Misinterpreting secularism, Indian culture and education

July 6, 2019

Rohit Dhankar

Professor V. Santhakumar’s article “Indian Culture, Secularism and Education: Let us be Realistic and Pragmatic” completely misses the point regarding secularism in education due to misinterpretation of the ideal of secularism. He assumes that the central point in the ideal of secularism is to make disappear “non-secular ways of life through” secular education and that there is a necessary dichotomy between emphasis on Indian culture on one hand and secularism on the other in school education.

The declaration of Indian constitution “to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual” is an embodiment of secular ideal in the constitution, right from the beginning, despite of not having the word “secular” in it before 42nd amendment. The declaration in the preamble does not make a distinction on the basis of religion among the citizens and is not guided by any religious doctrine. It is a state policy which implies in its very proclamation that ‘religious doctrine and ideals’ are not going to govern or influence the relationship between the citizens and the nation state.

For the rigour of this blog piece it is enough to say that secularism “in the twentieth century has come to refer to two interrelated practices: (1) a mode of political organization in which the state is neutral with reference to all established religions; and (2) later in the century, a political practice of the state that protects the rights of minorities in a multicultural society”.[1] The ideal of secularism then is an ideal to be followed by the state; in separating its policy from the religion and religious considerations. And it is not about making people abandon their religious or communitarian practices. Some religious practices, however, may have to be restricted in case they interfere with others’ rights and entitlements; that will be necessary for the state to fulfil its promise to all its citizens. I will discuss some such cases below.

Strictly for the present purpose, if we take the promises of justice, liberty, equality and dignity made by Indian constitution in its preamble (and then expanded in fundamental rights) then the state, on certain occasions, may come into conflict with religious practices of various communities. The constitution makes these promises to the ‘individuals’ not to ‘religious communities’ and makes these promises to all its citizens without any consideration of their practiced or professed faiths.

If a religion prescribes unequal treatment to its adherents then the state has to take note of it, and if any individual approaches the state with a complaint of injustice or inequality or encroachment upon his/her liberty etc. then the state is duty bound to protect its promises made to individuals irrespective of their religious affiliations. For example, from this perspective whatever the religious communities may believe the state cannot allow unequal access to public facilities (public transport, hotels) in the name of caste. If the state decides for health and other reasons to ban marriage before 18 years, then it cannot make considerations on the basis of Manu’s criteria of marrying a girl before puberty or Mohammad’s example of marrying a girl of 9 years. In such cases a secular state necessarily comes into conflict with practices recommended by religions. But this is because these practices trample on girl’s rights grow up as free individuals.

In India we are not very secular in our lives and the state actually does not fulfil the promises it made in the constitution. (That, however, does not make secular ideals any less important.) Our politicians indulge into non-secular practices as office bearers of state (Modi’s meditation in the cave) and we have state schemes that are non-secular in character (Kejriwal’s promise to send elderly Delhi residents on religious tourism on public exchequer). Modi and Kejriwal are free to practice their religion in their personal life, but not as office bearers and as state schemes. That is what secularism means.

If a religion wants to encroach on public spaces in the name of Ganesh or Durga puja or in the name of Friday namaz, it is the duty of the state to protect other citizens’ right to use those spaces; and not to advise people to stop either Ganesh/Durga puja or Friday namaz. That is none of the states business, all the state is concerned is that you practice your religion privately.

If a religion does not want to give women equal share in ancestral property, as was the case with Hindu women till as recently as 2005 and is the case with the Muslim women today, then the state is duty bound to protect the individual right of the woman who considers herself wronged. If the state does not do that with all women whatever their religion than it is not fulfilling the constitutional promise. However, if the woman herself in pursuance of her religious beliefs forfeits her rightful share, then the state, as far as I understand, has no business interfering in it. Professor Santhakumar assumes that the secular ideal is about not allowing the woman to donate her property to her brothers under her exploitative religious beliefs; as far as I understand, that is not the case, it is only if the woman wants her equal share, the state should ensure that she gets it. The secular ideal provides a framework of liberties and entitlements to each individual irrespective of their religion, it does not force them to depart from their religious practices if they do not encroach on other citizens’ rights.

Religions are known throughout history to accord unequal status to sections of population, treatment of Dalits and women in Hindu practices is an example. Treatment of women in Islam is another example. Whether the communities themselves reflect and amend these practices or not, the state is duty bound to provide opportunities through a legal framework to those who want to resist this unequal treatment.

The religions also have had ideals of not allowing other religions flourish or even exist. And the conversion of non-believers is mandated as sacred duty of believers in scriptures of some religions. That has been interpreted as theological legitimacy of conversion through force, fraud, fear and allurements; and is being practiced even today. A secular state that gives equal rights to practice their faiths to all its citizens can not allow this. And has to intervene even if the religious communities do not reflect and change themselves. And our students should understand these ideals and positions and should build a rational commitment to them. That is the duty of education.

Religions also put restrictions on people not belonging to their own communities. The present-day beef ban is an example. Not being able to buy meat on certain festival days is another example.   This is not about demanding from Hindus that they eat beef, nor from Jains that they eat meat. They are free to eat what they like; it is only about the rights of other citizens to eat what they want. It can not wait for the communities to change themselves and become open minded, it is about telling them that there are other people who live here, and they do not have any right to force their choices on them. And our future citizens should understand this, through education, of course.

