Siddhartha Sarma: What Classrooms Should be Talking About Today

Siddhartha Sarma’s YA novel Year of the Weeds will be published in late October 2018.

One of the subjects taught in Indian schools was till recently called ‘Civics’, earlier known in the Central and state boards as ‘Social Studies’. It is an evocative word, civics, deriving from the Classical Latin civicus, referring to a range of matters relevant to a citizen. The question is: what is relevant for making a good citizen? And what is good citizenship?

Ancient Romans, had they been taught Civics in school instead of Greek-inspired rhetoric, would have probably said: good citizenship is about good old-fashioned republican ideals (as long as you agree to class distinctions), belief in the superiority of Romans over other people and general piety towards indigenous gods. Civics, and therefore the idea of citizenship, in our times is more complex than that.

School curricula in India have traditionally focused on education as a transactional activity, where the study of certain subjects is to be done with the larger goal of securing particular types of employment. The sciences have suffered because of this, with the emphasis on technological education, leading to the popularity of engineering studies at the graduate level. In the process, a graduate degree in the pure sciences has come to be viewed as a lesser achievement than in engineering.

For school students choosing humanities at the Plus 2 level or afterwards, the sciences as a subject of personal interest or study has ceased to exist. This has created its own set of problems, with graduate students in the humanities denied the opportunity to have an informed engagement with the sciences, to the detriment of everyone.

Meanwhile, the transactional relationship with the humanities has created a separate set of problems which need to be addressed urgently, because the subject formerly known as Civics is the only one in school which has a direct impact on the kind of citizens emerging in the country today.

The subject was introduced in Indian schools in 1953 by the Secondary Education Commission. The inspiration was the American school system, where Civics had been taught since after World War I. The American approach reflected flaws in their system at that time, such as subscribing to racial stereotypes. The Indian commission had some American members as well, and perpetuated long-standing British colonial ideas about citizenship in this new curriculum. Keeping in mind ‘undesirable tendencies of provincialism, regionalism and other sectional differences’, wrote the Commission, there was a necessity ‘to reorient people’s mind in the right direction’ in order to make citizens of Independent India ‘bear worthily the responsibilities of democratic citizenship’.

Education in the humanities was therefore to be based on a perpetuation of the colonial enterprise of morally uplifting citizens through the classroom. This line of reasoning, with minor modifications, has continued to define the Civics curriculum ever since. While Western school curricula adapted to changes in their societies, Indian curricula, as with our laws and other systems, have not been changed much, and the influence of colonial ideologies remains.



Schools duly teach from textbooks which tick all the right boxes, or at least the ones considered necessary. Children are taught about Fundamental Rights (not to forget Fundamental Duties, in another version of citizenship as a transactional relationship). The correct technical terms, like ‘secular, democratic republic’, are explained. Marks are given based on how well these ‘salient features’ of the Constitution are regurgitated. And underlying all this is the conclusion that voting in elections is the primary, even sufficient virtue of a citizen in a democratic society.

The problem with this method, as is apparent, is students are not encouraged to learn beyond the letter of the Constitution, or engage in the constant debate that a democracy should have. The curriculum makes little effort at helping children internalise the spirit of democratic values, or understanding ideas such as secularism. One is therefore not surprised when even the most liberal of grown-up citizens, in an attempt at rebutting the growing chorus for a faith-based state, declare that the Constitution is their scripture, quite oblivious to BR Ambedkar’s strenuous objections to such a metaphor. The idea that laws and governing principles are not sacrosanct and need to evolve to address changing societies also needs to be internalised. The true spirit of democracy extends beyond elections and touches every aspect of a citizen’s life. The principle that democracy is based on ideological majority and not birth-based majoritarianism could have been easily understood if civics had been properly taught to young Indians.

One is not surprised that elite engineering colleges are trying to increase the quality and quantum of humanities study in their curricula. One is also not surprised that tech graduates and those from the humanities are speaking at cross-purposes regarding the tremendous political divides in the country today. From a mere flaw in school curricula, it has become a systemic faultline. One is also not surprised with the ease with which some in my generation can condemn people’s movements as ‘Maoist’ or somehow anti-national. Nor is one surprised to find deep veins of caste, religious and gender prejudice emerging among the discourse of the supposedly educated. Somewhere, in all that classroom talk about parliamentary democracy, Directive Principles and unitary versus federal government, the human elements of governance, administration and the responsibilities of the state, or the human face of poverty and deprivation, or issues such as the impact of economic growth on the marginalised were lost. We became poorer because of this loss, and never realised it.

