NCERT’s National Curriculum Framework: A Review

C.N. Subramaniam

The BJP/RSS has undertaken a major revision in the orientation of mass education in the country. A part of this strategy is to rewrite the history textbooks to suit a right-wing interpretation of Indian history. Much has been written about this in the bourgeois press and need not be repeated here. However what usually gets missed is the larger agenda of reinforcing ‘traditional’ authorities and hierarchies and controlling social mobility. This is discussed rather explicitly in the policy document that was published earlier. It needs to borne in mind that while it is true that the BJP/RSS is undertaking this project with determination and seriousness, most elements of the policy (whether value education or religious education) were actually initiated by the various Congress governments since the 80s, which went back on the more liberal curricular policy of the 60s and 70s. This needs to be seen in the context of the larger social processes wherein established caste hierarchies and particularist identities are being questioned and eroded. A second point that gets missed in the discussions is the fact that the curricular policy pursued by the Congress-inspired agencies has led us into a serious crisis of overburdening children with rote learning of the worst kind. The BJP has cleverly used the disenchantment with this policy to pursue its agenda.

‘Such pervasive emphasis on context is, I think related to the Hindu concern with jati – the logic of classes, of genre and species, of which human jatis are only an instance… Each jati or class defines a context, a structure of relevance, a rule of permissible combinations, a frame of reference, a meta-communication of what is and can be done.’ A.K. Ramanujan in ‘Is there an Indian way of thinking? The Collected Works of A.K. Ramanujan, OUP, Delhi, 1999, p. 47.

A phrase which occurs rather frequently in the NCERT document is ‘contextualizing education’ – indeed a count may actually show that it occurs more often than the much bandied ‘value education’. Though it is never stated, there is an implicit critique of the pursuit of an universalist agenda since Independence (and perhaps even earlier by the British). For many of us working in the field of mass education, too, the steamrollering universalism of our education system has been a source of a major grouse. That children have different paces of learning, different interests and aptitudes and different learning requirements or even that what we teach them in the schools may not correspond to their cultural or economic ethos is seldom a subject of concern. Yet every effort at ‘contextualizing’ education – to the child, to its cultural ethos, is viewed by the people with suspicion and even meets with their stiff opposition. I recall the firmness with which Gond tribal parents rejected the idea of teaching their children in Gondi language in the first years of their schooling. We were discussing the problem their children faced because they did not understand the language used in the school. The children felt terrorised, withdraw into themselves, and just stop relating to the class room processes. The alternative of course was to teach them in their mother tongue, Gondi, at least in the first two years and make a gradual transition to standard Hindi. The parents would hear nothing of it. ‘We will take care of Gondi at home. You teach Hindi and English in the school. They can’t get jobs with Gondi.’ Parents are not pedagogues but they understand their society fairly well and they can clearly see what facilitates mobility and what does not.

Mobility is not among the favourite words of the authors of the new curriculum. Indeed they are suspicious of mobility for it tends to dissolve boundaries and creates unwanted confusions. If the earlier two documents of NCERT (1975 and 1988) talk of making education a tool of social transformation, the latest document places emphasis is on safeguarding diversity and preserving heterogeneity. It is surprising as it goes against the supposed homogenizing drive of modern ‘Hindutva’ which is presumed to be the main inspiration behind the NCERT document. We will have occasion to comment on this later on, but we shall return to the question of mobility and diversity. The NCERT’s preference for immobility is indicated by the geological analogy used to describe Indian society. ‘… India is a multicultural and multilingual society with a perennial undercurrent of essential unity. Its social base seems to be consisting of rocks of all ages jumbled together by a series of seismic shocks.’ (p. 2) This analogy lends itself to a number of images – an extremely slow pace of change, immutable constituents, the aesthetic of the mosaic, etc. What the ‘seismic shock’ is supposed to signify is anybody’s guess. These different constituents not only coexist but also interact and assimilate each other.

‘India’s various ethnic groups form interconnecting loops, competing and cooperating while forming complex web of interaction. Indian culture is thus a living process of assimilating various strands of thought and life style. (NCERT 2000, p. 2-3)

That this assimilation was through a process of creating hierarchies and imposing relations of subordination and exploitation, is conveniently forgotten. Thus the call for preservation of heterogeneity becomes a cover for preserving these inequities.

The NCERT constructs an ideal Golden Age which preceded the establishment of the British rule in India. Incidentally this construction draws heavily from, not ancient Indian texts like the Arthasastra, or the Manusmriti, but from British Orientalist constructions of the idyllic Indian Village Community.

Traditionally India has been perceived as a source of fulfillment…, consisting primarily of an agrarian society, the social design of which emphasised self sufficiency, contentment and operational autonomy for each village. The principles of non-interference and non-aggression were emphasised. The economic structure of the country was designed on the basic principle of distribution of resources, not distribution of income. The social matrix was congruent with the economic design based on the principle of distribution authority given to each village unit… In the agrarian society successive generations followed the occupations as well as the goal sets of the family or the caste at large.’ ((NCERT 2000, p. 3)

That this image of idyllic village communities of India cannot be sustained by what little we know of our past is but a point of minor importance to the issue. Nor do we need to labour on the fact that gender and caste oppression lay at the foundation of this village community or that zamindari (landholding) was a central institution around which much of the rural society revolved. What is of relevance here is the positing of an ideal which provided for the autonomy of the primary socio-cultural unit vis a vis the universalising drive of the state and secondly the implicit celebration of the caste system which was the organising principle of the ‘social matrix’. Each person in this idyllic world pursued, not universal goals but those set for his family and caste. Traditional education system was embedded in this social context.

The history of Indian education shows that… various cultural and religious groups established their own educational institutions to suit their specific requirements. … The religious institutions provided for the development of the whole individual – body, mind and spirit, infusion of a spirit of piety and religiousness, formation of character, development of personality, inculcation of respect for civic and social duties, production of social efficiency, and preservation and spread of national culture.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 1) Shorn of the verbiage this account of the traditional education system tells us that each ‘cultural and religious group’ had its own educational institutions in which it was free to preach its dogma and that education taught people to stick to their social duties, no doubt as prescribed for their own ‘family and caste’.

