Continuing the Dialogue...

The following individuals were invited to contribute their views on the issues raised in "A Fate Worse Than Communalism". By sharing their experiences and perspectives, and by raising new questions, we hope that they will further deepen the dialogue on the crises of Education and Development today...

Zaid Hassan, Pioneers of Change, London

Nitin Paranjape, Abhivyakti, Nashik, Maharashtra

Vivek Bhandari, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA

Sheela Pimparé, Aide-et-Action, Paris

Sheshagiri KM, PLAN International, New Delhi

Johara Shahabuddin, IBM-India Research Lab, New Delhi

Zainab Bawa, After School, Mumbai

Kishore Saint, Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal, Udaipur, Rajasthan

Anuradha Joshi, SIDH, Mussoorie, Uttaranchal

Venkatesh Iyer, University of Delaware, Newark, DE

Claude Alvares, Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa

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The dominant education system can be seen as a machine for promoting a certain ideology, a certain notion of success and a certain ideal of what it means to be ‘educated’ - this is the ‘hidden curriculum’ - which is supported and promoted by those currently in power. The reason this system is referred to as a ‘propaganda machine’ in this paper is simple - it insists on a notion of life that is against the interests of those it claims to serve.

Modern education systems in India have been directly inherited from Western systems of education. We should ask ourselves why a clearly foreign system and philosophy of education has taken root in a country such as India. Is it because of British colonialism? Is it because India could not offer better ideas? What are the reasons?

Today’s debates on the national curriculum, outrage at the ‘saffronisation’ of the curriculum and the dominant education discourse are still rooted in inherited ideas. Ultimately we are still dealing, piecemeal, with a foreign system. Where is it taking us and what are the implications of this continued adoption?

Those of us who either live in the West (Europe, the United States and its satellites), or are students of the West, are observing a general collapse of civil society, something one French writer refers to this as ‘the suicide of the West.’ Given the nature of the problems in India it is perhaps hard to credit this idea. How can the West, which is rich in resources and, for the large part, politically stable be falling apart? Why? What are the signs?

Some signs:

Firstly the idea of participation in political and civic life is slowly but surely dying in the West. Declining voter turnout is one manifestation of this. More worrying is a general feeling among people that participation in political and civic systems is a waste of time - a head-down apathy fuelled by consumer culture is the dominant state. This apathy creates a vacuum, a space where those with power are handed a free license, by the people, to act without scrutiny, to act without worry - the perfect conditions for autocracy and totalitarianism.

Secondly, the growth of consumerism and consumer society is destroying the planet environmentally. The West, for all its scientific prowess and knowledge, is largely unable to reverse the destruction of its own habitat. While there is recognition that the West is embarked on a suicidal path, there is no clear agreement on how to stop, slow down and reverse this trend. George Bush’s withdrawal from Kyoto is a good example of this indecisiveness.

India has adapted an education system from a slowly dying civilization.

However, the decline of the West can be seen as an opportunity. Not an opportunity to replace the West in terms of power dominance, but an opportunity to contribute to the continued advancement of human society. It suggests that a massive gap in human thinking exists and it suggests that there is plenty of room for new and innovative thinking.

Yet, unthinking calls to adopt technology as a universal panacea must be resisted. From my perspective as a technologist, this has serious implications for learning and education.

Lawrence Lessig, in a book called The Future of Ideas, warns us that the once open and innovative spaces that comprised the internet (‘the commons"), where virtually anyone with access was free to experiment, are today being colonised by those with power, that is, the old and the rich. Lessig argues that this represents a clear threat to the innovation that caused the internet to grow so rapidly. The openness and the anarchic nature of the net are being replaced by something far more sinister. Closed and proprietary systems that threaten the very future of ideas in our societies — they threaten not just innovation but the free (in the political sense) dissemination of ideas that forms the bedrock of the internet. Lessig argues that this is happening as we speak.

Therefore, the rush to embrace ICT as yet another universal panacea in education contains within it the seeds of a sophisticated propaganda delivery system. If Lessig is right about what he is saying, then the mad rush to plumb our homes and educational institutions is nothing more than a mad rush to open our minds to yet more manipulation by corporate interests and those in power. How are we to heed these warnings? How are we to stop ourselves from making these very serious problems are own?

If, as this paper suggests, we start to think about how to liberate ourselves from the dominant education system, if we look inward, at the philosophical and intellectual tradition of India, in order to design new possibilities for learning, then we have a unique opportunity of doing humanity at large a service.

The time to ask critical questions is now.

How are we to challenge the overwhelming power of corporate interests in advancing technology? How are we to instead create ‘ commons’ — spaces where people are free to subvert, dissent and experiment, in India and beyond? What are the principles that protect these commons? What are the processes to unfold these commons?