School students in a country as complex as India need to be taught, and need to be encouraged to engage with complexities beyond the letter of the law, constitutional provisions and other ‘scripture’. It is not enough to know the theoretical structure of the legal system; we need to talk to children about the difficulties of legal redressal for the underprivileged, about legal pendency, about the masses of undertrials which choke our prisons, about archaic laws (and their historical contexts) and how they affect the lives of ordinary people. Classrooms need to encourage discussions on how democracy is practiced not just every five years, but every day. Children need to know by discussing with their peers and teachers that caste exists — regardless of how often well-meaning people claim otherwise — and endures like a resilient virus in the corners of even insulated urban lives. Students need to debate on how religious stereotypes have an insidious way of perpetuating themselves. Children need to understand, with a little encouragement from their teachers, that gender biases find refuge in pious euphemisms. That terms like ‘people like us’ have no business existing in a democratic society. Classrooms need to engage with the problems of the so-called ‘Other India’, a space which has disappeared from the media, popular culture and other spheres, and is therefore assumed not to exist. Children are not introduced, even briefly, to movements in the peripheries, such as in Kashmir or the Northeast, which might cause a re-think about the idea of India, or about how some organs of the state have behaved in these regions.But perhaps that would be too much to ask. At the very least,children need to be encouraged to embrace debate and even dissent. They need to be encouraged to discover the complexities of the country on their own, so that they can grow up to be tolerant, rational and perhaps even kind citizens.

Occasionally, those who set school curricula make attempts at ‘updating’ them. Therefore the change in name from ‘Social Studies’ to ‘Civics’ to, now, ‘Social and Political Science’ or ‘Political Science’, depending on board and class. The persistence of the word ‘science’ shows how deep the idea of the human condition as a quantifiable, predictable entity runs, although that is mere semantics. Terms like ‘sustainable agriculture’ or ‘sustainable development’ are introduced. Students about to choose between the sciences and humanities are taught what is claimed to be an analysis of political structures, and a justification for them. A recent Class X book had a chapter explaining the need for democracy. But these will have little significance if students do not know about the complexities of Indian societies, of farming, or rural life, or the opposing demands and effects of development on vulnerable societies and ecologies. Updated curricula too do not address the impact of these state structures and laws on humans.

The role of the schoolroom in helping children become more aware, kinder and more empathetic is more significant today than ever before, particularly since we now acknowledge that bigotry in all its forms and types, xenophobia, classism, misogyny, communalism and casteism are being reinforced, accidentally or otherwise, at home. Even if some parents are not directly responsible for this, there is little families can do about the bigoted uncle or grandfather who sits like an inevitable trope at the dining table. But children spend substantial portions of their time with their peers in the classroom, and where the dining table has failed, or has attempted to subvert common sense and civility, the classroom must step in.

Teachers, at least the well-meaning ones, possibly fear stepping beyond the limitations of the Civics curriculum and following their conscience. There is a very genuine apprehension that they will be harangued by outsiders for trying to make activists of children. But these are the times we live in, and teachers must reach across to parents as well and make them understand that Civics is not merely a set of dry questions about laws and statutes, but is a lived experience. That a democracy in its truest form can only exist when its noble principles are internalised by its stakeholders, particularly those who have benefitted from its privileges.

There is also a small wish that I have. I wish that schools will start talking to little boys about certain daily activities in which, because of reinforced behavioural patterns, they do not participate. I wish classroom discussions would help little boys clean up after themselves at home, or learn cooking, and perhaps do a little sweeping and mopping. Surely that is not much to ask for, and yet consider how many Indian men carry this enormous gender privilege throughout their lives, and are utterly blind to it. This, too, is a part of civilisation, a word connected to civics.

In 1953, when that Committee enunciated its principles for the humanities in Indian classrooms, the catchphrase in their deliberations was ‘nation-building’. That was the great task of that generation. They were trying to construct, much like engineers, the cogs and wheels that are essential for a great structure. But, much like engineers who have no familiarity with the humanities, a nation built by citizens with a peripheral understanding of the human condition can never aspire to greatness, or even claim to have a heart. We need to correct this design flaw.


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