But then all good things come to an end – certainly not because they cease to be good but because they are overpowered. Varnasamkara, which Arjuna feared would set in with the Mahabharata war finally did set in under the influence of ‘alien technologies’.

‘…however technological development later introduced new professions, and consequently new goal sets emerged. In contrast to the joint... family system, the society now is witnessing the phenomenon of nuclear families, single parents, unmarried relationships and so on. The modern formal work organisations have generated peer groups and collaborative work patterns. The British system of education, which has continued in India even after independence, has contributed to this development.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 4) (There is a combination of a matter-of-fact narrative combined with strong nostalgia, indicating that a debate is still on in the NCERT too.)

Once again the issue is not the veracity of the statements made, for the fact is that most of the great Brahmanical seats of learning whether at Nadia or Kanchipuram or Sringeri had little use for the ‘knowledge and skills’ of the peasants or artisans or tribals. These were transmitted through ‘family and caste’ channels. When the British were establishing the first educational institutions in India it was people like Raja Rammohun Roy, who, quite like our Gond parents, had urged the British not to invest in teaching Sanskrit texts but on teaching modern science and mathematics.

What is of relevance here is that colonial education, the villain of the piece, is accused of two major crimes. Firstly, in place of religious schools it established ‘grant in aid’ based institutions. In other words instead of allowing each religious group to preach its dogma to its flock the state sought to set up institutions to pursue its own educational agenda. Secondly, this agenda of the state had alienated the Indian education system from the ‘wisdom, the belief and the value system of the people’. The accusation may appear rather strange considering the fact that it was the establishment of British rule which helped India to recover and publicise the vast literary heritage of Sanskrit and other regional languages. Texts that were confined to the memory of a few people were published and translated and made available to one and all. Once again it was the British who documented the skills of our artisans and farmers and made one and all aware of it. No other state in Indian history is known to have done so much to retrieve and make available to all the ‘knowledge and skills’ of our people in the past. Perhaps that is the problem: the British violated the rules of caste and family in publicising the knowledge and skills that ideally ought to have been confined to the family and caste concerned. The colonial education had scant respect for the ‘contextualised’ – read ‘caste-based’ – education system that sustained pre-modern Indian society.

This section on the idyllic past and colonial catastrophe is followed by a somewhat nondescript resume of the post independence educational and curricular development. Interestingly satisfaction is expressed only regarding the state of science education and science curriculum in the country. ‘The reorientation of science teaching first initiated through the introduction of the new curriculum and the development of the activity-based instructional materials, gradually developed into a national movement for popularising science among school children.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 6) This statement would come as a surprise to many of those who are deeply dissatisfied with the state of science education in the country and working for improving it. But once again it is not a question of the veracity of the statement but the fact that it has been made at all. This statement can have two meanings: firstly that the state of science education is satisfactory and nothing needs to be done about it and no further investment in it is needed; and secondly, it is now more important to work on subjects like the social sciences.

Curricular concerns

Building cohesion by reinforcing distinctions: About 18 concerns are listed and discussed at some length. The first among these is termed ‘Education for a cohesive society’. This is an important section as it outlines the perspectives for handling a variety of educational discriminations – gender, caste, physical, etc. ‘various kinds of biases and imbalances such as rural/urban, rich/poor, and differences on the basis of caste, religion, ideology, gender, etc. Education can play a very significant role in minimising and eliminating these differences by providing equality of access to quality education and opportunity.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 9) This equality is to be achieved in two ways, by ensuring that each personreceives suitable education at a pace and through methods suited to her/his being.’ Secondly, by developing a curriculum that promotes the ‘awareness of inherent equality of all.

These then are the twin strategies for eliminating the discriminations: developing distinct packages suited for different categories combined with an assertion of philosophical equality of all.

It is interesting to compare this approach with that outlined in the 1988 document. In a corresponding section entitled ‘Equality of Education and Opportunity’ it categorically placed ‘bridging the gap between haves and have nots’ on its agenda. ‘The curriculum should provide for new methodologies for developing compensatory and remedial measures in education to suit the needs of the deprived, the disadvantaged and the disabled so that they could be brought on par with others..’ (NCERT, 1988, p. 4) While the NCERT recommended in 1988 that everyone be brought on par using special remedial measures for those deprived, it plans in 2000 to give up the idea of equalisation and in its place talks of distinct packages for different segments of the population.

As we had noted earlier, a large number of educationists have been struggling for recognition of the fact that each child may have his/her own pace and learning requirements and forcing them all into a single straitjacket is largely responsible for children dropping out of education altogether. However this cannot be the justification for setting different objectives of education for different sections of the population. As for the question of inequality the proposed curriculum is not expected to help investigate how those inequalities came into existence and are sustained and what are the forms of discrimination. It will simply assert that all humans are inherently equal and each one has to be respected as such irrespective of his/her station in life. This is a strategy of converting inequality into difference and replacing discrimination with an ‘awareness’ of equality. Thus the society continues to be fragmented as an ideal varnashrama society should be, with everyone remembering that everyone is, in the last analysis, equal after all.

That this is not an unwarranted interpretation of the statements is borne out by the perspective offered for the education of girls. While it is proposed on the one hand to remove ‘all gender discrimination and gender bias in school curriculum, textbooks and the process of transaction’ it is stated with equal emphasis that ‘it will be the most appropriate thing to recognise and nurture the best features of each gender in the best Indian tradition.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 9) In other words, what the so-called Indian tradition prescribes for women will be nurtured in them through an educational approach suited to them.

The approach outlined for the education of other ‘disadvantaged groups’ (scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other socially and economically disadvantaged groups) complements the approach on gender question. ‘…there is a need for integrating the socio-cultural perspectives partly by showing concern for their linguistic specificities and pedagogic requirements… Contextualization of curriculum shall have to be effected through curricular materials.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 11) Condensed educational programmes are recommended for educating the migrant population. The section on vocational education is even more forthright. We have the following illuminating passage under the subhead, ‘vocational education for all’:

The vocational education programme designed to meet the varying needs of the socially disadvantaged groups, such as women, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and physically challenged persons, would help them acquire suitable productive skills. It will make their lives more meaningful as they will be economically independent and self reliant.’ (NCERT 2000, p.90)

Manu could have authored this passage. We are left with no doubt as to who need to be taught science, economics or literature and who need to be taught the vocational skills.