- Zaid Hassan

Pioneers of Change, London


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I read with interest the paper entitled ‘A Fate Worse than Communalism’. The issue of how school curriculum being a tool for controlling our thoughts and our life came as an eye-opener. I had always seen textbooks as sacrosanct, the harbinger of knowledge and therefore the ultimate truth; and here is Shilpa questioning its very purpose. Of course, I now realise that the spirit of ‘questioning’ was never high on the agenda of school teaching. Relating it further to our experiences of Media Education sessions in local schools in Nashik, one sees quite a similarity. Most of the students we came across took the message from the media as the truth, and were reluctant to accept that there might be another perspective, and that they themselves could discover more meaning to it.

I also think that the way textbooks are viewed and dealt with in a school system reflects the learning methods of our society. It puts high premium on textbooks as the source of knowledge, and adults as the legitimate producers of these textbooks and its transmitters. Naturally, they and the textbooks assume significant power and as the only source of gaining knowledge. No wonder they become dreary for the most of the students, who prefer to shut their natural abilities to explore, relate and learn.

The insights about the hidden curriculum are revealing, as I could see its effect on my own life. Till sometime ago I used to become anxious about diversity. How could one deal with multiple responses to any given situation? Doesn’t it weaken the position of those in the authority? Wouldn’t it lead to chaos? Such were my assumptions then...

However, it would have been easier to relate and understand the issues Shilpa is raising in the context of her essay if more concrete examples were mentioned. For instance, issues like "crippling laziness and intellectual arrogance" or how textbooks make us want to adopt modern, western lifestyles, or ‘programs’ us to serve the larger political economy. Linkage of such statements to broader national policies would have served the purpose better.

One thought that occupies the mind is if not textbooks, then what? Shilpa cites a few options. But they appear too broad. Much more efforts are needed on this score. We can start by the spirit of Questioning, and believe in practical wisdom and expressions, but surely answers to our questions and explorations need to be organised and disseminated in some form. The question is ‘how?’ And where do we begin? How do we initiate and build the collective who is willing to explore, experiment and create, based on their own, unique learning experiences?

The essay inspires us to re-think, reflect on the possibilities that exist to take control of our learning, and embark on the exciting journey into the unknown... Why bother about the end? Shilpa might relate our obsession with the ‘end’ as the product of the school education. No doubts about that!!

- Nitin Paranjape

Abhivyakti Media for Development, Nashik, Maharashtra


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Shilpa’s passionate assessment of the current imbroglio over the rewriting of Indian textbooks is a remarkably trenchant critique. By stressing that the real problems lie in the very idea of textbooks — which she accurately describes as cogs in the state’s propaganda machine — she succeeds in taking discussion on the subject to a critical new level. This is largely because her critique is not discursive, but structural. Instead of discussing whether the "saffronization" of textbooks is a positive or unfortunate turn of events, which is what most critics of the current "reform process" are talking about, Shilpa succeeds in getting to the fundamentals of the problem, i.e., the assumption that textbooks are necessary for one’s education.

I am in complete agreement with Shilpa’s analysis, and would like to supplement her arguments with some comments on the relationship between textbooks and the nation-state, a subject that she covers at some length in her essay. For me, this relationship lies at the core of the issue. This is because the emergence of textbooks is historically intertwined with the rise of two interrelated forces: ideologies of nationalism, and the modern state, both of which became conflated in modern Europe during the age of industrialization and imperialism. The forces unleashed by this conflation are responsible for modern travesties like "factory schooling," and by extension, the very idea of standardized textbooks.

The arrival of nation-states in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe went hand-in-hand with the large-scale restructuring of society in ways that led to the destruction of small communities, cultural forms, and socio-economic networks that determined the textures and meanings of life for people all over the continent. European nation-states, which served as templates for the "imagined communities" of the future, transformed the structures of everyday life by institutionalizing, ordering, and homogenizing the peoples of Europe around the ideological nodes of nationalist thought and the institutional structures of capitalism. These forces — that Michel Foucault aptly describes as "disciplining" — reconfigured the ways in which people viewed themselves, and their relationship with the state and market.

It should come as no surprise that the very forces that "modernized" society in Europe exploded among the colonized peoples’ of the world through the twin-barrels of the imperialist "civilizing mission" and the rise of global capitalism.

I would argue that in order to critique the practices of modern education, one has to understand them in terms of the lens of the nation-state. It is only through a critique of this lens that we get a clearer understanding of why textbooks are bad, indeed downright dangerous. Because of their desire to idealize nationalist ideologies, states have used textbooks — especially history textbooks — as vehicles for the mass indoctrination and "disciplining" of their citizenry. Where they have succeeded, jingoistic nationalism finds easy acceptance, and silences dissent against the prevailing political and economic order.

Trends in the US since September 11, 2001, serve as a great example of how a flag-waving "consensus" and "consent" are literally manufactured in times of turbulence. Living in the US at the time, I was amazed at how easily the vast majority of Americans seemed to have accepted the US’ self-proclaimed "superpower" status, something that is embedded in American self-representations in history textbooks. In the post-September 11 period, the US’ "right" to attack non-Americans at home and abroad thus seemed like a logical extension of this self-image.