Another issue in India, and in the world, has been of expressing one’s opinion freely without fear. This is part of liberty of thought, expression and belief. A citizen does have the right to critically analyse the doings and preaching of Ram, Krishna, Mahavir, Buddh, Christ, Muhammad and all such religious figures. And also has the right to express his/her opinion. If he/she finds something obnoxious in their behaviour or preaching, she has the right to say so openly and without fear. This does not mean asking believers to be critical about their religious figures or dogmas, it is not about forcing the believers to read or listen to such criticism. This is only about other citizens’ right to think and speak what they want to. Again, it can not wait till the communities themselves become wise enough to see that they should not try to control other people’s thinking. Citizens in a democracy need to understand and value this freedom.

This is about accepting others’ rights to live as they want, and not about wanting them to change their practices. If we want a multireligious and multicultural society to live in harmony, we have to get across these ideas and build commitment to them through education. That is where secular ideals are necessary in education.

This is true that these ideals can properly function in a society only when people accept them, and all the efforts about multicultural understanding and reflection within communities that Professor Santhakumar recommends are needed, and are very important. But that does not do away with emphasis on secular ideal in schools and in education.

In education and curriculum fair representation of all cultures and religious beliefs is another big issue. And that can not be avoided. I believe our education has been too shy (rather scared?) of critiquing cultural practices and religious dogmas in schools. If we want multiculturalism to flourish, we have to bring the critical understanding of religions in the curriculum and have to learn to call a spade a spade.

Professor Santhakumar is not correct when he claims that there is no evidence that ‘secular education’ makes people secular. Indian constitution is an example of people understanding the need to co-exist within the same country with multiple religious and cultural beliefs. And that was right after the country was divided on the basis of religion. And the education of the framers of constitution played a big role in that. His examples of educated Indians re-emphasizing their cultural roots do not negate this as long as they are not encroaching on others’ rights.

Another ideal that is necessary part of the secularism is using your own mind, being critical, being rational. The freedoms given to citizens and demand for responsible use of them necessarily requires development of critical thinking and demanding reasons and evidence for beliefs and actions. If education does not do it, democracy can not function. And that demands being fair in analysing all ideas religious or otherwise.

This also has to be done more seriously that the Draft National Education Policy recommends. It talks of the ‘skill’ of ‘critical thinking’ umpteen number of times, and even proclaims that “[T]extbooks will aim to contain only correct, relevant material; when unproven hypotheses or guesses are included, this will be explicitly stated.” Also talks of ‘evidence based’ thinking, again as a skill, many times. And then also makes claims like “India’s languages are … most scientific, and most expressive in the world”, and that “The concept of zero and its use in the place value system … also originated in India, over 2000 years ago”. (Emphasis added) By their own proclamation they should at the least have called them “hypotheses”. How do they defend the claim of Indian languages being most scientific and expressive? What is their evidence that zero was being used as a number 2000 years ago? One wonder how critically they have thought about these claims and what evidence they have for them. But then, when ‘critical thinking’ is taught as a ‘skill’ that is all you can expect. Our curriculum under secular ideals should have done better than that; and now will necessarily have to improve.

Calling secularism completely an alien ideal does gross injustice to Indian culture and its openness. It is true that the modern formulation of it as ‘separation of the state and the Church’ comes from Europe and is negatively inspired by Christianity due to its stranglehold on the state and people’s minds. But the ideals of people professing and practicing different faiths living together and state treating them equally—that does not necessarily mean treating ‘well’—is an age-old norm in India. A historian friend of mine told me that Ashok was fair to Buddhist monks and Brahmins in giving grants and donations, in spite of himself being a Buddhist. Ashok’s 12th Major edict gives an interesting peek into Indian mind in this regard, it is worth quoting in full here:

“The Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, honours all sects and both ascetics and laymen, with gifts and various forms of recognition. But the Beloved of the Gods does not consider gifts or honour to be as important as the advancement of the essential doctrine of all sects. This progress of the essential doctrine takes many forms, but its basis is the control of one’s speech, so as not to extoll one’s own sect or disparage another’s on unsuitable occasions, or at least to do so only mildly on certain occasions. On each occasion one should honour another man’s sect, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other man; while by doing otherwise one diminishes the influence of one’s own sect and harms the other man’s. Again, whosoever honours his own sect or disparages that of another man, wholly out of devotion to his own, with a view to showing it in a favourable light, harms his own sect even more seriously. Therefore, concord is to be commended, so that men may hear one another’s principles and obey them. This is the desire of the Beloved of the Gods, that all sects should be well-informed, and should teach that which is good, and that everywhere their adherents should be told, The Beloved of the Gods does not consider gifts or honour to be as important as the progress of the essential doctrine of all sects. Many are concerned with this matter – the officers of Dhamma, the women’s officers, the managers of the state farms, and other classes of officers. The result of this is the increased influence of one’s own sect and glory to Dhamma.”[2]

This is from an all-powerful emperor about 250 years before Christ was born, addressed to the general public as well as to the state officials. It may not be articulated in the exact terms as modern secularism quoted in the beginning, but comes as close to “a mode of political organization in which the state is neutral with reference to all established religions” as would have been possible at that time.

About openness and changes, yes, there is much resistance in changing practices in the society. There is also much injustice to sections of society and that is not giving way, often only changing form. But neither is it an absolutely ironclad rigidity. How the new age couples are changing Hindu marriage ceremony can be an example. I know at the least two couples personally who considered the practice of ‘kanyadan’ as demeaning to women and did not include that in their marriage. One couple used preamble of Constitution of India as ceremonial vow in their marriage. These changes have come about through secular ideals taught in the schools and colleges.  

