Changes in CBSE syllabus a likely prelude to tectonic shifts in education

The changes in Social Sciences, especially in the subject of Political Science of the CBSE curriculum, have invited sharp criticism from a section of the media and people in academia

Academicians contend that a lot of themes which are controversial in nature have been deliberately removed from the CBSE syllabus. Representational image: iStock

As reasonable as it may sound, the rationalisation of the CBSE syllabus ostensibly to reduce the burden of students in a COVID-impaired academic year, could in actuality be a prelude to more tectonic shifts in the near future.

While the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) recently announced a 30 percent reduction of curriculum as a one-time measure in as many as 190 subjects for Classes IX to XII, it is the changes in Social Sciences, especially Political Science, which have invited sharp criticism from a section of the media and people in academia.

A look at the CBSE’s website provides an idea regarding the changes in Political Science. These include deletions of specific chapters in each grade, modifications of certain themes as well as insertion of additional material.

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For instance, for Classes IX and X, themes like Democratic Rights, Democracy and Diversity, Challenges to Democracy, Gender, Religion and Caste, and Popular Struggles and Movements have been completely left out.

For Class XI, the list of deletions in Political Theory includes chapters like Citizenship, Nationalism, Secularism, and Peace while the theme ‘Federalism’ has been removed from ‘Indian Constitution at Work’. Major changes have also been introduced in the Class XII syllabus.

For instance, chapters like Regional Aspirations and Rise of Popular Movements no longer constitute a part of the syllabus in ‘Politics in India since Independence’ while themes like US Hegemony in World Politics, Security in the Contemporary World, Environment and Natural Resources, and Globalisation have been removed from the domain of Contemporary World Politics.

Though the HRD minister assured that the process of rationalisation has been done “while retaining the core concept” of the curriculum, the choice of dropped themes belies this assurance.

Is it possible to appreciate the working of the Indian Constitution without learning about its basic structure i.e. federalism? Is an understanding of the political scenario in India complete without a foray into the rise of popular struggles and regional aspirations? Is it justifiable to argue that citizenship, secularism, and nationalism do not constitute the core concepts in Political Theory? Is it possible to develop a complete understanding of Democratic Politics minus the dimensions of gender, religion, and caste? The proposed changes therefore appear to have definitely compromised the depth and academic quality of the curriculum.

The alterations have also invited disapproval from sections of teachers and students in Delhi. On the deletion of themes like Nationalism, Citizenship and Secularism, some feel it was arbitrary and would deprive students from developing a “strong foundation” in the subject. This would be especially harmful for those who plan to pursue Political Science at the undergraduate level.

The removal of chapters like Environmental Resources and Globalization, according to some academics, are unwarranted in the current eco context.

They contend that a lot of themes which are controversial in nature have been deliberately removed. In this context is the deletion of the chapter Regional Aspirations (Class XII), which includes the case of Jammu and Kashmir. “An issue may be controversial but then there is no harm in introducing it to students… they need to view different perspectives, weigh the arguments and then come to their own conclusion,” contend teachers.

In the latest changes, the CBSE has also introduced additional material in Grades XI and XII. The introduction of the sub-theme ‘Abrogation of Article 370’ is a case in point. In the deleted chapter (Regional Aspirations), the case-study on Jammu and Kashmir included a discussion on the social and political divisions of the region, its demographic composition, the roots of the problem in a historical context, the different perspectives through which the various groups of Kashmiris look at the issue, their diverse aspirations as well as the rise of insurgency and separatist politics. It, therefore, provided a panoramic and multi-dimensional perspective to the issue.

In contrast, the new material introduced by CBSE simply narrates how the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A was executed by the current government and mechanically sums up the issue in just three paragraphs. It is difficult to understand how this kind of a synoptic presentation of a very complex current issue like Kashmir will enable the students to develop a comprehensive understanding of the topic and look at it critically.

What actually lies behind the rationalisation

A close look at curricular reforms in India reveals that it is the Social Science (History, Political Science) textbooks which, more than any other subject, have been mired in controversies, primarily over the inclusion or omission of specific themes and ideas.