The situation is particularly bad in countries like India where the emergence of the modern nation-state has been vitiated by a history of colonial rule. Here, textbooks have been a key strand of the country’s factory model of education, and as Shilpa shows effectively, carry "the hidden curriculum" while obliterating any spirit of questioning, creativity and practical wisdom.

I agree with Shilpa that in India, the threat of communal or "saffron" textbooks, while dangerous, is only a part of the problem. Any serious regenerative mechanism has to tackle the "culture of schooling," the facile rationalization of all creative and human impulses to suit the logic of the marketplace and the state. It is only by exploring such possibilities that we can create alternative spaces of learning, spaces that can help us to "un-imagine" the nation-state and its brainchild, the textbook.

- Vivek Bhandari

Hampshire College, Amherst, MA


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Having been actively involved in defending the cause of primary education in India for the last 10 years, I do appreciate the fundamental issue raised by this article. I strongly believed, till about three years ago, that children were being denied the right to education by the State (which neither provided for the much-needed schools, nor made reasonable efforts to ensure quality in the existing schools) and by parents (who have either not understood the importance of schooling or who, under social and economic pressures, have no option but to send their children to work). I was, therefore in favour of compulsory education as a solution to all evils. My understanding at that point of time was obviously founded on my own life and schooling experience. To realise that a compulsion cannot be justified by a right and that no fixed and uniform agenda can act as a solution to all problems, was a long way.

The very idea of a text book seems to automatically imply ‘compulsion’ in everybody’s minds: Those who frame or influence text books (NCERT, Sangh Parivar or others), those who have to deliver their content (teachers) and finally those at the receiving end (parents and children), all seem to behave as though text books should contain the ultimate truth (something like the key to success) and so have to be carefully framed, taught and learnt but never questioned. Shilpa’s essay suggests that text books have not only played the role of imposing a certain worldview, but also have had a very negative impact on individuals. Therefore they should be abandoned altogether.

While I share the analysis of the visible and hidden agenda of text books, curricula and schooling, I would like to insist that the more serious issue lies in making it all ‘compulsory’. Until recently, it was only the designed curriculum that was compulsory for those in schools. The fact that the content had to be memorised rather than questioned and reflected upon, gave the whole exercise an added degree of compulsion. Now schooling itself has become compulsory. That is where my concern lies.

I strongly encourage Shilpa’s proposal for a regeneration of the three intuitive spirits of questioning, practical wisdom and life expressions. I agree that a curriculum cannot be based on these spirits but do think that a curriculum, by definition based on one worldview, can be used to generate and nurture the said spirits. If the desire is to change this world view, it needs to be made available. For example, as things stand today, a text book, with all its shortcomings, is an excellent pedagogical source of the dominant view leading to the Green Revolution and unless it is made available, it cannot be questioned or confronted with the practical wisdom acquired in the families directly involved in the practices. The problem does not lie in the existence of a text book, but rather in the definition and perception of it by all those who are concerned with it.

We have recently launched an experiment, called Liberate School, in three places in India. Liberate School means recognition, validation and promotion of knowledge and learning beyond the school walls and the integration of school into the authentic learning environment of children and communities.

It is an experiment in ‘education’, with no pre-defined curriculum. It aims precisely at improving the ‘learning processes’ in the framework of a ‘learning content that already exists’: Indigenous knowledge relating to art, culture, traditions, health care, livelihood within families and communities confronted with exogenous knowledge penetrating through school curricula, media, market and government agency agendas. The project emphasises processes of reflection, critical thinking, intergenerational learning and creativity.

It addresses all children without distinction, those in schools and those out of schools, and all community members. It encourages a cross learning between school-going and non-school going children on issues of concern to all. It is too early to talk of any new understanding, but we do believe that it will nurture the three spirits evoked in Shilpa’s article. We hope to contribute constructively to this debate in the very near future.

- Sheela Pimparé

Ecoliers du Monde-Aide et Action, Paris


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It is interesting that we1  look at the education system ‘as a propaganda machine’, while one looks at education itself as a process of individual and collective empowerment to be able to see through the propaganda. Clearly, therefore, the problem seems to lie with the system. But where do we begin, if we are to press for change?

Let us ask ourselves again — have we done enough to reform schools, and what happens inside schools? I don’t think so. While there have been efforts since Independence, I would view them as half-baked, well-intentioned, maybe, but not well strategised, in terms of pushing processes that empower rather than subjugate. Whoever was/is at the helm of affairs simply does not understand (or choose to understand) the larger picture, and all the forces that are shaping that larger picture. As a result, we agree with Illich who says that ‘schooling comodifies learning, making children the consumers of abstract knowledge.’