Finally, there is no necessary dichotomy between emphasis on secular ideals and having one’s own religious or cultural identity. One can happily be a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jain, a Boddh, a Sikh, a Christian or an atheist; and be true to secular ideals as far as public behaviour is concerned. One has to compromise only on the religious beliefs and practices which restrict others’ freedoms. And that in any case has to be accepted if one is not living in a theological state. Those who want to force precepts of their own religions on others have to be prevented from doing so, even if they don’t like it. This much is necessary under any kind of modern state today, and is a necessary condition for existence of multireligious societies. If the future citizens of India are to understand all this appropriate emphasis on secular ideals in the school education is absolutely a must.


[1] International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences, Second Edition (2008), Volume 7, p277-378.

[2] Romila Thapar, Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas, OUP, 1997, p255

Education as Expansion of consciousness

May 3, 2016

Published in Deccan Herald, 3rd May 2016 http://www.deccanherald.com/content/544002/expansion-consciousness.html

Rohit Dhankar

“The child lives in a somewhat narrow world of personal contacts”, says John Dewey. He thinks that from this “narrow world”, the child has to be taken to a world which is “stretching back indefinitely in time, and extending outward indefinitely into space”. This, it seems to me, characterises the most important task of education.

We all begin our lives in a close and protective environment. Naturally, the child’s world is confined to direct experiences with the people and physical environment she is surrounded by. But life, even in that confined world of family, demands enormous expansion of consciousness (mind) as a child interacts with others. She is socialised in ways of behaviour, thought and feelings of her community. That helps her in connecting with others, in understanding their intentions, pains and hopes. In a way, she includes them in her own consciousness, they become a part of herself, and her consciousness expands.

While it is a great achievement for the child to have become a thinking being; her consciousness is still bound by that very cultural and physical environment. The very process of formation of mind also imprisons it.

That is why the most important role of education is to liberate the mind from here and now. This is a tricky endeavour though, as this liberty has to be achieved without alienating the mind from the community in which it was formed, for the most basic conceptual equipment is formed with the experiences gained in life as lived in that community.

Severing connection with that experience will render the conceptual equipment empty and useless. On the other hand, without loosening the connection, those conceptual structures will become unreceptive to anything beyond the pale of the community experience and will judge everything else with the narrow yardstick of that particular community.

Therefore, education becomes an endeavour of turning receptive to the ways of knowing, feeling, judging and doing of the humanity with intelligent analysis. That means learning to see oneself as part of the great mass of humanity and sharing in its destiny, while also expanding the imagination to construct human past as well as imagine its future. The vastness of the universe situates even the humanity in a much larger system and the full picture makes humanity a subject of critical assessment: How important is it? How sacrosanct are its ways? What future direction could/ should it take?

All this can be seen as liberating the mind from here and now. Liberation, in this sense, is not disconnection; it is simply growing beyond. The 3 most noisily preached ideals of education today all militate against this expansion of consciousness. They are more pronounced in the higher education, but also shape the school education significantly.

One of these ideals looks at education as preparing cannon fodder for capitalist economy. Riding on the economic aspirations of people, it almost exclusively emphasises marketable skills. Even when it uses lofty terms like “global citizen”, it only means being able to render services to market anywhere on the globe; not in the sense of feeling human pain caused by these market forces.

This not only disconnects the person from his/her formative roots but also makes her mechanical and self-centred to the level where rather than expanding the self, she can see all others only through the prism of self-interest.

Another ideal starts with a critical look at the society and offers a lot of hope in the beginning. But soon, this approach becomes so obsessed with identity politics that it focusses exclusively on one’s own identity; be that Dalit or woman or majority or minority. This particular affliction manifests itself most devastatingly at the university level, and becomes so completely obsessed with injustices done to one community that the whole humanity and all human actions are seen only through that lens. Rest of the humanity is not included in the consciousness, but is forcefully excluded by reducing it into an object of judgment.

Imagined identity

The third ideal, more forceful in last 2-3 years, is that of disregarding the formative community experiences to emphasise only one kind of consciousness that is based on a pruned and imagined Indian culture. Thus violating both the principles of keeping the connection with the formative stage as well as expansion. It considers the first as an aberration; while confining the self to include only one narrowly defined cultural and national ideal forcefully called Indian.

All three broad ideals are out to confine the mind to their own rigidly defined boundaries. They all, while having some grain of positive development, finally want to shape the self into a particular mould, which is incapable of encompassing the whole of humanity with its pain and pleasures, with its perils and achievements, with its depths of depravity and peaks of exalted achievements.

We need to re-emphasise the educational ideal that is capable of feeling the pain of particular sections of humanity without rejecting the rest of it. Which is capable of contributing to the economic machine that sustains the human life, without becoming just a cog in it. Which is capable of deriving nourishment from our limited experiences while subjecting them to values that cherish all humanity.

Often, though, this kind of thought is challenged with the question: all that if fine, but what is the way? The problem is that there is no settled prescription which can combat these fragmentary tendencies. One necessary ingredient of any possible solution, however, would be thinking with clarity and sensitivity towards whole humanity, acting with commitment and connecting with others in their struggles for justice. If we can manage that, some solution should emerge in due course of time.


Skill-Based Curriculum: Will it help students?

December 17, 2015

In DECCAN HERALD: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/517938/will-help-students.html

Rohit Dhankar

Skills based curriculum seems to be the current silver bullet for curing educational ills of the country. The Ministry of Human Resource Development discussion note on new education policy wants to “revamp … our education system to make skill development an integral part of the curriculum at all stages.”

Indian education is too often criticised for its ‘theoretical’ orientation and ignoring usable skills. This is supposed to be the main reason why it churns out supposed to be ‘unemployable’ school and college graduates. These claims as usually understood in their simplistic term may not be true; still, emphasis on ‘usable skills’ in education without compromising academic development should be welcome.