As noted above, there indeed is a pressing need for education to be sensitive to the specific contexts of the learners. The question here is whether we are talking of these as transitional measures towards a more universalist education or as creation of distinct curricula for different sections of the population reinforcing the distinctions inherited by them.

That the distinctions whether inherited or acquired are to be reinforced is indicated by the interesting new thrust area mentioned in the document, ‘special education for the gifted and talented’. There is a strong belief in the middle class that some children are innately talented and some are ‘dull’. This is usually considered the starting point of the logic of inequality: the talented get on well in life while the latter are condemned to serve the former. The NCERT seeks to reinforce this notion by identifying and nurturing from the earliest stage the talented and the gifted. (Of course the question remains as to how these are to be identified. It is suggested that the ‘Intelligence Quotient’, the ‘Emotional Quotient’ and the ‘Spiritual Quotient’ of the children ought to be assessed for identifying them. Needless to say some of our best scientists and artists wouldn’t have passed muster!)

The readers may remember that all this discussion is a part of the section on how curriculum can help to build social cohesion. The concluding remarks of this section seek to ensure that the readers have got the message and say:

‘Education will also have to help the nation achieve social cohesion by preparing the young generation for ‘learning to live together', a concept which in the Indian tradition has been hailed as Sahridaya Sarvabhutanam… ‘Learning to live together’ requires ensuring that social conditions and prejudices within the society and the community are treated with utmost sensitivity and understanding by providing the right kind of experiences.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 12 emphasis added)

The same perspective is elaborated in the context of universalizing elementary education. The authors of the document would like to promote the idea of having multiple curricular strategies in tune with the requirements of the target groups. ‘Reaching the still unreached… will require designing and developing new modules and delivery systems that would suit the needs of specific groups…. While there would be some identified competencies of universal nature to be acquired by all children, there would always remain scope for some competencies identified separately for varying contexts to meet the local specific challenges of life.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 21) Inherent in this is the understanding that some children need to be groomed for ‘local specific challenges’ only while some others need to be groomed for global challenges.

It should be recognised that the question of contextualising curriculum is a complex issue. There can be no escape from the fact that the country has a very widely differing learner profile. Children have different paces of learning and different interests. This would be true of any classroom. Further they are set in widely different cultural and geographic contexts: from the children of the north-eastern tribes to those of the western and northern deserts and of the metropolitan cities. Further in each of these cultural contexts we have a very stratified population – in terms of economic and social status. When we set out to draft a curriculum with the twin objective of building a national identity of commonhood and transforming the society to bring in greater equity and justice we need to develop a perspective for handling this varied and stratified learner profile. There can be no doubt that each child has to be prepared for social mobility so that he or she can hope to change his or her social status by choosing a new career in new socio-cultural settings. Thus the possibility of moving away from the profession of one’s ‘family and caste’ has to be structured into the curriculum. This requires identification of certain skills and perspectives that cut across all professions and cultures and those that enable one to learn new skills and perspectives for new professions. These are the universal constituents of a curriculum.

Further, in a democratic society, each individual irrespective of his or her socio-economic position is expected to perform certain civic duties relating to governance: to form an understanding of and make a reasoned choice between different policies, assert his/her demands and fight for them. Thus skills and perspectives relating to exercise of power are an essential component of any individual’s intellectual tool kit. These not only relate to basic skills of literacy and numeracy but also an ability to learn about new things, an ability to critically compare and examine the merits and demerits of any thing, an ability to understand the lives and problems of people living in different conditions. These invariably require a study of both local contexts and also contexts culled from a wider universe. Studying the experiences of others and problems of the others is as important as the study of the local and contextual. While problems of fisheries are of importance to children of fisherfolk, they would be of equal relevance to children of industrial workers or children aspiring to be administrators – not because they are going to be involved in fish production but because it gives them a perspective of understanding the problems faced by a professional community. These are the abilities they would be called upon to use as citizens and as professionals in their own fields. (It is true that much care has to be taken to make the other or the local relevant and meaningful to the specific learner groups. The local can become a meaningless reassertion of what the child already knows and the supra-local can be made alienating. The point is to relate the local to a larger pattern and the non-local to the local phenomenon. We usually pay much less attention to this aspect and make learning tedious and irrelevant.)

Thus even if different children are learning in different languages or through different idioms, they have to be trained in certain universal skills and perspectives. These have to be developed through the study of both the local and the extra-local and the supra local. Any one-sided emphasis on either the local or the universal is fraught with dangers. Even though the 2000 document does talk of certain common components of the curriculum it seeks to define its point of departure in terms of emphasis on the local for the tribal people and vocations for the women, scheduled castes and tribes.

A careful perusal of the document does give the feeling that the NCERT has a vision of a society which is composed of distinct socio-cultural and gender and caste blocks each with its assigned function and identity, held together by a sense of belonging to the ‘great Indian nation’. Education is considered useful in reinforcing the distinctions and in fostering the ‘national identity’. Implicit in this understanding is a distinct conception of nation and nationalism which we shall consider presently.

Reinforcing uncritical ‘national pride’

There can be two entirely different conceptions of nationalism: one which sees it as a component of the contemporary struggle of the people against imperialism and colonialism and the other which sees it as being a primordial identity resting in the past history. The NCERT adopts the latter standpoint. The former view can be simultaneously critical of ones own history while struggling for building a better future based on justice and equity. Also it can simultaneously emphasise ones own national goals and also join hands with others nations and people fighting for similar causes. The latter perspective in contrast requires an uncritical celebration of ones past and building a notion of superiority or inferiority of nations based on their supposed achievements in the past. For this purpose it seeks to appropriate the achievements of people in the distant past who may not have been in any way aware of any identity other than that of their caste or tribe or region. Thus this nationalism would seek its identity in the artistic achievements of prehistoric hunter gatherers, the builders of the Harappan culture of the North west, the Vedas, the Sangam literature, Panini, Aryabhata, the paintings of Ajanta, and a little grudgingly the Taj Mahal etc., all shorn of their actual historical, regional and ethnic contexts. The point is not whether they are worthy of pride or whether one can legitimately lay claim to them but whether we need to build a national identity on their basis.

