In early February, a sentence linking the so-called “ugliness” of a girl to “demands of dowry” in a Class 12 Sociology textbook of the Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education, produced and distributed by the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research, made headlines.
The book, which has six authors, lists “ugliness” as the 12th cause of dowry. “If girl is ugly and handicapped, then it becomes very difficult for her to get married. To marry such girls bridegroom and his family demand more dowry. Parents of such girls become helpless and pay dowry as per the demands of bridegroom family”, reads the text on page 78. Other causes listed for dowry are equally random and absurd, such as:
“[E]xpectations of suitable bridegroom (usually parents expect suitable, well-educated, well matched, better earning, good character and well cultured bridegroom for their daughter. They also expect well-to-do in-laws, so that she can live happily after marriage. Hence they are prepared to spend more money at the time of marriage); compensation principle (parents of bridegroom demand more dowry at the time of their son’s marriage in order to compensate for the dowry amount they have paid for their daughter’s marriage); social prestige and help to newly married life.”
It is clearly written in a manner to explain the legitimacy of the practice of dowry rather than reflect on its discriminatory and regressive social character.
At several other places in the textbook, the authors exhibit brilliant sociological insights while explaining the social phenomena under study. For example, “the women having high status prefer to give birth to few children. Because they consider that having more children will obstruct their career development”. This point, “improvement in the status of women” is listed as a measure to control population growth. This section also claims that:
“[M]any people, especially the rural and tribal people do not have sufficient means of recreational facilities. Their only form of enjoyment is indulging in sexual activity, without even considering its outcomes. If these people are provided with certain recreational facilities, then the number of births would definitely come down.”
At another place, under “problems of working women,” the book, with an air of certainty asserts that “family tensions” is one such problem:
“[I]f wife is also more ambitious she concentrates on her career and attempts to get promotion. She becomes somewhat negligent about her home and so her husband expresses his anger. Children are somehow neglected if both husband and wife are in service and as a result children can become deviant. For that they both blame each other. Many of the working women are not in a position to take care of their husbands or even some of them are not willing to take care of in-laws. As a result husband becomes angry”
The content and tenor of this section almost establishes the miserable lives that working women lead on account of their working outside home. The problems are stated more as consequences of working (strain of dual roles, economic exploitation, injustice-harassment and separation) rather than as probable challenges faced by working women.
It can be said with conviction that even if one were to randomly select any page from this textbook, one would come across several such insights. This, for example:
“[A] social problem is different from personal problem. A problem which is faced by the person or his/her family is considered as a personal problem. A problem, on the contrary which is faced by the numerous persons, is considered as social problem. Suppose a person has no employment, it is his/her personal problem”.
Prostitution is listed as a social problem thus “many poor helpless women take up prostitution to fulfil their basic needs. Some women undertake it for luxurious life. Some women are forced to take this profession by unscrupulous gangsters/agents. Men who live alone in the city go to prostitutes for sexual satisfaction and some go to them for enjoying diversity of sexual pleasure”.
Following a similar logic, problems of unemployment, poverty, food, inflation and environmental degradation, are all listed as consequences of population growth.
The questions at the end of each chapter are equally inane. For example: “Social Problems are...(personal, local, regional, universal); Social problems are inconsistent with…(norms and values, signs, symbols, believes).”
One can assume that amidst several problems that this book suffers from, the brutal ease with which social phenomena have been dissected, judged, and dismissed seems to be its most obvious drawback and is therefore, a matter of grave concern.
Reviewed by experts?
The decision to publish its own textbooks was taken by Maharashtra Board in 2008. It published Class 11 textbooks for Science and Commerce in 2011-’12 and Languages and Social Sciences in 2012–’13.
After, “teachers and students appreciated those textbooks very much and were satisfied with the content and presentation,” the board started producing textbooks in different subjects for Class 12 as well.
These books have apparently been “reviewed by experts”, says the preface.
Lest it be misunderstood that the purpose of this article is to condemn the aforementioned textbook alone, it must be made clear that there is every probability that there are many such textbooks in use, which unabashedly promote a prejudiced and completely distorted view of social reality and people living therein. Examples from this book are simply being highlighted since it caught media attention. There are several such books, published both by state and private bodies which are read by millions of students across states, which make similar assertions but go unnoticed.
