Swinging the pendulum in opposite direction and knowledge

May 16, 2023

Rohit Dhankar

A friend expressed the following thoughts on a forum we have created for discussions on philosophy of education: “I read that there has been some deletions in the NCERT History textbooks.

Some are saying this is done to reduce the unnecessary burden on students, while others are of the opinion that this step is political in nature.

In this context, please may I know what is knowledge (is it simply justified true belief) and whose knowledge is considered as knowledge? How is knowledge created?

First about NCERT

The issue of reduction of curricular load

I have not followed this issue due to lack of time and energy. However, my impression is that the deletions happened during COVID19 in the name of “rationalization of the syllabus”. Even at that time the term “rationalization” was grossly abused in this context, unless it was used in the derogatory sense when ‘one tries to justify unjustifiable by giving flimsy unconvincing reasons’. In the positive sense of rationalization one requires adequate criteria to workout what should be removed and for what reasons. Simply because the schools were disrupted and there was not adequate teaching, truncating syllabus is no good reason to my mind. Second, even if one wants to do that, one has to take into consideration the overall structure, epistemology, spirit and purposes of the subject to reduce curricular load. And that cannot be done simply by dropping chapters or paragraphs or sentences from a text. Any textbook, worth its name, should have a coherence and integrity, and this kind of deletion will destroy that.

Thus, to me this make-believe rationalization was a bad idea from educational point of view. I seem to remember having written something like this somewhere.

The issue of ideological biases in deletions

There were several articles at that time arguing that chapters on Muslim rulers, on social inequalities and people’s movements were either removed or truncated. NCERT issued a huge list of deleted content, I did not see a single article analysing the list in the light of the objectives of the subjects and making an argument for or against it. Everyone rode his own hobbyhorse and blamed for this or that ignoring everything else.

It seems (I am not sure, as said above did not follow this issue carefully) now the NCERT has published new books in the truncated form and that version has become the formal textbooks. I will look at the three questions raised by my friend in the light of this background.

The questions

Before we come to the questions proper, let’s look at the statement “others are of the opinion that this step is political in nature”. Well, everything in curriculum is political in nature. If public agitations and inequalities are highlighted this is political in nature because it gives a particular view of the society and highlights the need to change in power equations. If agitations and inequalities are hidden and glossed over, this is gain political in nature, because it wants to maintain the status quo. The real issue is which politics is based on correct information and proper democratic concerns that may help in wellbeing of all people in India. So, basically it is “my politics is good your politics is bad” issue. Therefore, I will interpret this statement as “ideological reasons which go against principles of democracy and general wellbeing of people”.

The questions paraphrased for convenience are as follows:

  1. In this context, what is knowledge (is it simply justified true belief)?
  2. Whose knowledge is considered as knowledge?
  3. How is knowledge created?

In this context, what is knowledge (is it simply justified true belief)?

Why knowledge should be anything different in this context? Why should this question even arise? I don’t know. Yes, knowledge (propositional variety) in the traditional western epistemology is “justified true belief”. It may have its problems, inadequacies and limitations. But as far as I know no better general formulation is available which helps humans better than this one in making this difficult question at the least somewhat manageable.

However, this definition of knowledge is applicable only to propositions. Therefore, it is important to know what the proposition under investigation is. Consider the following:

  1. NCERT deleted some parts of textbooks.
  2. NCERT deleted portions which emphasize contribution of Muslim rulers or inequality or people’s struggles. (They are three different propositions)
  3. NCERT deletions are biased as they deleted more portions concerned with contribution of Muslim rulers or inequality or people’s struggles. (They are three different propositions)
  4. NCERT deletions are politically motivated in favour of an ideology that goes against democratic principles.

They are different propositions, and each must be considered carefully. The truth of proposition a) can be easily established, justification involve only looking at the new books and comparing them with the old ones. Proposition b) can be settled equally easily, by comparing old and new books. Proposition c) would require a careful study of all the material deleted and logic (if any given) behind such deletion and arriving at a judgment will be required. One has to formulate criteria for such comparison. Proposition d) will require a much more careful study of all the material deleted, its importance in the overall scheme of the books and objectives of education at that stage, and a much more complex argument has to be built. And it may not be as straight forward as calling it simply true or false, or fully justified or having reasonable justification. Here, interpretation and degrees of justification will play a role and possibility of doubt or challenge, or dispute will remain. It may never reach the status of “justified true belief” and one may have to be satisfied with more or less reasonable opinion or more or less reasonable belief.

But the criteria and definition remain the same. Their practical application becomes calibrated according to the complexity of the context.

Whose knowledge is considered as knowledge?

This question never stops amusing me, I am not sure whether I understand this one properly or not. Suppose a bank manager says that a customer has to pay Rs.12,000/- as interest for Rs.1,00,000/- s/he took from the bank at an agreed upon annual rate of 12%. Also suppose the customer says that the interest of Rs.1,00,000/- at 12% annual rate for one year is only Rs.9,350/-. “Whose knowledge is accepted as knowledge?” The customer’s or the bank managers? I find it strange to ask this question in such a situation.

Suppose a physicist claims that the gravitational pull of the earth is less at the top of Everest compared to the same at the sea level in Bombay. And a so-called gyani says that “no, it is the same”. Whose knowledge is accepted as knowledge?

Well, accepted by whom? By a rational audience which understand what is involved in knowledge claims, the proposition that is better justified on publicly agreed criteria for truth and justification should be accepted. And for that claim to be certified as knowledge, it’s truth has to be justified. As far as acceptance in the society is concerned it may be anything. Many charlatans can make public accept their propounded dogmas and claims, that does not make those dogmas knowledge. People may believe that Kamadhenu produced an army of warriors to protect Vishwamitra, others can believe Muhammad travelled to heaven on a donkey in one night, still others can believe a virgin girl can give birth to a child. And there are people “who” propound these beliefs and make people believe. Does that make these false claims knowledge?

So, I don’t understand what exactly this question means.

How is knowledge created?

Depends what knowledge is being created. Different forms of knowledge may involve different ways of knowledge creation and/or ascertaining. There are also various theories. However, basic assumptions, concepts, observations, logic and developing arguments are often involved. I have briefly hinted at what procedures and considerations may be involved in the deciding about the propositions a) to d) above.

My personal views on the NCERT issue

As I have said twice above, I have not studied the issue. But from my general involvement in social, political and education issues in India I have formed some tentative views. They are presently only my ‘working beliefs’, to justify them rigorously I may have to work more.

History teaching in Indian schools has been deliberately biased since the very beginning. The Zakir Hussain report on Basic National Education wants to high light love, peace, and triumph of non-violence over wars and violent victories in history teaching in schools. To me this is indoctrination, not teaching history. One can systematically show the balancing trick to whitewash destruction and atrocities by some Muslim rulers. Those interested can read my article herehttps://rohitdhankar.com/2022/06/13/when-the-denial-hurts-more-than-the-destruction/ .

However, the present-day government wants to push the pendulum in the opposite direction. As whitewashing atrocities of Muslim rulers and Muslim politics in freedom movement did no good to India; demonising all Muslim rulers and making Hindu rulers paragon of virtue also will do no good.

Our school history was biased (strongly) in one direction, now the government seems to want to reverse that bias in opposite direction. The bias was deliberate on the basis of conscious decision, politically motivated against democratic right of people to know the truth as it is. The current movement is also politically motivated against democratic right of people to know the truth as it is, though the lie propagated now is different than the lie propagated earlier.

You have nagnath in place of sanpnath (सांपनाथ की जगह नागनाथ). Congratulations.