Monday, September 14, 2015

Ipsita Chakravarty - No country for Anne Frank: the Delhi government's idea of lightening the school workload

Last week, the Delhi government turned its compassionate gaze on schoolchildren. Recognising that the gruelling school curriculum had led to a serious case of all work and no play, it decided to downsize the syllabus by 25% for students from classes VI to X. That would make space for theatre, art, music, sport and general joie de vivre.

So far so good. But then Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia added, “It has been felt that certain outdated topics, which have no present day relevance, are being done away with.” When governments talk present-day relevance these days, you begin to worry.

An internal committee of the Directorate of Education was put in charge of discarding superfluous chapters from school textbooks and it apparently proposes to lop off matter that students would not be able to “relate to”. It’s fascinating what the committee thinks 12- or 13-year-olds cannot relate to.

Journals written by other 13-year-olds, for instance, musing about their first crush, rebelling against their family and figuring out what they wanted from life. Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl, the government feels, is too steeped in its context and does not translate well in Hindi. Neither do stories of a fantastic voyage to lands beyond the map. Gulliver’s Travels has too much 18th century England, the committee says.

The common thread: Is it perhaps a coincidence that both Anne Frank and Gulliver’s Travels are both stories of resistance to authority? Anne Frank’s diary, written while she was in hiding from one of the most murderous regimes in history, is a symbol of defiant hope. Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satire shows the very nature of authority to be absurd, in kingdoms of little people, kingdoms of giants, countries governed by logic and reason, countries populated by tree-dwelling savages.

The other subjects that students won’t relate to are the European and Russian revolutions. The evolution of mass movements should also be kept on the down low, and chapters on participatory governance and democracy could be given a miss. Here the Aam Aadmi Party government is more frank about its intentions. Mass movements might encourage students to think “agitation, anarchy and going against the government are the only means of securing social justice”. As for democracy, the current lessons only point out the problems with it and not the solutions. It might lead students to think our systems of government have failed, and we certainly can’t have that.

The Delhi government is to be congratulated. It has joined the world’s most winsome regimes in snipping away inconvenient knowledge from the educational curriculum.

Most recently, Uzbekistan killed off the entire discipline of political science. Who needs a discipline that is borrowed from the West and does not follow “scientific methods”, the government reasoned. It was, no doubt, irrelevant to the “Uzbek model of governance”. The Uzbek model of governance, so far as we can tell, consists of 25 years of rule by the same leader, elections where the ruling party wins more than 90% of the votes because there is no real opposition, a liberal dose of torture and lots of political prisoners.

The former Soviet country might have been taking tips from the Russians themselves. Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, a story of two lovers trying to survive under Soviet repression, was naturally banned by the communist regime in Russia. In 2003, it appeared the Russian government was quietly removing Pasternak and other Soviet-era dissident writers from the mandatory reading list handed out in schools.

Unpatriotic ideas: Last year, legislators in the Kremlin introduced a bill for unified textbooks for literature, history and Russian language, because “the bacchanalia of textbooks until now has been destroying our youth.” The government had already put out a list of approved books and given schools a few years to phase out the others. Apart from profiting President Vladimir Putin’s favoured publishers, the textbook trimming aimed to weed out “unpatriotic” ideas among the youth.

And now the new enfant terrible, the state that is the anti-state, has entered the business of banishing the irrelevant. Having made itself comfortable in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Islamic State has ordered evolution, national history, art and literature out of the classroom. Engineers are to be groomed, though, “as stallions to terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy”.

Syllabus slashing certainly seems to be enjoying a revival, with governments going back to the classic tenets of holding power: catch them young and protest at your own peril. Lightening the workload for schoolchildren may be an excellent idea. But in the current climate of slash and learn, the Delhi government’s list of discarded material looks suspect. In some lights, it looks like a list of topics the government would rather not have students relate to.

See also
Mindless glorification of Hitler in Gujarat's textbooks <In Modi's Gujarat, Hitler is a textbook hero> 'While a Class VIII student is taught 'negative aspects' of Gandhi's non-cooperation movement, the Class X social studies textbook has chapters on 'Hitler, the Supremo' and 'Internal Achievements of Nazism'. The Class X book presents a frighteningly uncritical picture of Fascism and Nazism. The strong national pride that both these phenomena generated... are detailed, but pogroms against Jews and atrocities against trade unionists, migrant labourers, and any section of people who did not fit into Mussolini or Hitler's definition of rightful citizen don't find any mention.."