School education is of peripheral interest to most opinion makers, but school textbooks have been the subject of intense public debate over the last two decades. History textbooks, in particular, provoke all shades of political and academic opinion. When the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power, every change in history textbooks is scrutinised for signs of ideological perfidy.

The BJP fuels this anxiety with ministers and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-approved academic appointees pushing mythology, fantasy, government propaganda and an alternative nationalism as history.

But the reasons for the changes to school textbooks are not always diabolically ideological. Sometimes they are banal, even dangerously so. The deletion of the last three chapters of the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s Class 9 history textbook, which are used in schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education across India, falls in this category. The changes come into effect from the new academic year, which starts in May.

These changes are, however, no plot to deny students a chance to read about race, class, caste and discrimination, as most headlines appear to suggest. It is a great deal worse than that.

‘Curriculum overload’

For several decades “curriculum overload” has been a subject of discussion among educators, textbook writers, educationists and education policy makers across the political divide.

Ten years ago Amartya Sen, drew attention to the link between curricular load, homework and the dependence on private tuitions in primary school. When he was principal of Doon School in 2006, Kanti Bajpai spoke of the ever-expanding curriculum placing “an inhuman burden on students”.

The never bettered 1993 Yashpal Committee’s extensive recommendations on “learning without burden” did result in a few state governments experimenting, mostly unsuccessfully, with innovative child centred pedagogies that were not teacher, textbook and exam-centred. But for most people, especially in private schools, “learning without burden” has only meant going to school without the burden of a heavy bag.

“Reducing load” has been an article of faith with the BJP. In its 2014 manifesto, it committed to “Reduce burden of books on children without compromising on quality of education”.

Last year, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar said: “There is a huge load of books and information…So, we decided to half the portion…There is no need to teach them everything. Students should learn principles and rest of knowledge they can gain later.”

In January, Javadekar reiterated this and set out how it was going to be done. He said: “We have decided to reduce [the NCERT] curriculum by 50%. This year, there will be 10-15% reduction. Next year it will be more. Finally, in 2021, the target will be achieved.”

The changes to the Class 9 history textbook that have caused so much comment in the media are part of this exercise.

Deleted chapters

The truncated textbook is part of a set written between 2004 and 2006, and designed to offer enough variety in themes and subject matter, to cater to students’ varied interests.

Two of the chapters now removed, “History of Sport: The story of cricket” and “Clothing: A Social History”, give a sense of what the textbook writers were attempting. An average teenager usually has an interest in sport and fashion. What better way to help them understand the histories of things that interest them, while also learning that in the past they were governed by different social codes and rules. That the freedom they have today, to play a game or wear what they chose, rests on a long history of social transformations that came through a process of challenging state power and discriminatory social practices.

In the general introduction to the NCERT’s Class 9 and Class 10 history textbooks, the editor writes: “The textbooks of Classes IX and X have eight chapters each, divided into three sections. We hope you will enjoy reading all the chapters. But you are required to read only five chapters…”

The five chapters that are required reading are a nod to the prescribed exam format. The exam question papers, based on guidelines set by the Central Board of Secondary Education, are designed to limit the number of chapters students have to study for exams.

Last year, the board, in anticipation of changes in the NCERT textbooks, modified its history curriculum for Class 9, removing the chapters on cricket and clothing.

Textbook writers vs bureaucrats

What the textbook writers had hoped was that these chapters would give students the chance to read more widely – that they would be introduced to different categories of history (political, economic, environmental, social), and gain an understanding of history as not merely an account of political events and great personalities, but also of the everyday lives of ordinary people. They also hoped to give students a measure of choice in what they could be examined on.

But good textbook writers and government education establishments inhabit different worlds. The BJP government, as it stated in its manifesto, felt there was a “burden of books” on students. So it simply decided to reduce the books – shrink them, make them thinner. The easiest and quickest way was to throw out a few chapters and, hey presto, a book that had 179 pages was now shorn of 40 pages.

The most senior civil servants, tasked with thinking about government policy and maintaining standards, fell in with the BJP’s thinking. Last year, commenting on plans to reduce the curricular burden, Anil Swarup, who was then the school education secretary, said: “Firstly, we are looking at chapters, and you will be surprised to know that there is a chapter on the history of cricket. Should we have that chapter there? I mean, I’m not an expert, but my feeling is we should not have it.”

The “feeling [that] we should not have it” is pretty much how things seem to have been decided. With the government setting the target, the NCERT held an online consultation – anyone with an email account and an opinion on its textbooks (for all subjects) could write in.

NCERT claims to have received some 25,000 emails. What percentage of these were concerned with the social sciences is anyone’s guess. But based on this consultation and a special committee to review changes, it decided that the Class 9 history textbook should be 20% shorter. So out went cricket, clothing and also a chapter titled “Peasants and Farmers” – on the transformation of the rural lives and the countryside with the rise of capitalism.

What teachers think

The sad fact is that school social science teachers are, by and large, unconcerned about the changes, or pleased about them.

Like the former school education secretary, they do not see the purpose of teaching students the history of cricket or the social history of clothing.

A mentor teacher at a Delhi government school said: “They [the teachers] themselves do not understand social history or why social history is taught. They think it is only important to teach about the big world events and great leaders.”

There are, of course, teachers who are appalled by the NCERT’s decision.

The chapter on cricket brought his classroom to life, said one Delhi government school teacher. Another said that the cricket and clothing chapters got her students writing “based on their own understanding, unlike Unit one [revolutions and nationalist movements] where they just mug up the details”.

But these are rare teachers. Like their students, most school teachers are victims of an education system – school and university – designed to limit intellectual growth, and to measure success through high stakes exams that test information retention and repetition. An average school teacher considers herself successful if her students “score well” in an exam.

The obsession with marks

And “scoring well” is at the heart of the problem in school education. Hiving off three chapters from a textbook does not change that in any way. The exam system remains the same. Students are still tested on the same number of chapters in more or less the same manner as before. So the “burden of books” actually remains the same.

The NCERT has the power to decide what is taught in schools and what students are examined on. This is why it exists. But, what should concern us all is that the institution tasked with setting standards in school education so willingly destroys what it creates. Textbooks that NCERT hoped students would “enjoy reading” have been shrunk to serve the purpose of exams.

Deleting chapters from a school textbook is a form of intellectual vandalism. It is a calculated act of denying students who have very little access to books the possibility of reading – not just for an exam, but for curiosity’s sake; not to pass a test, but to grow their minds.

Those who see the chapter deletions as a BJP conspiracy to deny students a chance to learn about caste discrimination are missing the wood for the trees. The deletions represent a far more insidious problem: the government claiming to fix the education system while actively subverting it.

Also read:

NCERT decision to remove chapter on caste struggle in Kerala from history textbook draws criticism