I would still sincerely believe that schools could play a very critically empowering role, provided there is a directional change, a revisiting of their roles. And I do believe that schools can still become places where learning becomes meaningful and enriching… and replaces/sees through the propaganda and the hidden curriculum.

In the same breath, we often quote examples of schools that have embarked on a different journey… if they can do it, why can’t we learn from them? While these examples are difficult to come by, I can think of some. To begin with, the KFI schools, that came about as a result of Krishnamurti’s passionate search and spirit of enquiry about human relationships, education, etc. I feel there was a genuine attempt here to re-look at the assumptions related to children, education, adults and so on. I’m not sure if these schools retain the same spirit and ethos today. (In fact, there are arguments to the contrary: that they are very elitist, have lost sight of their original dream, promote unhealthy competition and so on.)

I also know that there are a few organizations that are trying to keep alive Gandhi’s ideals, though they are struggling. In the West, I believe there are a number of forums that have begun a similar process of enquiry. I can immediately think of the Schumacher College, based in the UK, where short term courses are organized to help participants understand many of the complex challenges that we are facing today, and not merely be swept aside by the glamour and power of the industrial and technological paradigm. I also draw hope from organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Back home, Vandana Shiva’s ‘Bija Vidyapeeth’ at Dehradun is a college that attempts to symbolise this spirit of enquiry.

At the same time, I think it is important to understand what one means by ‘culture of schooling’ in broader terms, going beyond the boundaries of schools, colleges, etc. This understanding is well expressed in many of the articles that have appeared in Vimukt Shiksha. From that perspective, it becomes clear what the challenges are.

But whatever may be the alternative, the role of the adult in this process is most critical. We as adults (parents, teachers…) can begin to look at the world differently, challenge/rethink basic assumptions, re-evaluate our goals, and define education as a part of this process. For me, that would be the alternative: a school that questions, reflects, challenges, learns, grows ¾ no, no, this is no oxymoron!

- Sheshagiri K.M.

PLAN International, New Delhi


1 By ‘we’, I mean a set of like-minded individuals and organizations that have begun questioning current models of development, education, etc. I’m not sure if we agree about most things among ourselves, but we have begun asking, and that is important.

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I’m really happy that you’ve articulated the frustration we share in opposing ‘communal propaganda’ - where so many layers of propaganda are buried beneath it.

Most people don’t recognize the underlying agendas and problems that accompany the development of educational forms and curricula. Thus, the possibility of alternatives to standard schooling, is not a relevant question for most people. For example, that communities may be allowed to have more control over curricula as you suggest, would thus be quite a far-fetched idea to the people who control the educational system.

Adults have themselves been indoctrinated with the prevailing non-living notions of ‘culture’, ‘education’, ‘progress’, and ‘development’. These are the people who not only create education policy, but also write the texts and teach the classes. Those who write today’s books create the schooled children who grow up to write more books (or be paralysed away from all books by creative blocks) ... thus greed and fear in the mind avalanches down the generations. Thus, to convince more people to work towards alternatives, seems to be like knowing how to flick a programming switch on a bunch of robots.

I feel that the main problem is not of education (just like it is not of ‘communalism’, ‘big dams’, ‘consumerism’, ‘human rights’, etc. etc.), but of blocked minds finding their wisdom. The quote at the end of your article (that knowledge is not learnt but grows itself) is not only about the learning of external realities. It also refers to the arising of wisdom, an innate ability to make peace, that has been the goal of true education through the ages.

The quote enhances my belief that there’s wisdom in the way a child trains itself, through the things that attract it. A child may learn and grow in a healthy way, or get into sticky situations such as watching movies, or being consumeristic or competitive in response to its environment. Just like weeds are accepted in organic farming, perhaps there is a logic to the seemingly irrational ‘blocked’ response to the schooling environment. I must admit, I personally do not see this logic as yet! (It is perhaps a Gaia phenomenon - something that arises as a result of the Earth’s awareness of itself - just a theory.)

I feel that we cannot simply blame the environment for ‘preventing’ learning - but must carefully observe the kind of learning that ‘is’ happening, as opposed to the growth in wisdom that we wish would happen. In other cases, I have observed children take responsibility for growing in wisdom in contrast to the other children in the same environment. This can arise by keen observation by a child of what is going on at home and at school, independent of the propaganda system it is in. I feel each child is responsible for the way it allows the training of its mind, for what it chooses as its version of `wisdom’. Thus, one must accord the fullest respect to each child (and the adult it becomes) for what it has chosen.

What blocks minds to accept less empathic versions of reality – that’s what I’m wondering about. And what is the best way to give space for unblocking to happen. I’m not an expert on these things, just someone who has read some articles about this issue, and who vehemently preferred not to go to school till she was nine.

At the end I must say that opposition to the recent twist being given to Indian textbooks seems essential, though it may not be very effective given the circumstances. It is a distortion in understanding far more severe than any of the ulcers seen in the education system so far. It is one more sign that forebodes violent social upheaval here.