For example, page 131 of the economics textbook for Class 9 (Goel 2017), under “social discrimination against women” states: “As women earn more money – as has been repeatedly shown – they spend it on the further education and health of the children, as opposed to men, who often spend it on drink, tobacco or other women”.
Textbooks in school systems
In India, since textbooks are often prescribed by schools or examination boards, they represent the curriculum, syllabus and in a nutshell, encapsulate the entire school education. They enjoy an unenviable position not only in the pedagogic interactions of the classroom and the dreaded but sacred examination papers but also the lives of schoolteachers and students. They dictate practices of both teaching and learning to such an extent that each and every word listed therein becomes infinitely superior, demanding its rigorous memorisation and reproduction, especially in examinations. Most teacher education programmes also often focus on making the teacher competent in teaching the grade-appropriate textbook.
Textbook development in independent India has been a complex process and has involved several agencies, with no singular state agency entrusted with the task. The nationalisation of books started in 1941-’42 with Uttar Pradesh but it was only in 1961 with the setting up of the National Council of Educational Research and Training that textbook development gained momentum. It was given the responsibility of preparing model textbooks for the entire period of schooling in languages, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics. Soon it began to develop detailed criteria for textbook evaluation, relating essentially to the academic and physical aspects of textbooks.
The focus of the National Council of Educational Research and Training has also been on promoting national integration through its books and identifying and eliminating approaches which perpetuate untouchability, racialism, casteism and communalism. It also designs a National Curriculum Framework, the last of which was in 2005. Though the National Curriculum Framework does not list the criteria that can be used to evaluate textbooks, it suggests a list of foundational assumptions that can help in evolving criteria for evaluating materials. These assumptions pertain to the nature of society one would like to live in, role of education in achieving it, assumptions about learning, children and their contexts.
The various state governments started producing textbooks after the Education Commission (1964-’66) drew attention to factors contributing to the neglect of this area like lack of interest by scholars, unscrupulous publishers and unaffordable prices, and irregularities in the selection and prescription of books. Since then, most states have created bodies through legislation for the preparation of syllabi and textbooks, and all have established varied mechanisms for the preparation and approval of textual materials. However, these procedures are followed mechanically without really addressing the core curricular concerns defined in the National Policy of Education, 1986. There is no way of assessing whether the textbooks actually adhere to the aims of education policy and there appears to be little application of mind with regard to the selection of material. This is mainly because of the overwhelming emphasis on form with very little attention to the content of textbooks and supplementary materials.
There are significant differences in the quality of textbooks developed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training and other state bodies, which is not to say, that the former are always inherently superior than the latter. The textbook development team at the National Council of Educational Research and Training consists of members from a large pool of national institutions, the regional institutes of education and state and central universities.
Unfortunately, most states neither have the institutional capacity to develop reflective textbooks, which are conceptually strong and pedagogically sound nor have they established procedures for monitoring their quality. So most often, a number of states simply model and adapt their books to the ones developed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training. While the books produced by this body are used in schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education, those developed by the states are used only in schools affiliated to the state boards. A few states are trying to refrain from adopting National Council of Educational Research and Training textbooks in toto and some have developed their own State Curriculum Frameworks (though exhibiting huge dependence on the National Curriculum Framework), including textbooks that are more suited to their socio-cultural context and hence more appropriate for the children.
Besides textbooks produced by government institutes, there is a huge private industry producing textbooks, handbooks for teachers, question banks and guides. Very few states have mechanisms to approve books developed by private publishers that are used by many schools to supplement or as substitute for government books or to teach subjects for which government books may not be available, like moral science. Similarly, textbooks and curricula in schools run by religious and social organisations and schools not aided by the state are not regulated in any form by the state agencies. Some of them openly promote ideologies that contradict the basic principles and vision of the Constitution and educational policies.
In precolonial India, while the evaluation of textbooks was not necessarily informed by various theoretical frameworks, there were clearly articulated principles for writing them. However, it was during the British period, that most of the infrastructure for selection, prescription, improvement and evaluation of textbooks was developed. An important landmark of this period was the setting up of the Textbook Committee in 1877. Before this there were separate textbook committees in the provinces whose role was to select and approve textbooks of private publishers for use in government and government-aided and recognised schools. The Textbook Committee was perhaps the first committee that examined exhaustively the position of textbooks in various subjects in the provinces. This was a reflection of the concern for some kind of uniformity of criteria across regional differences. At present, we have no such body at either the national or state level.
