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The bogey of the impressionable mind

In the wake of the controversy over the Nehru/Ambedkar cartoon in NCERT textbooks, Havovi Wadia and Arun Kumar point out the folly of seeing children as empty vessels and passive absorbers of information, incapable of engaging actively with the learning process

Ambedkar cartoon controversy

The row in parliament on May 13, 2012 over a cartoon in the NCERT textbook on political science (Class XI) has brought to the surface assumptions, prejudices and fears that have always brewed in public discourse in India. At the first whiff of a platform, these fears and prejudices have been portrayed as legitimate anxieties. Riding on a whipped-up wave of self-righteous indignation, a section of the dalit population and the entire political fraternity has frothed over what the cartoon implies about the way we understand Dr B R Ambedkar, the process of the writing of the Constitution, the place of dalits in society, the general disrespect for members of parliament and politicians, the innocence of the minds of children and the appropriateness of cartoons of this or indeed any nature in textbooks.

It is these latter issues that this article seeks to explore. They fall largely into two realms: the first involves a tabula rasa notion of childhood, the second a status quo-ist idea of education that fits in nicely with the idea that children are empty vessels.

At the outset one must clarify that those who reduce this furor to a debate over the right to freedom of expression are oversimplifying the issue. As Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav have both said, a textbook is very carefully considered material. This is because it is state-endorsed. In theory at least, it is far more powerful and has far more impact than television or cinema or  newspapers. The same textbook (and therefore the same version of matters or the same approach to life or the same perspective on history) goes to children across the country. Therefore for instance, the matter of the sidelining of Dr Ambedkar in several history and civics textbook is a legitimate concern. For decades he has been portrayed as limited in his influence, restricted only to his role as a writer of the Constitution. The tag of ‘freedom fighter’ has been withheld from him. The Pune Pact is given a token two lines in textbooks. His vision for India and for a just equitable society is often rendered invisible. In doing so scholars rightly argue that the casteist sections of Indian society have reinforced the construct that the freedom of India was a result of the leadership of a few elite, upper-caste heroes.
These are in fact some of the elisions, misconceptions and marginalisations that Palshikar and Yadav were trying to address in their writing of the NCERT book titled Democratic Politics. How far they have been successful may be debated.

The uproar in parliament reflected a great deal about the understanding of childhood among those who speak on behalf of children in school. In a series of statements, MPs expressed worry about how these cartoons will impact the minds of the children for whom the textbook is meant. Their contention is that children are ‘impressionable’ and ‘not mature’ and that therefore the content is inappropriate for them. Aside from the obvious irony that ‘cartoons are not for young minds’ (clearly belied by the millions of children in our own country who smuggle comic books between the pages of their textbooks and read them on the sly, or sit engaged and engrossed for hours in the misdemeanours of Shinchan or Do-Rae-Mon or Chhota Bhim), this contention reflects a limited and parochial understanding of childhood and learning.

Statements by Members of Parliament

Kapil Sibal: “We believe textbooks are not the place where these issues (cartoons) should be influencing impressionable minds. That is our position...”

Kapil Sibal: "The issue is not in the context of cartoons; it is about having them in textbooks that influence impressionable minds". 

Pranab Mukherjee: "Cartoons are for mature minds; not for children." 

Sharad Yadav: “Such cartoons need mature minds to understand. The minds of the youngsters who are being taught are not.”

Lalu Prasad: Withdrawing cartoons and textbooks will not help in ‘clearing’ the minds of the children who have been influenced by these books.

A report in The Hindu on May 14, 2012: “The House saw an hour-long discussion on the issue during zero hour, with members suggesting that the impressionable minds of children were being ‘poisoned’ by such cartoons. They alleged that an all-out conspiracy was on to project politicians in poor light, be it by the media or Bollywood.”

The idea that children (those below the age of 18) are blank slates (tabula rasa) comes from Locke-ian notions in the 17th century. John Locke believed that children were innocent due to their inherent ignorance; that when they are born, their mind is a blank slate that must then be systematically written on by a responsible education system. While Locke’s openness to various methods of learning and his emphasis on giving a child the experience of ‘liberty’ have been ignored, the idea of children as ciphers which need to be filled in resonated with the dominant sensibility of the time – the need to build an imperialist citizen capable of administering the colonies.

They also corresponded to the need of the hour in India, where they were transported via the British education system. Pradip Kumar Bose’s essay ‘Sons of the Nation: Child Rearing in the New Family’ looks at the emergence of a new concept of childhood in early-20th century Bengal, through an analysis of Satischandra Chakrabarti’s book Santaner Caritra Gathan (published 1912). This too reflects a similar understanding of childhood – seeing it as a phase of preparation for adulthood, to be shaped and moulded by discipline, education and structured play sessions for boys and training in household responsibilities and a few art forms for girls. Again here, there was a resonance of this idea of childhood with the nationalist spirit pervading the middle class of the country at that time.

Histories of childhood written in the West point out  that by the end of the 19th century, children were seen as dependent, innocent, vulnerable and generally incompetent -- therefore in need of protection and discipline. This notion of childhood has now gained the status of ‘universality’, and marks the child as a ‘passive and unknowing dependent’. (A phrase used by Allison James and Chris Jenks in their essay ‘Public Perceptions of Childhood Criminality’).