However, it should be noted that this trend of equating national identity with ‘cultural heritage of India’ was initiated in the 1980s under Congress regimes. In fact the present NCERT document draws heavily upon the 1988 document in this regard and of course moves far beyond that document.

Two of the curricular concerns relate to this theme and need to be considered in some detail. A passage borrowed almost verbatim from the 1988 document says:

‘Strengthening of national identity and unity is intimately associated with the study of the cultural heritage of India… At no point can the school curriculum ignore the inclusion of specific content to forge national identity, a profound sense of nationalism and patriotism tempered with the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, non-sectarian attitudes, capacity for tolerating differences arising out of caste, religion, ideology, region, language, sex, etc. … many in India are not aware of the progress and achievement of the country in various fields including science and technology, not only the past achievements, but also the great potential of indigenous knowledge being of greater depth and relevance.’ (NCERT 2000, p.12)

It may be noted in passing that differences arising out of caste are placed on par with those arising out of religion, region, language etc. and toleration of such differences is advocated. While the above passage draws on the 1988 document in word and sprit, it chooses to leave out a very significant passage from the earlier document. The abandoned passage reads: ‘However, while highlighting the need to preserve the cultural heritage of our country, the school curriculum should also help in making our younger generation aware of the need to reinterpret and reevaluate the past and to adapt the new practices and outlook appropriate for modern society.’ (NCERT 1988; p. 4-5)

The perspective outlined in the latest document has serious implications for the teaching of history. Once national identity and integrity are linked to the teaching of cultural heritage there is little scope for a critical approach – in fact we will have a policy of appeasement of all kinds of prejudices. Cultural heritage as visualised by the community leaders can be taught without reference to their actual historical or social contexts with the sole purpose of glorifying the national identity. Thus Aryabhata’s heliocentric theory or rational explanation of eclipses may be taught without reference to the fact that they were never accepted by Indian orthodoxy and in fact persecuted. The discovery of zero and the decimal place value system by Indian mathematicians may be taught without reference to the fact that it did not become part of day to day mathematical calculation till late medieval times. The fact that Harappa had roads intersecting at right angles and had a well-developed drainage system may be taught without reference to the role of citadels in Indus urbanism or even why chessboard urban planning is useful in controlling urban population. Thus the study of history is shorn of all its radical and critical possibilities.

Once again drawing from the 1988 document the NCERT seeks to provide space to regional and ethnic histories.

‘For strengthening the unity and integrity of the nation it is essential that the cultural heritage, traditions, and history of the different ethnic groups and regions of the country and their contributions are understood and appreciated...’ (p. 12-13)

Interestingly, even though the 1988 document contained these very words, the curriculum for social sciences drafted on its basis sought to underplay regional histories for fear of encouraging separatism. (‘Introducing this kind of local history at the school stage has the danger of promoting parochialism and regional cultural chauvinism…. It may be desirable to avoid regional histories at the school stage as separate courses of study and include the details of developments in the region in any period in the general context of Indian history of the period.’ Guidelines for Syllabus, NCERT 1988, p. 59) This policy had privileged the history of the Indo-Aryan speaking people of the northern plains and had given it the ‘national’ status. The very rich and complex histories of the regions came to be ignored in school histories. Children living in Bengal or Tamil Nadu were forced to ignore the rich histories of their regions and read about the royalty of the Hindi belt. It is a moot point to what extent this policy strengthened the unity and integrity of the nation.

While a shift in policy in favour of incorporating regional histories is welcome there is cause for worry. Once again the objective for studying the histories is not to critically understand the societies concerned but to build and reinforce identities. Thus what suits the dominant sections of the regions and ethnic groups today would be passed of as legitimate histories and we are likely to have equally uncritical ‘appreciation’ of what they claim to be their contribution to humanity.

In case the readers have not got the spirit of history teaching even after reading the forgoing section, we have a reinforcement in the very next ‘curricular concern’: ‘integrating indigenous knowledge and India’s contribution to mankind’. Once again in a welcome departure from the rather rigid notion of modern western science as the fount of all wisdom the NCERT draws attention to traditional and indigenous knowledge systems and the need to give a place for them in curriculum. This is to be welcomed even though the list of the themes remains confined to history of Indian mainstream science, maths (Aryabhata significantly spelt with a double ‘t’, and zero), medicine and yoga. However the framework in which these are to be treated is fairly disturbing: ‘we need an in depth analysis of the parallelism of insights between the indigenous knowledge systems, on the one hand, and certain areas of modern science and thought concerned with the basics of life, on the other.’ (NCERT 2000, p. ) This is exactly what pseudo scientists keep doing – drawing meaningless parallels between Vedic Sciences and modern science. What is needed is documentation of indigenous knowledge and sensitising students to it while at the same time verifying it through modern scientific methods. This will help us separate the useful kernel from the chaff. However this scientific appropriation of indigenous wisdom is not what the NCERT recommends but a meaningless search for ‘parallelisms’ so that we can glorify the wisdom of our forefathers.