However, when one looks at the use of this term ‘skill’ in the current educational discussions several questions arise. What kind of skills are really usable in real life? How can they be taught? And more importantly: what does the term “skill” really mean? Some examples of the use of term skill (in current discussions) will be in order here: Life skills; basic language and numeracy skills; cognitive skills; self-employment skills; problem solving, critical thinking and reasoning skills; functional skills.

What does the term skill mean in all these cases? Is there really a common meaning of the term here? Can they be taught in the same manner across these domains? These questions become crucial when one starts developing a curriculum, teaching material, pedagogy and assessment. Just a rough skill-talk may sound very appealing in a vague debate, but will not help us develop any good educational programme.

Traditionally, the term skill was used for dexterities that could be taught directly through practice, involved but not much of knowledge and understanding, and which were of limited generalisability. For example, swimming. It could be taught directly by practice; does not necessarily need understanding of fluid dynamics. Its applicability remains very close to the situations in which it is learnt. Today, this is considered a ‘narrow’ use of the term skill; and a wider use encompasses all the things that are listed above. And therein lie a host of curricular and pedagogical problems. Just to hint at one of these problems let’s take three examples of skills: driving (it could be one of the self-employment skills), critical thinking and empathy.

Driving is a paradigmatic example of skill. It is directly teachable, little knowledge (of how the engine functions) is necessary and is not transferable; a car driver does not become a pilot automatically. Therefore, a short course could easily be designed and successfully implemented for driving. All you have to do is give sufficient practice and tell the traffic rules. And you have a thriving school of driving.

Now, think of critical thinking. A person to be a critical thinker, say in mathematics, necessarily needs a substantial amount of mathematical knowledge base. S/he needs an understanding of how mathematical reasoning works: deductive logic based on axioms and definitions, mainly. S/he needs to do a lot of mathematics, understand the principles of logic, for example inference; and has to internalise the logical relationships between abstract concepts. But it cannot be taught just by solving mathematical problems.

It requires much imagination, an attitude to stick with the logic and demanding proofs. It is highly generalizable but only on mathematical models. A critical thinker in mathematics is not necessarily a critical thinker in, say history. In history, one needs a lot of insight into interpretation of the available facts; and deductive logic works but only as a limited basis. One cannot have a short course in critical thinking (either in mathematics or in history) then; it develops in the process of acquiring a vast amount of human knowledge.

How to teach empathy

Third, let’s take empathy. It’s not even a skill. It is a feeling towards another sensitive being (humans and animals). It is a capability to feel the others’ pain. We do not know how to teach it. Though we do have some idea that a person himself treated with sensitivity and in close emotional relationships with other human beings is likely to be more empathetic to others compared to one who has not experienced such emotional bonding. We also know that a developed moral sense is likely to enhance one’s empathy with others. But there is no guarantee. And a course to teach empathy is impossible. Calling it a skill is ridiculous.

Now, when one talks of emphasising ‘capability for action’ in a curriculum; that may be a sensible thing to do. But when one treats all those capabilities as ‘skills’ education is likely to slide on the wrong path. Once you call something a skill, you get into the mode of thinking that it could be taught like driving. Which is not the case. Therefore, by over emphasising skills in school education you can make students into plumbers, drivers, computer jobbers, and hospitality workers; but not into good engineers, doctors, historians, mathematicians and scientists. And a country requires both to function well.

The skill talk in school curriculum, then, may be useful up to a certain extent, but may mislead our education if disproportionately emphasised.

A simple statistical indicator of this over emphasis on skills is that the word “skill” occurs in the MHRD discussion note for school education 25 times, “knowledge” seven times and “understanding” zero times! A close analysis of the themes and questions leaves no doubt that the overwhelming emphasis is on narrow skills; and where values and knowledge are mentioned they are more in a supportive role; while for good education you need to have it the other way round. Now, we can attempt at the least one of the questions asked in the themes document: Would skill based education help students to be employable? May be, at the lower end of the social and economic spectrum; but at a huge future cost to the student and to the nation.


For a rational education debate…

July 7, 2015

Published in THE HINDU, ON 7th July 2015


Rohit Dhankar

Maharashtra’s recent decision to conduct a survey of what it calls “non-school going children” seems to have created a storm. Political parties are now up in arms calling it an anti-minority move and Muslim leaders in particular have declared their resolve to fight the decision. Some intellectuals have even called the step as “insensitive” and one that will only raise the suspicions of the minorities. In the midst of this, there are claims being made that the education being imparted in madrasas has helped (and is helping) minority students pass even difficult tests such as the civil service examinations. But the point is that this entire debate is being conducted in an environment charged with emotion and irrelevant facts. In general, these arguments, if allowed to flourish, are likely to harm the cause of education in the country.

What is the issue all about? News reports of July 3-4 say that the Principal Secretary of the Minority Affairs Department sent a letter to the Principal Secretary, School Education, saying that students in madrasas and Vedic institutions which do not teach mathematics, social science, science and English should be considered as “non-school going”.

National system of education

After Independence, India has struggled to craft a National System of Education (NSE). The D.S. Kothari Commission recommended such a system and efforts to realise this goal have been on ever since the National Policy on Education 1968 or NPE 68 was in force. NPE expresses a commitment to realise this goal and every single national curriculum framework since 1975 has declared that one of the important concerns of the National Curriculum Framework is to realise the NSE. NPE 1986 states: “[T]he concept of a National System of Education implies that, up to a given level, all students, irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex, have access to comparable quality” of education. This is the commitment to equal opportunity in education. In order to meet this commitment, the NSE must be in a position to compare standards across the country.

