The Politics of Textbooks and the Textbooks of Politics

Dear God, save me from my textbooks when I am born/ The tyranny of textbooks thrust on me/ oh no, not to be imprisoned by textbooks/ Dull, sterile, awful textbooks.
According to a tradition followed by people in many parts of India, the formal learning of a child called ‘Vidyarambah’ begins with the worshiping of a textbook and writing a letter of the alphabet by the child. This tradition indicates the paramount importance of learning from a text as an institutionalized enterprise for all the stakeholders of education. For an average Indian school teacher teaching the textbook is synonymous with the whole of education. A school textbook prescribed by a competent authority haunts a teacher and any deviation from the guidelines and the materials presented in the textbook prescribed for a particular class may invoke the wrath of the authority and the disapproval of the learners. That the text-dominated classroom practices are antithetical to a child’s innate ability for exploration and knowledge creation is often forgotten by the educational planners as well as the administrators.
The role of textbooks and the politics of textbooks are debatable topics across the globe and there is no denying the fact that textbooks downgrade the students’ autonomous learning and annihilate the teachers’ pedagogic sensitivities and autonomy.
Way back in 1939, Mahatma Gandhi wrote on the pages of Harijan, “If textbooks are treated as a vehicle for education, the living world of the teacher has very little value. A teacher who teaches from textbooks does not impart originality to his pupils. He himself becomes a slave of textbooks and has no opportunity or occasion to be original.” Those who speak volume about the agency of the teacher and the autonomy of the teacher should aim at preparing teaching learning materials for the classrooms and not ideologically designed textbooks which reduce a teacher to the status of a cog in the machine.
The present day textbook culture that vitiates the school pedagogy across India is a legacy of the colonial rule that aimed at stifling the spirit of enquiry and the urge for knowledge creation among the teachers and the taught. It is ironical to note that even after the Independence, the State machinery was reluctant to allow the teachers the freedom to design their curriculum and textbooks. Consequently, bureaucratic control of the textbooks continued throughout India. Gone are the days of the colonial rulers, but the colonial pedagogy has survived in a new form masquerading as State text board corporations.
The involvement of Indian States in the production of school textbooks goes back to 1969. In its first meeting held on 5 April 1969, the National Board of School Textbooks established under the Chairmanship of the Union Minister of Education recommended that school textbooks up to class X should be produced under the control and supervision of the State Governments. Consequently, State Textbook Corporations were set up in almost all the States of the country and they started publishing textbooks prepared by their respective State Councils of Educational Research and Training.
The institutional mechanism for textbook production in India, however, varies from State to State. In some states, the State Councils of Educational Research and Training or the State Bureau of Textbook Preparation and Publication are entrusted with the task of the preparation and publication of the textbooks while in some states, the Boards of Secondary Education are the nodal agency for the preparation of the textbooks. Again, in some States more than one Government sponsored bodies are involved in the preparation of the textbooks and a lot of animosity crops up among these bodies.
How are the text books prepared? In most of the States, school teachers, subject experts, DIET faculty, university professors and voluntary organisations working in the field of education collaborate on textbook production. Many States follow an elaborate mechanism at the preparatory stage. In Karnataka, for example, manuscripts prepared by the writers are submitted to a second group of experts and trialing is done in a few blocks before the final revisions. In Gujarat and West Bengal, a phased trial, of textbooks is undertaken before finalizing the manuscripts. In some States, again, textbooks prepared by the members of the respective committees are submitted to the Government directly without further scrutiny or field trail. It is, however, pertinent to note that there is no guarantee that the textbooks prepared by the teachers and the experts would be approved by the Government.
The discourse on textbooks in India is more political than academic and educational objectives and pedagogical imperatives are often sacrificed at the altar of politics. There is a lot of controversy regarding the desirability of using textbooks published by NCERT across the country. There is a strong perception in the political circle and a section of the teaching community that the NCERT textbooks are superior to the textbooks prepared and published by different State Boards or SCERTs. This myth of the superiority of NCERT textbooks, however, is not based on any empirical evidence. Some States have already adopted NCERT textbooks with some modifications in their State run schools while others are still debating on the desirability of adopting those books. Keeping an eye on the All India competitive examinations, many State Governments are prone to ignore the suitability of those textbooks in State specific contexts. The relevance and the authenticity of the materials used in the NCERT textbooks must be reviewed with reference to specific needs and ethos of the different regions of the country.
An analysis of the different phases of textbook production in different States indicates that political expediency often affects the process of text book writing. The Government constitutes text book committees, fixes the dates for finalizing the manuscripts and puts pressure on the officials to get the books published by a particular date. Being hard pressed by the official pressure, textbook writers are always in a hurry to meet the deadline and consequently, pedagogic considerations get a low priority in the preparation of these textbooks. When private publishers of international repute spend two to three years in preparing and publishing textbooks, Indian textbook production and publication corporations or the SCERTs spend a few months to prepare and publish textbooks in all the school subjects and it is no wonder that a lot of cut and paste takes place at the preparatory stage. But who cares? The ritual of State sponsored textbook writing and textbook revision is a favorite pastime for many people for whom text books are the symbol of authority inherited from the former rulers.
The NCF Position Paper on ‘Curriculum, Syllabus and Textbooks'(2005) had decried the undue importance given to the textbooks and suggested the preparation of suitable teaching learning materials for class room transaction. “What is needed is not a single textbook but a package of teaching learning material that could be used to engage the child in active learning”, the said Position Paper suggested emphatically. If the ultimate objective of our educational enterprise is to engage the learners in active learning, we should desist from writing and revising textbooks with a hidden agenda. Our intervention should be pedagogical, not ideological or political.


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