Ensuring better textbooks
It has been pointed out by several studies and committees that since textbooks in India bear a huge burden of transmitting knowledge (read information) to children, they are often dense and incomprehensible. This is because they present information as per the demands of the syllabus in prescribed (often limited) number of words or pages. They are rarely written as one of the resources to knowledge but carry an authoritative tone, making them didactic and closed to questioning. The language is often terse with little humour or use of language which children use in their daily lives. Most social science and language textbooks portray a skewed view of the world in which achievements of males, middle class, upper caste, urban city dwellers are highlighted. Voices and perspectives of females, members of the working class, Dalits, minorities and tribals are mostly absent or ridiculed and presented in a manner as to reinforce existing social inequalities.
Several policy documents have highlighted textbook development as a continuous and rigorous process with a need to review it regularly. The National Policy on Education, 1986, highlighted that concerns such as India’s freedom movement, common cultural heritage, egalitarianism, democracy, protection of environment and the inculcation of scientific temper, should be reflected in our education system. One would imagine that textbooks, out of all the curricular resources, should definitely fall within this value framework which is in alignment with our constitutional values.
The Education Commission (1964-’66) recommended that the textbooks should be revised regularly after every five years. However, this rarely happens except perhaps at the National Council of Educational Research and Training.
At the outset, one must recognise that the task of developing textbooks is a tedious, time-consuming, reflective and rigorous enterprise. For the textbook to be in sync with constitutional values and goals, specificities of contexts of individual states, disciplinary requirements and children’s developmental needs, it is important that the teams entrusted with the task of developing them are carefully constituted, representing a wide spectrum of interest and competencies. The team needs to consist of those who have a command over the subject and those who understand children’s needs as well. The point of involving a large number of enlightened and innovative teachers who should be provided training in book writing was emphasised very strongly by the 1993 report, Learning without Burden, by the Ministry of Human Resource Development.
In 2005, the Central Advisory Board of Education on textbooks, cautioned that the current diversity of available curricular resources is potentially enriching but risks compromising on the liberal, secular and democratic principles of the Constitution. It recommended:
- Procedures for approving curricular materials should include a serious appraisal by academic experts for their adherence to the core constitutional values.
- Institute a National Textbook Council to monitor textbooks. This body must be independent of any organisation involved in textbook preparation and also be fully autonomous so as to genuinely represent civil society and academia. It can also serve as a forum where ordinary citizens can register complaints regarding textbooks which would be followed up by investigation by the Council.
- Set up a standing committee to be guided by the National Textbook Council. The committee should be empowered to prepare guidelines and outline the parameters for periodic and timely reviews of textbooks. Reviews must examine social content of books as well as assess their standards, relevance and suitability for the desired age group. Reviews to be submitted to the government and widely publicised through the media.
- NCERT and all State Councils of Educational Research and Training to set up academically autonomous units dedicated to research on textbook preparation and evaluation. These units could work in conjunction with Central Advisory Board of Education Standing Committee for curricular review and the Ministry of Human Resource Development to earmark funds for this purpose.
- Besides establishing formal bodies to investigate specific complaints, civil society must strengthen initiatives in this area and adequate funding must be made available to concerned agencies to carry out research on textbook content. All institutions of higher learning should support research in school textbooks.
Development of textbooks is a serious business and given their supreme importance in the Indian education system, it is absolutely imperative that rigorous mechanisms are in place to supervise and monitor their form and content. Once the guidelines have been laid and bodies ensuring adherence to them have been set up, any textbook violating those norms should be either banned or sent for revision.
These mechanisms should be applicable to all textbooks produced not just by private bodies but government ones as well, both at the Centre and states. Recommendations pertaining to regulation and use of textbooks have already been made by the Central Advisory Board of Education, which is the highest advisory body on education to the Government of India. They could perhaps be re-examined in the light of present circumstances and then executed without further delay. It is pointless to set up committees and ignore their reports or recommendations, which are at most then referred to by scholars like me to write papers on issues relating to reforming or regulating textbooks.
This article first appeared on Economic and Political Weekly.