Important features

The country has been struggling to establish the ‘10+2’ structure of education in all States. Without a uniform structure, there can be no idea of standards of achievement that can be worked out for India. Without setting such standards, a comparison of quality cannot be established. Therefore, the goals of equal opportunity for education become vacuous. However, in regard to the madrasa debate this is not the most important issue.

NPE 86 states that the NSE “will be based on a national curricular framework which contains a common core along with other components that are flexible”. Also, “the common core will include the history of India’s freedom movement, the constitutional obligations and other content essential to nurture national identity.” Further, this core “will be designed to promote values such as India’s common cultural heritage, egalitarianism, democracy and secularism, equality of the sexes, protection of the environment, removal of social barriers, observance of the small family norm and inculcation of the scientific temper.” It is not optional and has to be part of all State curricula and syllabi.

Another feature of NSE that emerges out of the commitment to this core is the “common scheme of studies”. This scheme — though described in somewhat variant terms — remains more or less the same as outlined in the “National Curriculum for Elementary and Secondary Education—A framework” or NCF 1988. The three subjects that remain common at the primary level in all States are language (mother tongue/regional), mathematics and environmental studies. At the upper primary and lower secondary levels, the common subjects are three languages, usually regional, Hindi and English, and in the Hindi-speaking areas, Hindi, another Indian language and English. There is also mathematics, social studies — which includes history, geography and civics or political science — and science. Art education, work experience and health and physical education are also part of the curriculum at the upper primary and lower secondary levels. But there is variance in them across States.

Right to Education Act 2009

What is important to note here is that there is supposed to be a common core curriculum across the nation, and there is a high degree of uniformity in the scheme of studies at the elementary level. These two aspects emerged from a felt need for a NSE and articulated in the NPE 1986.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), has some stipulations for curriculum and what will be considered “completion of elementary education” — which should be legally free and compulsory.

The RTE, in Section 29(1), stipulates: “[T]he curriculum … for elementary education shall be laid down by an academic authority to be specified by the appropriate Government, by notification.” All the State governments have already notified their own State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) as the “academic authority” that will lay down the curriculum. Maharashtra also has a curriculum specified by its SCERT, which as per the RTE is its official curriculum.

‘Studying a subject’

According to RTE, the State government is duty bound to make provisions for every child to complete elementary education according to the norms of the prescribed curriculum. If the SCERT in Maharashtra has mathematics, science, social studies and three languages in its curriculum, then it becomes imperative for it to see to it that every child studies all these subjects. Otherwise, the condition of completion of elementary education cannot be met. Therefore, if the State government is trying to identify children who are not getting educated, as per RTE, it has to include those children who are not studying all these subjects, be they in a madrasa, Vedic pathshala or any other religious or community school. If there are madrasas which do not teach one of these subjects, then the government cannot consider — as per RTE — these children to be “school going children”; technically, it has to declare them as “non-school going”. It does not matter whether many of them go on to universities or “crack civil service examinations” or any other competitive examinations. The purpose of establishing a national system of education is to not only prepare students for a livelihood and jobs, but also to make all children aware of the national movement for freedom, nurture a national identity, inculcate a scientific temper, and so on. In propagating these aims, mathematics, science and social studies are seen as necessary. However, if the madrasas are teaching all the subjects mentioned earlier along with religious studies, the State has to consider children studying there as “school going”. But that does not seem to be the case. The government letter seems to be defining “non-school going” as meaning only those children who do not study one or other of these subjects. Another point to keep in mind is that “studying a subject” here means “studying the government prescribed syllabus in that subject”. For example, if the children study the history of Europe or Africa, or Islam but do not study the history of India and the freedom movement, they cannot be considered as completing the prescribed curriculum.

Some news reports mention that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh recognise madrasas as schools, which is perfectly fine if the madrasas are teaching all the subjects prescribed by their State curricula. But if they are not and are still recognised as schools, and the children studying there are considered as school-going children completing their elementary education, then these States are guilty of dereliction of duty and are flouting the norms of NPE 86, NCF 2005 and RTE. I am not a lawyer, but I think that they are liable for legal action under RTE.

Harm to national consensus

The project of developing a national system of education is at least a 100-year-old one, though it took concrete shape only after Independence. The idea was debated by leaders of the freedom movement by the beginning of the 20th century. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Sri Aurobindo, Annie Besant, Madan Mohan Malaviya, and many others saw the ills of the system of colonial education and had their own ideals of national education. But many began to recognise that these ideals of education could not become a national system of education. In a systematic analysis, Lala Lajpat Rai rejected all the ideas mentioned earlier as being unworthy of national education status as he felt it would be sectarian. He recommended nonsectarian secular education in his book, The Problem of National Education in India , which was published in 1920. Tagore and Gandhiji wanted a system of education without any sectarian element. The Zakir Hussain Committee Report on Basic National Education articulated an ideal of citizenship that was strongly democratic.

After Independence, the University Education Commission 1950, the Secondary Education Commission 1952, and the Education Commission 1964 were all aware of the need for a national system of education. But education was a state subject in all its aspects including structure, curriculum and pedagogy. Therefore, the national system was more of a cherished ideal than a reality. Only after the 42nd Constitutional Amendment in 1976 did it really become possible to develop a national system of education. The characteristics of the ‘10+2’ structure of school education mentioned earlier, a common core of the curriculum and a more or less common scheme of studies emerged after that. It has taken a lot of hard work to achieve this state. The work is still unfinished as we still do not have commonly accepted standards of achievement. Also, we still do not have the ‘5+3+2’ structure of the first 10 years of education as some States have four years of primary education. But because of the common core of the curriculum and common scheme of studies we can now think of common achievement standards.

