Sunday, 27 July, 2008

Fighting An Inconvenient Textbook...

A middle school text book on social studies has become basic reading for all of Kerala - school children, matriculates, graduates and every section of society has taken keen interest in reading the contents of this book which has given rise to a debate reaching far beyond the seventh standard classroom it was intended to be discussed in. For Kerala, whose educational standards have fallen alarmingly despite a glorious past, the introduction of a few imaginative chapters with progressive ideals in a revised textbook has lead to another controversy in the fight for hegemony in the high-profit business of education - it has raised the hackles of the conservative establishment which see in the move a hidden agenda to propagate communist ideals among schoolchildren.

The chapter that offended religious sentiments especially of the minorities dealt with a student born out of an inter-religion marriage being enrolled in school without an entry for his religion and caste. When the headmaster quizzes the parents on what the child will do without a religion and caste when he grows up, the parents reply saying that "let the child chose his religion and caste when he grows up". The opposition UDF led by the Congress was quick to raise an agitation on the issue but the Congress student wing, KSU, which today has been reduced to a fringe organization within the Congress with a few dozen active volunteers in each district failed to actively spearhead the movement. The more effective opposition to the textbooks came from Muslim League's MSF which burnt textbooks in Malappuram and Christian schools which even paraded schoolchildren out in the sun.

Nonetheless the intervention of church leaders and other religious figureheads from other communities succeeded in getting the government to appoint an expert committee headed by eminent historian K.N.Panikkar to review the textbook though their larger demand of withdrawal of the textbook hasn't found favour with the CPM-led government which continues to stand strongly by the contents of the textbook. Though there have been calls to launch a stir reminiscent of the notorious Liberation Struggle which brought down the first EMS government, the faint response to these calls from the Christian faithful and other upper caste communities indicate the heavily eroded base of these pressure groups.

The establishment taking up cudgels for the schoolchildren on the basis that the textbook propagates atheist ideals and undermines religion, have grossly underestimated the capacity of our young minds to think for themselves and form an independent opinion of matters. It is indicative of our system of pedagogy which teaches children to cram information and become slaves to the educational curriculum but halt them from deriving any benefit from their schooling by preventing any real discourse or analysis of even basic social problems. Our tendency to shove uncomfortable questions under the carpet is also highlighted by the opposition to the basic progressive ideals raised here.

A consensus on the textbook issue looks unlikely. The government has the option of forcing aided schools run by dissenting groups to toe its line but private managements have time and again managed to outwit the government in past battles. It remains to be seen who will blink first in this showdown. Whatever happens, lets hope that the issues raised to provoke thought and the mode of pedagogy that the textbook espouses will survive to give a positive boost to our educational system that produces clerks, peons and IT zombies by the thousands every year but very few citizens with the desire and ability to change the existing order.

P.S - Op-Ed written for course work. It was in late May when I reached TVM that this issue burst out. My first suspicion was cpm agenda and probably it is, but over time my brooding on this topic tells me that religion needs to be questioned by young minds.