- Johara S Shahabuddin

IBM - India Research Lab, New Delhi


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We don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control!

When I was in the sixth grade, I wrote an essay on ‘Why do I study?’ It was an essay competition and I don’t remember the exact content of what I wrote. What I do remember however, is right at the beginning of the essay, I wrote this question ‘Why do I study?’ at least about five times. So, here I am, once again confronted with the same question, ‘Why do I learn?’ Note, this time, I have moved beyond the paradigm of study and have begun to think in terms of learning.

Learning is life, the process of growth, reproduction, elimination and regeneration. Learning symbolizes connection with oneself, understanding oneself, knowing oneself, exploring one’s world and the world at large and discovering meaning to one’s life. Learning has many connotations. Unfortunately for us, the present day connotation of learning is largely based on the paradigm of schooling, acquiring degrees, getting a job and other mundane things.

I do not really condemn this scenario. What I do regret is the narrowness of learning and what we have reduced it to become. Moving beyond this scenario and thinking in terms of other options and alternatives would require not just courage, but also exploration of the structure and system we’re all part of, understanding the conditioning which has got us to become what we are today, and thinking in terms of new vision/s.

At the age of 19, I joined an organization called the Association of Youth for a Better India (AYBI). I was excited to be part of this organization because it gave me something more than what I was getting at college; it gave me activity which seemed more exciting to me rather than sitting in the classroom and constantly acquiring inputs, most of which I could not understand till I got myself to understand it.

AYBI was more than a ‘social work’ organization. It gave me newer perspectives and got me to think. This time, I thought of the system we are all part of, the conditioning that we receive from our education, our homes, our religions, the government, industry, media, etc. For the first time in my life, I stepped into the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) building and understood that what is regularly termed as sloppy and lackadaisical, is actually apathy on the part of citizens who believe that they are separate from the system. Funny, how we create the system and then think of the system and ourselves as being separate from each other!

As a 19-year old then, I could easily manage my job, meet with the Mayor and the Commissioners without hesitation and then, I wondered why is it that people taint the system to be ‘bureaucratic and corrupt’. I am not presenting romantic notions here; I am simply trying to put across to you how, when you decide to examine the system, you will notice its reality.

This was my first experience in democracy – approaching authority with firm convictions. As part of AYBI, I began to feel less helpless before the system. Our cultural conditioning teaches us not to challenge authority, and this belief is firmly ingrained in every individual right from the first system he is exposed to – the family. Our education system is a paradox; it teaches us democracy in text books and in real life, we can all see how our schools are live examples of autocracy – no questioning, no asking, no exploring.

What I would urge for each one of us to do is question all that is happening around you and to you. Try not to kill that ‘Little Professor’ inside of you. Questioning is the crux and the starting point of democracy. Examine your system, see what is your role in it, how have you become part of the system. Look at your system as separate from yourself and then look at yourself as part of the system.

Once you can get yourself to do this, not only will your learning begin, but you will begin to discern the song of conditioning which constantly rings into your mind. You will feel terrible, but you might just be changed – for the worse of this system, for the better of life!

- Zainab Bawa

After School, Mumbai


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I would go along with much of Shilpa’s analysis and argument. My only difficulty is with the term ‘autocracy’, presumably used by Jerry Mander. ‘Autocracy’ in political discourse refers to the arbitrary rule of a person, usually a king, queen or dictator. ‘Auto’ also alludes to ‘self’, as in ‘autonomous’, meaning ‘self-named’ or ‘self-determined’. So autocracy could be reinterpreted to mean self-rule or swaraj! I am not suggesting that this be done but only pointing out the affinity in meaning. What we have in the name of democracy today can be more correctly described as ‘state-cracy’ or rule by the state, which itself is increasingly controlled by the organized power of capital expressed in the institutions and mechanisms of markets, media and business corporations. It is they who are shaping the curricular contents and modalities of state systems of education. ‘Hindutva’ oriented tinkering is an ideological/cultural side show for political purposes.

ps. It is good that wisdom is being recognized in Mewar: common sense!

- Kishore Saint

Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal, Udaipur, Rajasthan


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Yes. I/we agree with Shilpa’s essay. I always wonder how the fear of being branded as a fundamentalist inhibits most people to even voice their concerns. I think it is a pity that today people are self-conscious while talking about traditions, about spiritual strength, about ‘desh’ as different from ‘nation-state’, etc. In SIDH, we often feel the need for what we call the ‘third space of gray’ which will give us a choice of going beyond the rhetoric of ‘either this or that’.

