwithstanding acclamation of ‘social, economic and cultural revolution’ through ‘educational revolution’, KCR ended up recommending chiefly material expansion of educational facilities as well as linking them to life and material needs of the nation, with little emphasis on ideational and attitudinal modernisation through apposite educational content/curriculum. The essence of the country’s modernisation is, therefore, seen as lying merely in the adoption of new science-based technology and its tangible effects on material living, society and culture. Accordingly, Indian mainstream thinking failed to include pervasive presence of a ‘modern mind’ (with secular outlook and scientific worldview) as a key ingredient of the country’s mega modernisation project. Making large-scale use of modern technology or teaching of discrete science-subjects as part of curriculum was naively thought to automatically cause modernisation/secularisation of mind, society and culture, as if there is no need for separate initiatives for the latter. But it is the emergence of a modern scientific and rational outlook/mind that precedes (or at least occurs simultaneously with) sustained advancement of science and technology, not vice versa. Although Jawaharlal Nehru held that teaching of science and their applications as discrete skills and distinct branches of knowledge and training cannot necessarily/automatically make pupils’ minds scientific and rational, he as Prime Minister ironically proved himself a deficient in ensuring a befitting educational policy.

While ‘science education’ is made an integral part of the official school curriculum, it is hardly ever designed to be taught as a part of major ideas/ideals that could shape and guide life philosophy or society or culture. For example, as Krishna Kumar noted: ‘if science is taught in traditional manner, with the authority of the textbook and the teacher’s word, and without opportunity for experimentation, it would cease to have a secular character and value’. In fact, KCR contains throughout what Manish Jain calls ‘[t]he recurring uneasiness—since the latter half of the nineteenth century—over the diversity of India, the place of religious minorities, and an ongoing concern to accommodate religion with modernity’. Unlike in the West, Indian school curriculum is hardly ever utilised as a major vehicle for promoting a reasoning, rational, universalistic/humanistic mind-frame with modern secular ideas among masses, which are known to have historically served inter alias as durable antidotes to potential social, religious, cultural, linguistic and other parochial vexations that India with its so much of diversities has always been prone to encountering.

Indeed, the National Policy of Education adopted in 1968 sought to promote ‘science education’ merely ‘with a view to accelerating the growth of national economy’. In the same vein in the New Educational Policy of 1986, the important task of designing (school) educational content towards shaping young minds, their outlook, and attitudes in a mould of secularism, critical thinking, reason-based rationality, scientific/humanistic/universalistic worldview was typically dumped into the backseat. Rather, emphasis has been on understanding and adjustment with pre-existing socio-cultural traditions and structure. This dilemma-laden tone/tenor of educational content laid as it was in the early decades of post-independence period has continued to rein even today as a result of its lingering effects from path-dependence. In consequence an effective (school-level) training/learning in critical cognition or objective reasoning or independent thinking and questioning on stark irrationalities/unreason associated with India’s many socio-cultural traditions, prejudices, parochial social norms and particularistic customs did not ever involve the masses beyond a tiny captive segment till date.

The task of framing templates of pan-Indian school curriculum/textbooks in all subject areas up to higher secondary level is left with an apex public body named National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) established in 1961. It has so far come up with a series of what it named ‘National Curriculum Framework’ (NCF)—which are, in its own words, ‘attempts at visualising a reorientation of the system to keep the educational effort in step with the changing times’. As of now there have been four revisions/editions of NCF—1975, 1988, 2000 and 2005. While the framing of the national educational policy and NCF have been subject to vagaries of changes in government with differential priorities, a dilemma ridden essential/core laid down by successive Commissions within the first two decades since Independence seems to have remained broadly unshaken.

As elaborated in the book, the list of values purported to be inculcated through school education is pretty long, but it precludes those that could instil deep admiration for objective reasoning and reasoned rationality, critical/analytical thinking, ‘narrative imagination’, universal secularism, humanism—the values and capacities which are key constituents of modern democratic civilization. Likewise, the stated aim of teaching ‘social studies’ is to make students know and understand their own society and its various institutions and traditions, so that they can conform uncritically or unquestion-ingly to become ‘good’ and ‘peaceful’ citizens. This clearly marks a distinct defiance to the need for cultivating ‘capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s tradition’—a capacity which was harped by Rabindranath Tagore as being crucial for survival of a pluralistic democracy in free India.

The author is a Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor in Contemporary Studies, University of Allahabad, Prayagraj. He can be contacted by e-mail at arupmaha[at]

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