Available research on curricular studies indicates that the knowledge that is contained in prescribed school textbooks is usually the result of a process of selection and requires the approval of certain powerful groups before being made available to students and teachers.

This approved knowledge usually includes knowledge that serves the interests of certain powerful sections of the society while those which challenge their power or are unsuitable to their interests are excluded or robbed of their radical possibilities and thereby delegitimized. This explains the seemingly inevitable state-curriculum linkage.

To unravel this linkage, one has to remember that every modern nation state, for its existence, requires a body of citizens who are obedient, patriotic and capable of contributing towards nation-building. Schools constitute a major site where students are groomed into future citizens. Curriculum and textbooks play a crucial role here, becoming the most potent tools to actualise this vision.

Since citizenship is central to the process of nation-building, the visualisation of the “ideal” citizen in the national imagination and its construction through an officially sanctioned curriculum have usually been aligned to the political agenda of the regime in power. This is seen to largely explain why textbooks become the repository of “official knowledge” (Apple 2000) and are very often rewritten as per the requirements of the changing political regimes, thereby throwing up contesting visions of citizenship and nationhood.

This also explains why the introduction of the various national curriculum frameworks and the publication of new textbooks in the context of India almost always coincided with the coming to power of a new government.

In the past, the first two national curriculum frameworks (introduced during two successive Congress regimes in 1975 and 1988) upheld an idea of India that was based on secular values and celebration of its pluralistic culture.

This was challenged by the National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCFSE) introduced during NDA-I. In fact, NCFSE 2000 was criticised for undermining the Constitutional values of secularism and democracy, promoting cultural revivalism and doing away with rational discourse. It also aimed at constructing a national identity that was embedded in a Hindu majoritarian, patriarchal and upper caste ethos and reducing Muslims and Christians as the cultural outsiders.

So when the NCF 2005 was operationalised during the Congress-led UPA-1, it aimed at purging the education system of the attempted saffronisation and reiterating a national identity based on the ideals of secularism, egalitarianism, pluralism and social justice. It was critically acclaimed by scholars for having introduced radical shifts.

For example, it situated citizenship education within the perspectives of human rights and critical pedagogy aimed at providing the students with “an opportunity to reflect critically on issues in terms of their political, social, economic and moral aspects”, according to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005.

This attempted to create a space for encouraging students to accept “multiple views on social issues” through “democratic forms of interaction”.

Among other significant changes were the inclusion of the “perspectives of the adivasi, dalit and other disenfranchised populations” in curriculum and textbooks as also that of women which were regarded as “integral to the discussion of any historical event or contemporary concerns”. These innovations were mostly evident in Social Sciences, History and Political Science.

Changes and the current context

Surely the current reduction of the syllabus has brought much relief to a large section of students who are going to appear for the Class X and Class XII Board examinations in 2021. Moreover, the curriculum and textbooks, having been in operation since the introduction of the NCF 2005, are in urgent need of a review. This is particularly relevant in the case of Political Science, a dynamic subject which necessitates that the textbooks are updated regularly. There is, however, more than meets the eye.

When the Modi government came to power in 2014, there were indications that the national curriculum and textbooks, especially in Social Sciences, would undergo a complete overhaul. For example, in 2018, the then HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar had expressed an urgent need for curriculum reduction while Mahesh Sharma, the Culture Minister had demanded the need for forming a high-level committee to rewrite the history of India.

Whether it was the suggestion to remove the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ from the Indian Constitution, the enactment of the CAA, the several veiled references to introduce NPR and NRC throughout the country, or the many attempts to ruthlessly curb voices of dissent against such measures, it is evident that concerted efforts are underway to polarise communities and change the very character of the Indian society and polity. This, perhaps, explains the rationalization of the curriculum. Moreover, the changes have been introduced without due consultation with the members of the NCERT’s Textbook Writing Committee.

These are ominous signs that the alterations are not only here to stay but are likely to make way for a more drastic overhaul as the recently announced recommendations in the National Education Policy reveals.

(The author is based in Delhi and works in the area of school curriculum and teacher education.)

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