Some immediate questions that came to my mind after reading the essay:

- "Whose right is it anyway?" is asked by many voices young and old, from various parts of the world. The whole rights discourse is quite circular and unending, but even if it is about rights, we need to answer this question. I am talking at two levels. While talking about children’s rights, the simplest response one gets from children and people is that "Who says or who decides that all children want to go to school?" They do not, at least not to the kind of schools we have today. Even the middle class children dislike going to schools and much of the enforced homework is equal to a form of child labour. (See Blanchette: Stolen Childhood: Lost Innocence, Dhaka). Many children I know often say, "We don’t like to be beaten by guruji, and we don’t like to go to school." Another child said, "Who made these rights? Did they ask us?" However, this is more at a simplistic level, and what I call a circular argument.

But more importantly the discourse is about rights and/or responsibilities. We believe that rights stem from responsibilities. That is how Gandhiji felt about it - or so I have interpreted. If the powerful became more responsible, the change that would come about would be non-violent and more permanent, because it would stem from choices made from within. This would extend to all social injustices. This is because we are truly a diverse people and believe in the fact that "I can be OK, only if you are OK." Man is not the central issue, but is interdependent to everything in nature. Interdependence is the key characteristic of nature.

A more complex issue is at the civilisational level. There are two perspectives. We in this part of the world see man as "living cell in a larger organic entity" and not "like a particle of sand in an inorganic heap". (The confusion and failure of our society is largely because we keep swinging between these perspectives). We give priority to the community and not the individual. That is why in our culture the responsibility of an individual is first towards his community or family, and rights are bestowed upon him by the community he/she lives in. He has been given these rights and does not have to fight for them. That is how it can be in a society, where my happiness depends upon your happiness. Maybe a culture which gives priority to cash economies will be about individuals, manmarzi and hence rights. Agriculture is a collective effort but in a job the individual gets ‘his/her’ salary. Individualism begins from there. This is an important distinction to understand between the two civilisations.

- What do we know about ourselves? Another very significant question is what we – in this case meaning Indians – really know about ourselves, and is it even possible. There seem to be two different worlds. There is the active world of the West, where there has been continuity in thought and action, presented by the Western thinkers in an articulate manner, which shows them in a certain way. There is another world, which has been passive, with a different kind of knowledge system, which lost its confidence to articulate its wisdom, because of hundreds of years of domination. Although a lot of us belonging to the Afro-Asian world think we know a lot about the Western world — it is what is presented to us. However, what is far worse is that we do not seem to know anything about our own world, except what is presented to us through the Western perspective. The sources of our ‘learned’ people are books written by experts from the West or experts who have studied in foreign lands and language. We do not seem to know what our world used to be, and this has deprived the world of a valuable alternative, which could be of use to all.

- More attention needs to be given to learnings linked with land-based agriculture, because we have the largest cultivable land in the world. (The average cultivable land for the rest of the world is one-tenth, while India has three-fifths of the land, which is cultivable. The Indian region has 190 million hectares of cultivable land, USA has 177 million hectares, Russian Federation has 126 million hectares, China 124 million hectares, Western Europe 77 million hectares, Australia 56 million hectares, and Brazil 53 million hectares of cultivable land.)

A spirit of questioning and critical outlook stems only from a high level of confidence and self esteem, and we therefore need to feel we are fine. A sense of deep inferiority about ourselves, and all that is our own, only makes us defensive.

- Anuradha Joshi

SIDH, Mussoorie, Uttaranchal


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Learning and the "Sociological Imagination"

The purpose of this brief note is to add some insights, if possible, to the fine essay by Shilpa Jain featured in this booklet. Therefore, without any further preamble, let me jump right into the debates on ‘learning’, particularly in the context of the recent controversies about ‘curricula’ and ‘textbooks’.

The central participants in any debate on ‘learning’ are not children, whose ‘minds need to be molded’, but ‘learned’ adults who, to varying degrees of intransigence or indifference, hold self-conceptions of who they are, world-views about the nature of social reality, the historical forces that shaped it, the nature of human ‘progress’, the importance of certain cultural and ethical values, and indeed, the very purpose of human life. The resistance to genuine debates on learning, then, is symptomatic of the extent to which a culture of societal learning, or the lack thereof, exists at present. To borrow a phrase first coined by the highly perceptive American social theorist, C. Wright Mills, we may say that the environment in which such debates on very key aspects of human experience and society occur, or fail to occur, is an indicator of the extent to which individuals in this society have cultivated their "sociological imagination" [1].

Mills outlined his proposals for stimulating the "sociological imagination", while lamenting the sorry state of the social sciences in the United States of America of the 1940s and 1950s. While the state of the social sciences may have improved since then, both in the United States and elsewhere, it is still instructive to summarize his key proposals. The "sociological imagination", Mills offered, is reflected in the ability of responsible social theorists to ponder deeply upon three key questions while being engaged in any attempt to examine social reality. These questions, he stated, were: 1) "what is the structure of this particular society as a whole?"; 2) "where does this society stand in human history?"; and 3) "what varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period?".