However, as the work of Piaget and Chomsky (among others) in the second half of the 20th century has illustrated, children are not passive absorbers of information, language, behaviour and attitude. While some learning may take place through imitation, both scholars have shown how children of all ages actively engage with the learning process to select and modify things that they see, hear and read. In more recent times, scholars in the field of the Sociology of Childhood have worked extensively to illustrate how the discourse of childhood comes to be dominated in modern times by characteristics of vulnerability and dependence, thus depriving children of the understanding and volition that they are not only capable of but have full rights to. Alan Prout for instance, critiques theories of socialisation for rendering children passive learning subjects and theories of development for setting up adulthood as “the standard of rationality…and assuming a universality to childhood.”

This body of work – across psychology, sociology, history and anthropology – illustrates that the idea that children’s minds are ‘impressionable’ is only as true as the idea that those of any human being are ‘impressionable’. As individuals, each one of us engages with the world, processes information and actively chooses to learn, unlearn and relearn. This is a process that continues throughout one’s life. The adult is not a ‘complete’ individual any more than the child can be considered an ‘incomplete one’.

As scholars and practitioners in the field of education have repeatedly said, children live in the same world as that of adults. They are exposed therefore to the same reality. What education is meant to do is offer them ways of engaging with that reality – it is not about granting children options, or about telling them what is available in terms of information, but enabling the process of reasoning, engagement and most of all, of agency.

Krishna Kumar distinguishes between the concepts of choice/ options and that of agency in his essay ‘Quality in Education: Competing Concepts’ (January 2010). Choice, he writes, is only among things already present. Agency on the other hand implies the ability to invent. “Inasmuch as education is related to the human capacity for setting new goals for oneself and the world, and not merely to pursue given goals, we can regard the capacity of imparting agency as an intrinsic characteristic…of education.” Kumar exhorts the need to allow children some control over their learning, so that education is not reduced simply to the imparting of information.

It is in recognition of the agency of children as individuals and citizens that the National Curriculum Framework was evolved in 2005. In this document the child is seen as an active learner and the contribution of children to the development and creation of knowledge is acknowledged. It therefore declares that children must be encouraged to ask questions, relate what they are learning in school to things happening outside.

Udega to saaton aasmaano ki khabar le aayega.
Udaaoge to chhat pe jaakar baith jayega.

Those who advocate that ‘we must save our children from the harsh realities of the world, as they are young and impressionable’ may want to ponder a few questions. When is the ‘right time’ to introduce a human being to a reality that may be ‘harsh’? Our high school textbooks have sought for so long to exclude narratives of social conflict, communalism, riots, caste wars, corruption, violence, starvation, poverty. Yet that is the reality that children experience and witness. Individual children have shown on the streets of Mumbai, at the Posco plant in Orissa, in the jungles of Chhattisgarh, that they understand and engage with this reality. Their textbooks, however, ignore this. As a result, there is a huge gulf between what is in the textbook and the world they inhabit. So, how do they equip themselves to negotiate these realities? If textbooks and curricula fail to address the questions one has, where does one look? To the media? To those with vested interests selling their version of truth?  

A good education teaches us how to learn. A poor one is often obsessed with determining what to learn. The former challenges us to think, explore, critique and create. The latter gives us ‘pre-digested food’ to swallow.

It is crucial that the world of the textbook discuss and engage with the social real. The education system that gives eyes but no light to see by will be the kind that will design eschewing engagement with realities – agreeable or harsh.

The present controversy about the cartoons in political science textbooks is puzzling. As several educationists and activists have pointed out, these textbooks have been used for the last six years with no reports of people being offended or sensibilities hurt. Teachers and students have enjoyed the fresh approach to pedagogy informing these books. What is even more baffling is that some of the leaders advocating the deletion of cartoons have presided over a rewriting of textbooks in their respective states, which had marked a welcome departure from the earlier pedantic approach. For instance,  history textbooks suddenly began to acknowledge and reflect the contributions of ‘nameless’, ‘faceless’ commoners to the struggles for Independence. Informed by the sensibilities of the Subaltern School and a social justice framework, the heroes in this history were not only leaders, but also peasants and labourers. In fact some of the lessons show the leading party of those years in an extremely poor light for having betrayed the ‘freedom fighters’ who came from humble backgrounds.

Then again, perhaps this should not be so puzzling. School textbooks were allowed to have one chapter or perhaps a few paragraphs on sex education for a while. Yet over the past few years, even this much information has been withheld from students. Five states – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh – have banned sex education from their curriculum to “preserve Indian culture and sensibilities”. Even then the argument was that children have ‘impressionable minds’ that should not be ‘corrupted’.

The innocent child, the impressionable mind – these may well be some of the modern myths we need to convince ourselves of our own innocence. Henry Jenkins (The Innocent Child and other Modern Myths) wonders if we opportunistically evoke the figure of the innocent child as a “human shield” against criticism. We should wonder too.

The debate about a cartoon, extracting it from its context, eschewing reason and discussion, descending into mythification, has made it even more urgent that we begin to actually interact with children so that we can respect the fact that like all readers, they too engage with a text. It means that we must also engage, in public, with each other to decide what we want from our education system. The world has sex, politics, conflict, difference, disagreement. Will we accept that children understand this and need help negotiating it? Or will we shut them in a house and imagine they are ‘safe’?

A final word: The world also has humour, satire, irony. The political leadership claims that children are not mature and therefore cannot understand this. The question is, are they?

(Havovi Wadia is a development professional with experience in the field of child rights and human rights. She is currently a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Arun Kumar is a development professional with a special interest in the rights of children, education, conflict studies and modern Indian history)

Infochange News & Features, May 2012