This kind of debate will dismantle that hard-earned consensus in structure and curriculum, thereby making equal opportunity impossible as there will be no criteria for judging equality or the lack of it. In any case, RTE is not being implemented with serious commitment in the country. If attempts like identifying “non-school going children”, as per its norms, are embroiled in unjustified controversies, political correctness will further demotivate governments from implementing whatever little is being attempted.


Examination System: In dire need of reform

January 5, 2015

Rohit Dhankar, Jan 05, 2015, Deccan Herald

The Zakir Hussain Committee Report (1939) on basic education rightly saw examination system as “a curse to education”. The Commission on Secondary Education (1952) spelled the curse out by pointing out that it dominates education in every aspect from content to teaching and that it becomes the sole motivation for learning.

Today, there is near unanimity that the examination system is in dire need of reform. Therefore, the Right to Education Act (RTE) is justified in emphasising continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE). However, all efforts to change the examination system almost always fail. One wonders why this exam system bounces back every time one tries to reform it. Obviously, there are many reasons. This article briefly hints at one, perhaps the most important, of them.

Examinations and the factory model of schooling

The structure of modern school, brought to India by colonial masters in curriculum, teaching and examination, assumes that knowledge can be organised into discrete packages, each to be mastered independently. Therefore, learning can be organised into grades, and the content of learning in each grade can be separated into subjects like language, mathematics and environmental studies without emphasising interconnections.

The curriculum, therefore, loses its aim of holistic growth and becomes a bag of more or less unrelated units. Once the curriculum is fragmented, the teaching and testing follow suit. Therefore, periodic checks on how much of each of these independent units is memorised becomes the most efficient way of evaluation. This is the birth of an examination system most suitable for a factory model of school. The models of the school and examination support and give life to each other, and are highly management friendly and authoritarian.

The CCE as a possible alternative

What is demanded in CCE is ‘continuity’ and ‘comprehensiveness’ in assessment of learning. Discrete periodic events—however frequent—do not constitute continuity, unless one creates a sham misleading definition. One does not require much analysis to realise that the continuity in evaluation can be achieved only if the teaching itself becomes a process of evaluation for the child as well as for the teacher, and includes an ongoing sensitive response to the child’s learning difficulties and achievements. This is possible; but requires individual attention to each child. Therefore, the teacher needs to know each child, be in a position to make mental note of their learning behaviour in the classroom, needs to know their difficulties and successes individually, and to keep a reliable record of her classroom teaching every day. This, in turn, demands a high teacher pupil ratio, and institutional time for the teacher to plan, prepare and maintain notes. The system recognises none of these demands of CCE or not to the extent it should.

The second aspect in CCE is comprehensiveness, which demands attention not only to the particular concepts being taught, but to situate them in curriculum of the subject, and connect with what is being learnt in all other subjects as well as to the child’s general problem solving behaviour. The teaching, therefore, becomes a highly reflective activity. In addition to scholastic learning, comprehensiveness also demands attention to the child’s attitudes and dispositions. That further increases the demand for time and hard work.

The purpose

The central purpose of CCE is to facilitate better learning for the child. Three-fold variations in any class room can be easily understood: One, the children are likely to learn with different paces. Two, are likely to have different conceptualisations of what is being taught during the process of learning; for example, in their ways of understanding multiplication or how seasons change.

Their paths to achieve a common understanding are likely to differ substantially. Three, children come to class with different levels of preparedness to learn and interest in different subjects. Therefore, the same child may learn faster in one subject while may be slow in another. A suitable pedagogy for CCE has to facilitate learning in all these situations.

Little choice

On the other hand, the system demands that all children in a class complete the curriculum by the end of the session. This leaves very little choice for the teacher but to teach the whole class in a uniform manner. In order to complete, say, the upper primary curriculum in three years the teachers and children need an enormous amount of freedom to plan their work and execute it. The authoritarian system does not allow that.

To take an example, the understanding of child’s knowledge in CCE has to be progressive meaning making which becomes increasingly consistent internally as well as with accepted human knowledge at a given historical juncture. In this understanding, if the child is becoming progressively aware of her own ideas and tries to create coherence in them, it should be considered very good progress. But the year-wise packaged curriculum emphasises conformity, memorisation and reproduction on demand. These two attitudes to knowledge and learning contradict each other. As a result the teaching becomes geared to examination and the intellectually organic progress has to be abandoned.

It is clear, therefore, that the CCE can succeed only if we make the system flexible, change the notion of child’s knowledge, formulate the curriculum as a learning continuum and restructure the school.

Surprising we continuously miss the point that the prevailing examination system is a creature of the structure of school and curriculum; and cannot be reformed without dismantling the authoritarian school. If we still lack the courage to question this structure, CCE will fail; or it will metamorphose into something very akin to the existing examination system; which will serve no good purpose than to kill one more excellent idea in education.

A malfunctioning system in need of repair

September 14, 2014

Published in The Hindu http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/a-malfunctioning-system-in-need-of-repair/article6408307.ece

Rohit Dhankar

We may have to seriously re-evaluate our notion of quality itself and then match the systemic efforts…

The unsatisfactory quality of elementary education has been a serious concern for India at the least for the last four decades. Many quality improvement programmes have been devised and implemented at State and national levels; but they all left the quality lower than they found it.

The access in terms of children attending the schools has certainly improved. But it is mainly due to increased awareness of parents and mushrooming private schools that cash in on the parental aspirations.

The BJP, in its election manifesto of 2014, has promised to “meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education” among other things.