It is necessary here to take up the treatment of other countries and nations in the context of the assertion of nationalism. While the earlier documents repeatedly emphasize fostering international understanding, the present document confines itself to merely repeating the phrase, vasudhaiva kutumbakam. The 1975 document states: ‘The development of national consciousness and the development of international understanding should be one simultaneous process. Tolerance, friendship, cooperation and peace between nations are possible only with a proper appreciation of each country’s contribution to the world’. (NCERT 1975, p. 4) Elsewhere it states, the geography curriculum ‘should bring home to the pupils the interdependence of various regions of the country and the world. They should begin to appreciate that it is only through sharing with others that the peoples of the world can really enjoy the blessings of the mother earth.’ (NCERT 1975, p. 22)

The 1988 document devotes an entire section to this theme: ‘The school curriculum, while promoting national identity and unity should also strive to create among the pupils an awareness of the necessity to promote peace and understanding between nations for the prosperity of all mankind. The curriculum should reflect some of the major issues facing the world… it will have to make the pupils aware of the concept of world as a family of nations, the distinct culture of each nation and the interdependence among nations…. The school curriculum (should enable the student)… to see himself/herself as a member of the new and emerging international community of mankind.’ (p. 6) This is sought to be realised particularly through the geography and civics curriculum. The 2000 document seems to think that we have had too much of international understanding. Thus the study of world geography is not recommended in the entire school curriculum which only emphasises the study of India and her contribution to the world or situating her in the context of the world.

Abandoning criticality, locating national identity in cultural heritage and playing down international understanding seem to be the new emphasis for the NCERT as it guides the fate of our children in the new millennium. The shift in emphasis from national reconstruction and international understanding to cultural nationalism also reflects a change in agenda from social change to social conservation and preparing the ground for aggressive nationalism. There can be no doubt that the direction of change pursued in the last 50 years has been far from satisfactory even in terms of the limited goals set in the directive principles of the constitution. It is also true that for vast majority of people this change has meant greater privation and subjection. But the answer to this is not to reinforce the authority of those who controlled the destinies in the past but to dismantle those authorities with greater determination and planning the course of change in a more democratic and equitable direction.

Value Education

This brings us to the much flaunted issue of value education. The document is at pains to point out that the ancestry of the idea goes back to the Congress government, especially its education minister. It goes on to list the qualities it likes most in children and presumably the citizens:

"regularity and punctuality, cleanliness, self-control, industriousness, sense of duty, desire to serve, responsibility, enterprise, creativity, sensitivity to greater equality, fraternity, democratic attitude and sense of obligation to environmental protection. (p. 19) Significantly values like self assertion, strength of conviction, fighting for ones rights and convictions are conspicuous by their absence from this list. If the NCERT were to succeed in its mission of value education we are likely to have citizens who are self effacing and conformist, industrious and overburdened with a sense of their obligations.

The inculcation of these values are to be achieved through educating children about religions. Not any one religion but all possible religions. It may be recalled that secularism as enshrined in the constitution requires that religious education be a private affair and no business of the state. The NCERT document contests this position rather openly: ‘ about... values... and religions cannot be left entirely to home and to the community. … the community in general has little time or inclination to know about religions in the right spirit. This makes it imperative for the Indian school curriculum to include inculcation of the basic values and an awareness of all the major religions of the country as one of the central components.’ (p. 40) The authors are at pains to tell us that this is not religious education (for that would be unconstitutional) but about religions, the values inherent therein and a comparative study of the philosophy of all religions. ‘No rituals, dogmas and superstitions are propagated in the name of education about religions.’ Finally to bid adieu to the classical notion of secularism we have a radically new idea: ‘All religions... have to be treated with equal respect (sarva dharma sama bhava) and... there has to be no discrimination on the ground of any religion’ (p. 20)

To begin with one is intrigued as to how the NCERT plans to teach about religions without rituals, dogmas and superstitions; or for that matter how can one disengage the philosophy from the rituals etc.; which school of philosophy of each of the religions would be privileged to be taught in schools; which of the religions would qualify as religion to be taught in schools; who would interpret the religions for NCERT – experts on comparative religion or sectarian leaders – in subsequent engagements with the press the NCERT has asserted that religious leaders would be consulted before writing about religions in the books. Even though these and many other questions have to be answered and debated the central point remains whether religious instruction should be allowed in secular educational institutions? Should we abandon the secular value of confining religion to the private domain and keep the public domain including state-sponsored education free from all religious affairs? Should schools be places for learning to conduct critical and scientific inquiry into social and natural phenomenon or should they be places for uncritically imbibing dogmas passed off as religious philosophy?

The document quotes the UNESCO regarding the need to sensitise children regarding the ‘other’ – religions and people. While this is a laudable project in a pluralist society such as ours, we also need to recognise that fostering uncritical appreciation of the ‘other’ is also a method of enforcing conformity vis a vis ones own community. Further such ‘sensitization’ would tend to reinforce the walls that separate people as the difference would now be considered legitimate. This would certainly come in the way of development of a common humanity or citizenry.

There is a more serious danger when state agencies undertake religious education or education about religion as the NCERT prefers to call it. It should be realised that the state does not do any favour to religions by teaching religion in schools. It actually arrogates to itself the right to interpret religion and determine what is correct and what is incorrect religion. It is one thing for the state to take position on scientific matters which can be subjected to scientific methods of validation, but in matters of faith there will be no tool in the hands of civil society if it allows the state the right to decide on religious doctrines. In fact it is in the best interest of religions that they decline the offer of entry into school curriculum.

While the NCERT thankfully clarifies that there will be no separate course on values and religions and these would be part of school activities and incorporated into other subjects, there is cause for worry as there are indications that children will be evaluated on their value development. We have noted above that something of the kind has been mentioned in the context of selecting ‘talented’ children. There is no reason why the authors should not think of extending this to all kinds of evaluation. Indeed we are told that children’s ‘non-scholastic’ achievements would be evaluated and this will also form a part of the terminal certificate evaluations. Evaluating children on their supposed moral and spiritual achievements and issuing certificates for the purpose is again fraught with serious problems. The three different NCERT documents themselves show three different value systems – which of these or any other will form the basis of evaluating children? Even if it were possible to list values universally acceptable how do we ensure that the teachers have internalised the meaning and spirit of these values and are in a position to evaluate the children on their basis? How do we ensure that the teachers are not judging children on the basis of preconceived biases about the social background of the children (caste, tribal, communal)?

It would be useful to go briefly into the history of value education in the three NCERT curriculum documents. The 1975 document gives it a pithy treatment:

‘The best way to do this (character building and value development) is to help the child find the right road for his self-actualization… Hence attempts have to be made to nurture the child to discover its potentialities. Educational activity should be organized in such a way that … the child is encouraged to express itself and find its best fulfillment…. Qualities like compassion, endurance, courage, decision making … can be … cultivated through a programme of physical education…’ (NCERT, 1975; p. 5)

Thus in 1975 ‘self actualization’ was considered the condition and substance of value education. In 1988 we see a significant shift in favour of actually developing a given set of values as independent components of education. Nevertheless there is a realisation of the complexity of the issue:

‘There is a growing concern over the erosion of values and an increasing cynicism in the society… In addition to the values that are concerned with the elimination of obscurantism, religious fanaticism, violence, superstition, fatalism, exploitation, and injustice, value education should also have a positive content. Inculcation of values like honesty, truthfulness, courage, conviction, straightforwardness, fearlessness, tolerance, love for justice, dependability, compassion, etc. will help in creating a humane society. Value education should particularly be aimed at creating an awareness that there is always a hierarchy of values in the value system of a person and that there is an incompatibility between two values, he/she should be able to give higher priority to the rightly deserving values, particularly those concerned with the well being of the society at large…’ (NCERT 1988; p. 5-6)

Apart from the fact that the list includes more elements which go to make a militant and assertive individual there is a recognition that value education should also imply training the child to exercise choice between different conflicting values. We have already seen the list of values of the 2000 document. Suffice here to note that the depth of understanding shown by either the 1975 document or even the 1988 one is absent from the most recent document. As an amusing aside one may point out that the first section of the above quote from the1988 document has been paraphrased in 2000 in the context of ‘scientific temper’ with the addition of a significant rider:

‘scientific temper characterised by the spirit of inquiry, problem solving, courage to question and objectively leading to the elimination of obscurantism, superstition, fatalism, while at the same time, sustaining and emphasising the indigenous knowledge ingrained in the Indian tradition.’ (NCERT 2000; p. 40 emphasis added)

Every society would like its young to imbibe certain values it considers useful and necessary for social conduct. However values, like any other constituent of a stratified society, are a contested lot. The rulers would like to inculcate certain values in the ruled which creates a more conforming bent of mind among them. Those struggling against authority and oppression require a different and even opposing set of values. Likewise, certain sets of values place premium on the individual while others require the individual to conform to the collective – it depends on the extent of democracy and equity in the collective which will determine which set of values are to be preferred. Liberal values, recognising the fact that the society is divided into contesting segments, would like to provide a level playing field to all contestants. Thus the choice of values indicate ones preference for conservation or critique of the existing social order. The three NCERT documents show a shift in the values preferred. In 1975, premium was placed on treating the self development and assertion of the individual and critical evaluation of the existing order. In 1988, the shift began with by placing lesser emphasis on the assertive individual and by 2000 we have a highly conformist set of values being preferred.

Contemporary pedagogic concerns

We have noted above that the current NCERT document takes note of the problems pointed out regarding the old curriculum and pedagogy, and often takes a liberal stance which may be at variance with the main ideological thrust of the document. This is evident in the section on curriculum load and perception of the child as a constructor of knowledge.

The heavy load of curriculum is not merely physical, but also one of non comprehension resulting from the lack of understanding of some basic concepts. This has been causing tremendous amount of stress and strain among students… The issue of curriculum load... cannot be wished away merely by downsizing the volume of the textbooks… One way to partly resolve the issue would be to take out the obsolete and redundant content… The load can also be reduced by removing the mismatch between the developmental capacities of children on the one hand and the curricular expectations and teaching and learning methods on the other. Undue emphasis on homework, the memorisation of a large number of facts, as also overlapping concepts and topics in the syllabi will have to be removed. There also has to be a shift from the ‘content’ to the ‘processes’ of learning. Teaching shall have to be geared to making students ‘learn how to learn’… The load can be taken off by innovating evaluation practices which test the abilities like comprehension, application and analysis ...’ (p. 25)

‘The acquisition of knowledge through active involvement with content, and not imitation of or memorisation of the material, is at the root of the construction of knowledge. In the constructivist setting, the learners have autonomy for their own learning, opportunities for peer collaboration and support, occasions for the learner generated problems that drive the curriculum, time for self observation and evaluation and outlets for reflection. Autonomy encourages learners to construct their own knowledge ... through hands on experiences rather than follow prescribed information. This perspective recognises the teacher as primarily a facilitator of learning...’ (p. 26)

‘The multiple intelligence approach offers the learners many opportunities to explore significant concepts and topics and to think about them on their own in many ways and to have many ways to make sense of what they find. The use of multiple intelligence in the curriculum provides for a variety of experiences that become the entry points into the lesson content and reach the learners in ways they can understand…’ (p. 28)

To a large measure the 1988 document was responsible for effectively increasing the curriculum load on children. This was both in terms of the volume of the syllabus at each stage and also the weight of information which could not be conveyed in any other manner except rote learning. Even though the question of increasing load had come up repeatedly by 1988, the document dismissed it. ‘The NCERT undertook a detailed study of the problem of curriculum load… The report indicated that the curriculum load was not so much of a problem of curriculum development as that of perception and management, accentuated by resource constraints.’ (NCERT 1988, p. 3) This gave licence to increasing the load even further. The NCERT of the 1980s and 1990s had veered towards a more information based curriculum where balanced presentation of information of all aspects was seen as being an indicator of political correctness. This forced a shift from skill development to information transmission and rote learning. Even the MLLs (minimum levels of learning) initiated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in the 1990s as a new thrust supposedly based on competencies, was largely expressed in terms of ability to recall packets of information.

The discussion on globalisation is again turned into an occasion for launching off into values that need to be inculcated in our children. While it is emphasised that the three Rs would continue to be the basic goals of education the need for certain attitudes and skills necessary for self-learning are to be inculcated. ‘develop capacity among students to acquire relevant knowledge and inculcate and interpret new values that will guarantee them the ability to remain up to date with the evolution of their environment...’ (p. 15)

Thus on the one hand there is a welcome concern to inculcate knowledge acquisition and processing skills (in place of imparting knowledge) there is at the same time a desire to maintain the inherited distinctions and identities which are threatened with erosion by globalisation. ‘the challenges created by globalisation for the educational processes would mean rethinking about the selection and delivery of educational content, integrating new sources of information, developing competence along with knowledge, adapting curricula to the needs of the different socio-cultural groups, and maintaining the national and social cohesion of the country.’ (ibid)

It is interesting that some of the fundamental premises of modern pedagogy are being rediscovered in the name of responding to the challenges of globalization and IT revolution. We are told in the latter context:

‘The teachers will become facilitators and libraries will be put to more and more use… This would result in a shift from the traditional learning atmosphere to climate of values that encourages exploration, problem solving and decision making and from prescriptive class room teaching to participatory decentralized interactive group learning. the traditional instructional methodology would give place to strategies that unify knowledge, the mastery of fixed body of knowledge to understanding of a web of interrelations between parts of a whole, the linear sequential reasoning to search for patterns and connections and the collection of information to the processing.’ (p. 16)

The reader may notice that this view of education is not very consistent with the emphasis on authority and wisdom of the ancestors and community and sectarian leaders discussed above. We may expect a tense relation between the two perspectives and it would be interesting to know how it is resolved by the NCERT. We will return to this rather important theme a little later.

The pedagogic perspective outlined in the 2000 document is thus a welcome shift. However a word of caution may be in order here. What should replace the information load in the curriculum? The document seems to emphasise a rather unstructured construction of knowledge by children. This would open the flood gates for all kinds of dubious content to be ‘constructed’. It should be realised that there is a need to go deeply into the substance of the disciplines concerned and define what needs to be taught in terms of the basic perspectives and methodologies of the disciplines. This will help us keep clear of both the culture of loading children with information packages and the anarchy of letting child construct their own knowledge and skill building without any content.

NCERT’s evolving position on social science teaching

The present document has little to add to what the earlier documents had to say about the teaching of language, maths and science. In fact its main thrust is reform in social science teaching. Most of the new elements discussed above are sought to be delivered through changes in social science teaching. ‘Social studies are the most suited areas of study for integrating almost all the core components indicated earlier.’ (NCERT, 2000; p. 64. Interestingly the same point is made in the 1988 document.) Hence a more detailed discussion of the proposed social science curriculum would be useful to understand the direction of change.

The 1975 document spelt out the objectives of social science teaching thus: ‘The major objective of the study of social sciences is to acquaint the child with his past and present geographical and social environment. An effective programme of teaching SS in schools should help the pupils take a keen interest in the ways people live and function through various socio-economic and political institutions. It should also help children to develop an insight into human relationships, social values and attitudes. These are essential to enable the growing citizen of tomorrow to participate effectively in the affairs of the community, the state, the country, and the world at large.

‘The teaching of social sciences should enable children to appreciate India’s rich cultural heritage as also to recognise and get rid of what is undesirable and antiquated, especially in the context of social change. The schools should see that narrow parochial, chauvinistic and obscurantist tendencies are not allowed to grow in our pupils. The schools should endeavour to develop a will and ability in every pupil to participate in the most important task of the reconstruction of our society and economy with a sense of social commitment. Children should also develop a faith in the destiny of our nation in terms of promoting a spirit of tolerance and assimilation, and peace and harmony among the peoples of the world. Thus instruction in the social sciences should promote the values and ideals of humanism, secularism, socialism and democracy. It should inculcate attitudes and impart the knowledge necessary for the achievement of the principal values of a just world order, maximization of economic and social welfare, minimization of violence and maximization of ecological stability.’ (NCERT 1975, p. 19) The 1988 document did little to add to the perspective outlined in 1975.

The 2000 document too is in broad agreement with the principle objective of equipping the future citizen. Social Science "helps the learners in understanding the human environment in its totality and developing a broader perspective and an empirical, reasonable, and humane outlook. It also helps them grow into well informed and responsible citizens with necessary attributes/skills so that they can participate and contribute effectively in the process of development and nation building.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 62) Noteworthy is the omission of critique of the undesirable elements of our heritage, the purpose of social reconstruction and a vision of fraternal community of nations.

The difference between the three documents comes up in the context of spelling out of the details.

Curricular Load

A difference which assumes importance in the present context relates to the question of curriculur load. The 1975 document states: ‘In view of the limited time that will be available for each of these branches (history, geography, civics and economics) it would be desirable to integrate their teaching in a way that the pupils develop proper understanding of the facts and the problems in the right perspective without causing any damage to the totality of the individual disciplines. This would require identifying the essential units in each of the subjects and then unifying them into an integrated syllabus for the social studies. (NCERT 1975, pp. 19-20)

The document made some very significant suggestions regarding reducing load in history teaching: ‘the organization of the syllabus and the selection of the content may be based on what is known as the patch approach. In the light of the requirements of general education it is not necessary to give a continuous chronological account of the history of India in the sense that every decade or century of Indian history is covered. Representative periods or patches in chronological order dealt with in all their important aspects may be given. This may be combined with the topical approach in that in a particular patch a few aspects would be selected to be studied in greater detail than other aspects.’  (ibid. p. 21)

The 1988 document besides abandoning the attempt to identify essential units across disciplines also abandoned the suggestions for cutting down on history syllabus. It said, ‘the learner at the upper primary stage should be initiated into the study of India’s past in all its major aspects such as social, cultural, and scientific development…’ (NCERT 1988, p. 27) As a result the authors of the NCERT text books were left with no criterion for selection of themes and ended up writing a little of everything, compounding the curriculum load.

Textbooks produced under this policy (a glaring example being the one on ‘History of Mankind’ for the secondary classes) resulted in countrywide criticism for being overloaded with information, uninteresting and tedious reading. Surprisingly this genuine criticism went unheeded by the NCERT establishment.