Ideally, considerable space ought to be devoted to explore each of these questions of structure, history and biography to shed more light on our present-day predicaments. But given the space constraints, I will make only one suggestion ¾ that we consider a simple graphical framework for facilitating the process of cultivating the "sociological imagination".

The "co-evolution framework", an adaptation of which is shown below, was proposed a few years ago by Richard Norgaard, at the University of Berkeley, while trying to explain the "co-evolution hypothesis" that he has offered as a way of rethinking the ‘sustainable development’ debates [2].











In this framework, ways of knowing, values, social organizations, the environment and technics1  are all seen as related to each other symmetrically. Norgaard suggests that all these constituents co-evolve, undergoing change themselves and causing the other constituents to change as well. Diverse human cultures all over the planet, have historically co-evolved through this process of symmetrical interactions and changes between essential aspects of human experience. The violence of colonialism and industrial capitalism can then be seen as a process that fissured all the organic links that tied technics, values, ways of knowing and social organization with the environment or nature. Norgaard suggests that, in the subsequent period, the process of co-evolution has continued; but in the absence of organic nature-society interactions, this process has caused great social/cultural turmoil, violence and ecological distress.

While Norgaard offers the framework from a very macroscopic perspective of human society, communities in the Indian subcontinent could adapt such frameworks for articulating how their distinctive cultures have been shaped by the interlinkages with the environment. And most importantly, one can also begin to articulate more effectively how hegemonical forces, operating first through colonialism and later through the Nation State and the capitalistic Market, have systematically eroded the relative autonomy of rural communities, and their very sense of identity, by essentially fissuring their age-old organic linkages with their natural environment.

That the need for this is very acute has been made very plain for those who have been following the sterile curriculum debates in India, particularly in the context of the recent caustic exchanges over history textbooks. The principal participants in these debates are evidently so far removed from any possibility of understanding the importance of nature-society relations in human history, that the debates can only remain at the level of petty political ideologies. It is therefore not surprising that the remarkable progress that has been made by Ramachandara Guha and Madhav Gadgil [8] in trying to understand the history of Indian subcontinent through an ecological and anthropological perspectives finds no mention in these debates.

By no means are textbooks the only cause of concern. As Shilpa rightly points out, the instruments of "thought control" extend far beyond the walls of schools in these days of state and corporate propaganda through the mass media. How can the "spirit of inquiry", or the "sociological imagination", be stimulated under these conditions?

While there are can be no easy answers, Norgaard’s co-evolution framework does offer some clues. It indicates that hegemonies have come into being, and can continue to exist, only by preventing organic linkages between ways of knowing, technics, social organization, values and the natural environment. Therefore, hegemonical ideas and institutions can be resisted, and eventually overcome, by helping build precisely these linkages through various means.

The spaces for building these interrelationships certainly exist, and continue to grow because of the inherent conflict and contradictions between the human spirit and hegemonies. The human spirit being what it is, the latent desire to build holistic frameworks for understanding the world in a manner in which relations between nature and society are important is ever present. Indeed, in bringing about the fissure of the organic relationships between nature and society, hegemonies precipitate ecological and social disasters that increasingly become harder to ignore, and allow the sense of revulsion against authoritarianism, commodification of nature and all aspects of human experience [9], and the "propaganda machine", to steadily grow in strength. Perhaps this could be another way of characterizing the "spirit of practical wisdom" that Shilpa alludes to in her essay.

In concluding this note, let me offer a few clarifications. In emphasizing the need to cultivate the "sociological imagination", and in offering Norgaard’s co-evolution framework as a means towards this end, I do not for a moment wish to suggest that "learning societies" or a "culture of learning" ought not to have other ends, that may require other means and metaphors. Surely, none of us wish to see a world full of cynical human beings, with little capacity to express their artistic impulses, or for finding joy in reciprocal human relationships.

My reason for emphasizing what I have in this note is only to suggest that, in all our discussions and debates on learning, we must constantly remind ourselves that our lives are embedded in an historical context, in which the world has seen the rapid rise and spread of vicious hegemonical ideas and institutions — the likes of which even our recent ancestors could have scarcely imagined. And the manner in which this has happened is through the systematic destruction of all organic relations between humans and their natural environment.

It is in being constantly aware of this, and in striving to make others aware of this as well, that I feel the debates on learning and curricula can help stir the "sociological imagination" in large sections of human society. That in turn could help bring about the conditions necessary for people of diverse cultures to coexist harmoniously with each other, and with the natural environment, while sharing the commitment to an ethic of learning.

- Venkatesh Iyer

University of Delaware, Newark, DE


 1 The word ‘technics’ is used as to encompass a very wide range of past and present tools (physical or conceptual) that humans use/d to meet their needs of food, clothing and shelter, alter the physical environment, communicate with each other, move around, find expression for their creative abilities through various art forms, etc. For an excellent treatment of this subject, and its relevance to the human condition and prospects please consult the prolific writings of Lewis Mumford [3], [4], [5]. Claude Alvares [6] and Vandana Shiva [7] have also contributed some very valuable insights from the Indian subcontinent on the relationship between knowledge, technics, nature-society relations and social organization, in the context of colonialism and the post-colonial ‘development mania’.


