(Deccan Herald, 14th August 2014)
Gujarat State School Textbook Board (GSSTB) is distributing nine books written by self-proclaimed educationist Dina Nath Batra to all schools in the state. These books are to teach children ‘facts’ about history, science, geography, and religion. Examples of some facts from one of these book titled “Tejomay Bharat” are worth considering. It is claimed that 100 Kaurawas were test-tube babies incubated in 100 tanks of ghee, that motor cars were available to Aryans in Vedic era, and that Indians used television in Mahabharat era. Such claims are not new, preachers of many religions claim hints at modern scientific discoveries in their ancient texts. What is new is distribution of such knowledge to all children as ‘compulsory reading’. And the frequency of such claims by people who are generally thought to be sensible.
Barely a week after this report a Supreme Court judge declared that had he been dictator of India he would have introduced Gita and Mahabharata to all Indian children from class one. Speaking at an international conference the judge advised Indians to return to ancient traditions. According to him it would be a remedy to present day violence and terrorism. Gita and Mahabharata will teach children how to live life in modern era. The judge is not a dictator, but GSSTB has the power and is using it.
The question in the face of such claims is: how should we understand such repeated assertions of superior scientific and moral knowledge in our ancient texts? What should we make of emerging greater thrust for such knowledge in curriculum and textbooks? Education has always been a hotly contested arena. Its aims, curriculum and content all are sought to be used for furthering socio-political agendas. One can interpret such claims and thrusts by sections of people to be an expression of love for their culture, patriotism and an expression of their genuine beliefs. It could be assumed that the authors of books like Tejomay Bharat and the GSSTB officials who want every child to read them really believe what is written in them, and that spreading this lost knowledge widely in the society is for everyone’s good.
Interpreted in this sense they have all the right to push for their version of good education. Their attempt to emphasise education rooted in ancient culture is as legitimate as attempts to spread rational thinking, scientific knowledge and objective history. However, the sheer flight of imagination expressed in the claims like stem-cell research in Mahabharata makes one somewhat uncomfortable with this charitable interpretation.
Harry Frankfurt in “On Bullshit” claims that bullshit is much more prevalent in societies than we think. He philosophically analyses the concept of bullshit, not as a term of abuse but as an expression used to communicate a standpoint in conversations. Frankfurt claims that: one, bullshitters are profoundly indifferent to truth. Two, they are not concerned with communicating information, though they may pretend to be doing so. Thee, that they are “fakers and phonies” and that what they care about primarily is whether what they say is effective in manipulating opinion. This understanding of bullshit leads Frankfurt to the conclusion that “bullshitting constitutes a more insidious threat than lying does to the conduct of civilized life.” Because a liar at least recognises the force of truth as well as its place in life; and he lies to avoid that force. A bullshitter is unaware of the place of truth in society and is profoundly indifferent to it; all that matters to him is manipulation of opinion to gain prominence and power.
Unconcern for truth and consistency becomes immediately clear in Mr. Batra’s claims if one looks at the original text even cursorily. He interprets Gandhari’s pregnancy for two years, then birth of mass of flesh, its division into hundred pieces and keeping these pieces in tanks of ghee, etc. as experiments in stem-cell birth of Kaurvas. But ignores the fact that the mass Gandhari gave birth to was hard like iron, and broke into pieces when cold water was poured on it. How does this process square with processes in stem-cell cultivation? Obviously this is no concern of a bullsitter.
Batra’s own account of use of television by Sanjay to report war in Kurukshetra is full of holes. He claims that Mahabharata narrative of Sanjaya’s divya-drishti is a proof of existence of television. But modern day television is no Divya-drishti, it can be explained in terms of scientific causal relationships. To square the Mahabharata divya-dristhi with modern day television one has to stretch the concepts of “yoga-vidya” and “divya-drishti” out of shape to the extent that they become meaningless. However, as Frankfurt says, consistency in use of concepts and truth is no concern of a bullshitter as long as the desired manipulation of opinion works.
The issue, then, is: how to counter bullshit in the public education and discourse? The usual answer is: through encouraging critical thinking. But this answer is rather tame in the face of current attack on common sense.
The same idea is expressed in somewhat stronger terms in a Postman and Weingartner’s book “Teaching as a subversive activity”. The authors propose that for survival of a viable democratic society the schools should set out to cultivate “experts at ‘crap detecting’.”
The advice, in spite of being more than forty years old, is very relevant today in our society. We should gear our education and public discourse to countering bullshit and crap floating so thick these days. We should not imagine that ignoring crap and bullshit will make it go away. It won’t. We have to counter it. This is necessary not only to preserve the truth; but also to preserve a viable democratic society.