The criticism had to wait for the changes in the NCERT to be heard and acted upon. The new document addresses the problem in its own way:

‘In a world of ever increasing knowledge, selection and organisation of the content areas assume great importance. The social sciences curriculum has to be comprehensive and yet not heavily loaded with information. Interrelatedness of ideas and their comprehensibility must be kept in view. It would also be desirable to emphasise the process of learning and thinking rather mere acquisition of facts. Learners need to be given meaningful learning experiences through well planned activities. This will help them acquire basic competencies and skills. Keeping these in view, the themes/issues could provide a sound basis for the selection and organization of the content areas. While number of topics/areas may be few, the depth of treatment should be more to optimise the learner’s experiences.’ (NCERT 2000, p. 61)

It recommends a thematic approach, greater focus on activity based learning and skill development for containing the curriculum load. This would imply a return to the 1975 position. However while the 1975 document recommends attention to the concerns and perspectives of the disciplines, the 2000 document has little need for it at the school stage.

Academic Disciplines and School Curriculum

The role of formal disciplines in determining school curriculum is a theme seldom handled with balance. Usually it fades into insignificance under the emphasis on skill development or inculcation of values and attitudes or awareness of contemporary concerns. Often the concern for the disciplines takes the form of cramming the recent volume of information generated in the discipline in school textbooks. Understandably this creates a reaction against the ‘interference’ of the disciplines or the discipline centred approach. Every mature discipline has a definite perspective and methodology for studying social reality. These have a relevance even for a person on the street trying to grapple with the complexities of social living. These need to be identified and developed through the school curriculum. The disciplines also have evolved understanding of different themes of importance to the common person. These too need to be passed on to the children. What is being suggested is not that we inflict children with debates on historiography and historical method. Rather it is necessary that the selection of themes be determined by their ability to convey the perspective and methodology of the disciplines and the understanding developed in the course of recent research. This will also help to form the necessary bridges between school education and the contemporary trends in professional academics.

The Yashpal committee which went into the question of curricular load found the teaching of civics rather weakly developed and even recommended scrapping civics as subject and also had suggested that the current wisdom of teaching history in a chronological order from the distant past to the present may be stood on its head. The 2000 curriculum document too takes up the issue of civics and history teaching but with somewhat different consequences. It is recommended that:

‘… the concerns and issues of the contemporary world need to be kept in the forefront. To this end, the quantum of history may be substantially reduced. Past developments could be studied as a backdrop for understanding the present. As such the needs and challenges of today must be responded suitably. … This would necessitate considerable increase in the coverage of courses in civics.’ (NCERT 2000; p. 62-3)

It may be noted that the document does not recommend the teaching of history as a subject. Nevertheless, issues and themes drawn from history have an important place in the curriculum. ‘Study of Indian civilization and its rich cultural heritage along with other world civilizations and their interconnections may be the major area of study drawn from history. It ought to include the different cultural movements and revolutions in the life of the country and also the spread of its culture in other lands.’ (p. 64) Of course this is in addition to the obligatory study of the freedom movement.

Conventionally history of India from the ancient times to the present is taught over three years of middle school and some kind of world history is taught in high school. Now it is suggested that history be subsumed under a general study of contemporary India in the high school. Thus the entire world history is removed at one stroke. In middle school the history curriculum is sought to be redefined. ‘Study of India’s past may be introduced through selected events/episodes and developments – social cultural and scientific. The learners need to be helped to understand and appreciate India’s cultural heritage, some of the other ancient civilizations of the world and their interconnections, contribution of India to the world civilization along with contribution made by other cultures, and some of the major historical developments of the world. (ibid p. 66)

While on the one hand the idea of selecting themes from Indian history would be welcome, the perspective for selection, even if very briefly stated betrays a pedestrian understanding of history. Serious history cannot be reduced to descriptions of ‘events, episodes and developments’. Firstly, history is a study of social change over time. As such it requires a chronological unfolding of a story. Events, episodes and developments are studied in the context of this story and explained. Secondly, history like any scientific line of inquiry necessarily delves into causes and consequences and that too requires excursions into the past and the future of event under consideration. Thirdly, history has its own unique method of deriving information from various kinds of sources of information. We cannot have any meaningful teaching of history unless elements of all these three aspects are incorporated in due measures. Thus even though the perspective cited above has some semblance with the 1975 document it is qualitatively different from the latter.

The 2000 document on the one hand reduces serious history into description of events etc. and on the other, sees its importance in terms of ‘contributions’ to the world. Contributions again are fragments, which do not have any organic historical contexts. This becomes a list of goodies India or any other country developed, something like the shelves of an old curiosity shop. The ‘contributions’ of one country are to be compared with those of another and the relative greatness of the civilizations is to be measured accordingly.

While the move to enlarge the scope of civics to include issues of contemporary importance is welcome, it is necessary to ensure that the treatment of the subject ensures that children are exposed to different perspectives on the subject and are trained to make their own judgements. Simple moralising which is often contemplated in the context of civics education needs to be eschewed.

Concluding remarks

At several points the new NCERT document builds on a valid critique of the previous principles and practices of NCERT, especially on the question of curricular load and pedagogy. However given the overall framework of the new document it is apparent that these concerns are merely an excuse for the pursuit of an essentially regressive educational policy. The document indicates a vision which seeks to consolidate the fragmentation of Indian society along the lines of caste, community and other divisive identities and to strengthen the hold of orthodoxies in each of these fragments. Particularly significant is the abandonment of any mention of critique of the ills of our society and the need to link educational goals to the larger goals ushering in a just and equitable social order. Likewise, there is a shift away from the emphasis on international understanding and cooperation. This is really a call for ‘peaceful co-existence’ between religious and caste authorities and elites by permitting each untrammeled control over their flock. Indeed it seems that the call for a child centred pedagogy is used to dismantle the authority of professional academic disciplines in school education. Their place would be taken by the community leaders.

The emphasis placed on the so-called ‘value education’ and its simplistic treatment indicates a tendency to place the onus of the present social and moral crises on the mass of the people themselves. Coupled with the reluctance to encourage any social criticism this becomes a major weapon in the hands of social conservatism. However it should be remembered that many of these elements have been present in NCERT under the previous regimes too, and these are really wider social trends and should not be merely identified with one or the other political party.


The Curriculum for the Ten-Year School. A Framework (NCERT, New Delhi, 1975)

National Curriculum for Elementary and Secondary Education – A Framework. Revised Version (NCERT, New Delhi, 1988)

National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCERT, New Delhi, 2000)

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