[1] C. Wright Mills, "The Promise", in The Sociological Imagination, first published in 1959, pp. 3-24, published by Oxford University Press (1977).

[2] Richard Norgaard, Development Betrayed: The End of Progress and a Coevolutionary Revisioning of the Future, published by Routledge (New York, 1994).

[3] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, published by Harcourt, Brace and Co. (New York, 1934).

[4] Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power, second volume in the two-volume series, The Myth of the Machine, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanivich (New York: 1970).

[5] Lewis Mumford, "Authoritarian and Democratic Technics", in Technology and Culture, vol. V, No. 1, pp. 1-8 (1964).

[6] Claude Alvares, Decolonizing History: Technology and Culture in India, China and the West: 1492 to the Present Day, published by Apex Press (New York: 1991).

[7] Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, published in the United Kingdom by Zed Books, and in India by Kali for Women (1988).

[8] Madhav Gadgil and Ramchandra Guha, This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India, published by Oxford University Press (1992).

[9] John Byrne, Steven M. Hoffman and Cecilia R. Martinez, "Environmental Commodification and the Industrialization of Native American Lands", pp. 170-181 in Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Technological Literacy Conference held by the National Association of Science, Technology and Society (Alexandria, VA: Feb., 1992).

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Shilpa’s essay on what should be the principal bone of contention in any debate on the country’s education system, especially its curriculum, is timely and welcome. I hope, in fact, that it will unite the pro and anti-BJP groups involved with education reform who will wish to distance themselves from what she has to say and bring both groups squarely where they belong — within the camp of the English missionaries who were largely responsible for the educational institutions we face today. This would be a good development, indeed, since it would enable civil society to lump and dump the whole lot in one single operation.

In the first part of the essay, Shilpa pans the literature and sets out to prove that the education system — from Macaulay’s government to Vajpayee’s — has always been seen as a propaganda vehicle, designed specifically to carry out the business of State, and increasingly, the business of the global corporate megamachine (to which the State is now serf). She shows how the twin oppressions of ‘text’ and ‘con-text’ (the hidden curriculum of the text) have successfully ridiculed non-educated life, generated widespread feelings of backwardness and inferiority, and established new hierarchies of power and tyranny. I am fully in sync with this analysis. It does not, in my opinion, need to be shored up with quotations from Jerry Mander or even Apple and Christian-Smith. These are common sense observations and insights gained from routine day to day experience, available to those familiar with schooling routines or with the content of even MBA courses.

The deficiency with the essay is its second part, where Shilpa attempts to deal with what has to be put in place of the existing system as a desireable civilisational ideal. She discusses three spirits — the spirit of questioning; the spirit of practical wisdom and finally, the spirit of life expressions. As she herself recognises, Mr Rajput from the NCERT is already claiming that his new curriculum efforts are precisely in the direction of inculcating all three! What Mr Rajput can never do, however, is to show how the present institution of schooling could ever achieve such values since it is designed, as an institution, to achieve just the opposite. And there is no indication whatsoever that the government of India will ever jettison that institution even if the bulk of the population of India eventually stays away from it in mind, if not in body.

So, in my opinion, Shilpa should have concentrated instead on how civil society might raise or enlarge the necessary institutions or procedures that would guarantee a suitable climate to enable the three spirits to take root and flourish. I am wondering why Shilpa did not consult her own experience of how these could are actually being nurtured and furthered in institutions that have got themselves released from Macaulay’s 150 year old lease.

I disagree that there are no ready-made, universal ways of doing this. Maybe if one is looking for a complete, self-contained, viable alternative system to the present one. Maybe. But our own society has functioned — with extensive bouts of creativity — for several centuries using fairly effective ways of imparting shisksha. Why did Shilpa not look at the idea of apprenticeship, for example? I have found in my own experience that if one allows children to drop out of formal schooling and apprentice themselves to those who have practical wisdom — from handling the spinning wheel, working in a garage, or working on a computer in a relative’s office — the learning curve explodes. This way, one steps out of the tyranny of the text. How to do this more often and effectively should be, in my opinion, one of our major preoccupations.

Another major experiment which she has also studied but which she is totally silent about is Gandhi’s own efforts in basic education. The project as an institutional effort, failed. But this should never be taken to mean that the insights that led to its installation were invalid or elements of it impractical. Basic education was also predicated on sidestepping the tyranny of the text, crashing the distinction between hand and mind, and assuring livelihood. The present education system does not achieve any of these, let alone provide a guarantee of the last.

I look forward to more writing on these aspects for they will disclose more of how we can control our own futures in the directions we desire.

- Claude Alvares

Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa