Every government claims to be concerned about the poor quality and dismal reach of our educational institutions but little effective change is made. It seems to me that no government to date has been seriously committed to a systematic agenda of establishing and improving education. Are we caught between what we have inherited which requires reassessment and the current populist ideological drives that are pushing us away from quality education? Quoting the increase in the number of schools, colleges and universities, doesn't tell us much about the criteria that go into the making of education. Improvement would lie in providing every Indian with some degree of comprehension of the world that he or she lives in.
Part of the problem is also the increasing interference from non-professionals in the content of education. Disallowing inquisitive enquiry can easily undermine the purpose of education as can diluting or even falsifying the content of what is taught. Neither of these are unknown today in schools. This becomes evident from the poor training that teachers receive-if at all-and the quality of the textbooks from which they teach. Administrators often look upon educational institutions as stepping stones to personal ambitions and the institution suffers. Political and religious organizations have demanded deletions in the content of syllabi, reading lists and textbooks, and at another level, they intervene in appointments of teachers. Proximity to a particular ideology becomes the driving force of activity. This was barely visible four decades ago but has accelerated to a far greater extent in recent times. Unfortunately many academics, even if they are aware of it, are hesitant to resist it.
A violent agitation by a group of students in Delhi University, claiming that an item in a syllabus hurt their religious sentiments, resulted in the Academic Council removing the item despite its importance to teaching the subject. The university recognizes the threat from groups with political backing but does it also understand the intellectual damage of conceding to such demands? This is precisely where decision through debate is called for. In much earlier times the better vice chancellors tackled these problems, and found ways of disallowing such interference. But in recent years, vice chancellors and administrative heads, in some cases, are themselves a part of this problem.
In recent decades general elections have brought different political parties with dissimilar ideologies to form the government. Some advocate interference in the content of education, where the aim is not searching for knowledge but ideological reasons for controlling what people think. So when the political party governing India changes, the history textbooks used in central state schools also change. This has happened with alternating UPA and NDA governments. As I have mentioned, an array of non-historians, among whom are politicians, bureaucrats and their hangers-on, as well as diverse religious enterprises that have nothing to do with historical research, demand the inclusion of their views in the textbooks. One wishes that they would stay within their own jurisdiction of marketing religions and garnering votes, and leave the control over the contents of education to those professionally qualified to do so. This is why many of us argued twelve years ago that the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) that produces textbooks, or the councils of research in various disciplines, should cease to be institutions controlled by the central government and instead should be autonomous organizations under the control of academics specializing in the specific subject. But not surprisingly, no one in authority responded to this suggestion. Politicians are loath to give up their access to patronage.
We have to take a decision as to whether the content of what is taught in school and college is to be the promotion of the ideology of a political party, or whether it should be up-to-date knowledge on the subject concerned. This is a choice that so far has been critical for the social sciences but not for the sciences. Recognizing the intervention of ideology in the sciences has so far been of marginal interest to scientists, not because there is no such intervention but because most scientists regard their research as being value-free and altogether unconnected to ideology. A few have tried to show the connection, but the majority remain unconcerned. Is this because science is still largely treated as a technology rather than a body of knowledge inherent to social change?
Excerpted with permission of Aleph Book Company from Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar. Pre-order your copy here.