Since then there are periodic announcements from HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding curriculum improvement and policy review to ‘reorient education’ to meet the aspirations of the people. However, if we really want to improve the quality of education for all, we may have to seriously re-evaluate our notion of quality itself; and match the systemic efforts to achieve what we understand by it.

The notion of quality

The popular discourse regarding quality today revolves around reports of certain large-scale achievement tests in language and arithmetic like ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) and the world-wide PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) for ranking; even though India does not participate in the PISA. These may indicate an important part of what needs to be achieved, but they also mislead efforts for improvement of quality in education. One, by narrowly focussing and therefore emaciating the very idea of quality; and, two, by creating an impression that one can improve scores in these tests by directly targeting such improvement. Education is a complex affair, the visible achievements often are the result of subterranean processes and belief systems operating in the system. Unless we pay attention to them, direct teaching-to-test may produce no substantial results.

In efforts to rethink quality we should note that, like everything else in education, quality also has a political dimension. Education systems are geared to larger social purposes. The definition of quality we will create for, say, turning India into ‘make-in-India’; whatever that might mean; may be very different from the one we create for ‘inclusive India’. There is no necessary contradiction between ‘make-in-India’ slogan and notion of ‘inclusive India’, but the emphasis does matter; and it is possible to forget the latter in the energetic pursuit of the first. The emphasis on inclusiveness in our education policy needs not only be safeguarded but also be deepened. The ‘make-in-India’ without inclusiveness is neither achievable nor worth striving for. This political orientation of education is an essential part of quality.

The second aspect of quality are the twin problems in our education system which have been lamented in virtually all committees/commissions reports and curricular documents since Independence — one, the plague of rote learning devoid of understanding; two, the disconnect between education and life.

The large-scale testing completely ignores both these aspects, and the noise created around the scores takes the attention away from the essence of education. Israel Scheffler, the well-known American philosopher of education while discussing teacher’s control over learning wrote: “It is where his control ends that his fondest hopes for education begin.” Our education, as it is implemented in the classrooms today, does not provide scope for creativity and independence.

The third, an essential aspect of pedagogy for meaningful education, is the child’s right to “meaning making” and confidence in the truth of what is learnt. This confidence cannot rest on the authority of the textbook or the teacher. It has to be cognitively earned by the child through constructing her own justifications for what she learns. In our zeal for teaching everything as fast as possible we bypass the creative processes of justification that makes confidence and relevance possible.

The fourth — our pedagogy has to learn to respect the child as a person. Corporeal punishment and insulting behaviour in the classroom are already punishable offences. But respect for the learner as a person goes beyond this. It is acceptance of her individuality and judgement. The child’s questioning, failure to understand in the classroom, scepticism and rejection of what we want her to believe, etc. all are part of her self; and the teacher has to engage with them with full respect for her cognitive and moral development.

Unless we see quality in this larger sense our attempts will bear little fruit.

Preparedness of the system

Is our education system prepared to take forward quality understood in this larger sense? No. We have to work towards this preparedness. Some of the most important aspects of this preparedness could be identified as below.

One, we need to create conviction in the political elite, administrative structure and education functionaries to look at education in a broader sense. And to ram the point home that better education is essential for both ‘inclusive India’ and well as for ‘make-in-India’.

We have to face the truth that as a society we do not exhibit concern for providing equal opportunity of good education to all. This would require a large-scale churning in society for consensus-building on this issue. The government, universities and apex institutions like NCERT and NCTE can take a lead in this; and substantial cooperation from media will be required.

Two, we have to recognise the inadequacy of our teaching force; both in terms of numbers and preparedness. Most of our teachers are unaware of curricular demands on them and see learning as the capability to repeat what is written in the textbook. This is because many of them are untrained and most of the trained ones have had very bad teacher education. This demands an immediate programme of in-service teacher education. Unfortunately in-service teacher education is totally discredited by the massive programmes like the District Primary Education Programme and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. We need to understand clearly the reasons why our attempts in the past failed. We should refrain from discarding the very idea of in-service teacher education based on our experience of lacklustre implementation of ill-conceptualised programmes in the past.

Three, we need urgently to sort out the mess that is pre-service teacher education today. The debate on this issue has to go beyond duration of B.Ed. courses and who can and cannot teach there in. We have to reconceptualise teacher education which is coherent with our vision of education and educational quality. At the moment there is a wide gap.

Four, at present we have reasonably good curriculum framework. However, it is already about 9 years old and there is no harm in reviewing it. But that review process should neither be motivated by political agendas like bringing in unfounded and ill- understood ancient cultural elements nor by aligning school curricula with higher education and research needs. Every educationist worth his salt understands that rationale of school curriculum rests on building foundations of being human and participation in democratic life. If it is geared to preparing people for IITs, IIMs and goalposts defined by IITs elementary education will lose relevance in life of most of our children and will also fail to reach those very goalposts.

Five, we need a massive programme for education functionaries right from headmasters to the State-level administrators to understand education, educational reform and build conviction that the government can actually do it.

And finally, we should free education from the whims of the all-knowing demigods called IAS officers. We urgently need Indian Education Services. It could be started with select academics and IAS officers, but finally has to become an independent cadre geared to educational needs of the country.

One understands that the above analysis points to massive changes. But then we have an old, malfunctioning system to repair; no one should imagine that it can be done by mere slogans or cosmetic changes.

Apathy for truth

August 14, 2014

Rohit Dhankar

(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.

Digantar Schools: Will we be able to continue them?

March 19, 2014

Digantar schools have been providing quality education and developing educational ideas and practices of significance for last more than three decades (read the Introduction below).

The schools now are in danger of closing down due to lack of funds. We have been in negotiation with a few donors but it seems support for running costs from 1st April 2014 onwards is unlikely to come forward.

We do have funders for modest infrastructural costs and our infrastructure for a small senior secondary school is perhaps acceptable. We also have some organisational reserves to run the schools for about a month or so. But beyond that we will be forced to close down the schools. That will immediately stop education of more than 500 children, majority of them being girls and about 50 of the girls being at the secondary and senior secondary level.

In case you happen to know any funding agency who might be interested in supporting the schools please pass this appeal with on, in case you agree with our view that the continuation of Digantar schools still have potential to contribute to educational thought and practice in the country.
With best regards

A Very Short Introduction to Digantar: for schools

Digantar is a Jaipur based organization which works in school education. (Further details could be seen at http://www.digantar.org) Our motto is “Education for Equity and Justice”. We work towards this ideal through education that makes learners independent in thinking and action; so that they can contribute to socio-political and economic well being of the society.

We started as a small experimental school in 1978 and subsequently registered in 1987 as a non-profit society. Digantar schools are based on the belief that aims of education should be to make the child self-motivated and independent learner; to become a critical and contributing citizen in a democracy. Towards this end, we have been making attempts to conceptualize school curriculum, and pedagogic practices which could help the children develop their rational capabilities and exercise autonomy in learning. This we see as necessary for development of active and critical citizen in a democracy that has justice and equality as its basic values.

Digantar, at present, runs two schools, where more than 500 children get their education. Over last two decades, the schools got recognition as pursuing alternative pedagogic practices where the learners’ rational capabilities and capability to learn independently are respected. The schools can also be regarded to have made a modest contribution to thinking on the issues of aims of education, curriculum design, pedagogy and teacher education. It has helped us learn and develop our thinking in education. Taking forward the learning and experiments in school, we were encouraged to contribute in educational discourse in mainstream education system.

With the encouragement and support from some like-minded organizations, we began to work with different organizations, and governments. The nature of our engagements with other organizations and governments have largely been of resource support and training. Over the last two decades, we had opportunities to work with multiple organizations and various state governments. Some of the major projects that we have taken up and successfully completed in the last two decades include the resource support to District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) in Madhya Pradesh, evaluation of DPEP impact in Kerala and capacity building workshops for personnel from eight Hindi speaking states. Working with State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT), Chhattisgarh to help develop their textbooks for elementary classes, and subsequently to develop their Diploma of Education Programme for teacher education. We also had chance to play significant part in development of National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 and subsequent textbooks. In collaboration with Government of Rajasthan, and other agencies, we undertook a large scale and major project called Quality Education Programme, in Baran district of Rajasthan. The Programme focused on developing in-service teacher education programme towards realizing quality education. We have also been working with Azim Premji Foundation to mutually contribute to each other’s programmes and initiatives.

Besides several other works and programmes, one of the initiatives which we consider worth-mentioning as part of introduction is our collaboration with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, in their innovative post-graduate programme in Elementary Education. We were one of five collaborators in beginning the programme with responsibility to develop curriculum, and course contents and teaching.

The purpose of this brief introduction of Digantar is to underline the fact that all this has been possible because of our schools. Digantar schools serve three purposes simultaneously.

1. They address the local need of good quality education in a community where female literacy was less than 2% when we came to work in this area in 1989. The overwhelming majority of girls in the area who have completed elementary education are Digantar students. There is a visible change in girls’ participation in education and mothers’ participation in decision making regarding their daughters’ education.
2. We learn from the experience how to run good quality schools at the same cost per-child as the government education system in Rajasthan. This learning enables us to develop new ideas in curriculum, pedagogy and teacher education. The learning from the schools is used in formulating our own projects and capacity building at the state and national levels.
3. The direct experience in running of the schools helps us develop ideas that contribute to national discourse on education and schools serve as a site for field exposure in innovative good quality education for several teacher education colleges, government projects and other organisations working in elementary education.

Thus the Digantar Schools are contributing significantly to development of educational thought and practice in the country. It is generally recognised that continuous development of new ideas and practices are essential for healthy growth of any education system. For example the whole nation for last 3 years is grappling with the idea of Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) to better understand children’s learning trajectories and simultaneously do away with stressful and wasteful narrow examinations. Digantar schools are practicing such an evaluation system for last more than 30 years. Many of the pedagogical and curricular recommendations in NCF and RtE have been a normal way of running and organising schools in Digantar from day one of its inception.

As we all know, the funding environment in last decade and half has changed. Many of the donors have declared themselves to be direct implementers on the ground, thereby reducing Voluntary Agencies to the status of junior implementation partners without their own agendas. The other trend is to fund projects which bring about large systemic changes. There are very few, if any, who recognise that large scale systemic changes require ideas and practices concerning aims, curriculum, pedagogy and teacher education, that can be taken forward. The core ideas of change that NCF and RtE recommend are all generated and perfected at small scale schools in India and abroad. Drying out of support for schools that spot educational problems and develop solutions on the ground will emaciate the system in terms of new visions and ideas.

Digantar schools which have been running since September 1978 and have contributed to educational thought and practice in the country through last more than three decades are in danger of closing down after 31st March 2014. We have no supporter to continue the schools. It will immediately effect education of more about 500 children, majority of whom are girls; and will shut down one significant site of educational experiments.

Therefore, this introduction also becomes an appeal to seek further funding for these schools. If any reader happens to know a funding agency who might be interested in supporting such schools, we request her/him to forward this introduction and appeal to them.

Still hoping to continue the work we began 35 years back.