Meeta Sengupta argues that while the single government texbook is a useful (or simply unavoidable) tool for learning, there are dangers to having one narrative and dependence on textbooks must reduce beyond primary education.
This article originally appeared in the Daily Pioneer.
Giving one author or publisher of books authority over knowledge dissemination for an entire generation does sound dangerous when put like that. But this is exactly what designated textbooks do, especially when organised by a national authority. India is not alone in having standardised textbooks, nor is it the only one to have controversies about the content of its textbooks. Yet, it does seem to be one of the few countries where teachers accept the changes without expressing their professional opinion on them. In countries such as England the changes to the history textbooks were received with much protest against the “Stalinisation” of the curriculum.
Textbooks are one clear way of sharing a single narrative across thousands, nay, millions of classrooms in one sweep. They are also — for the very same reason — a great tool to ensure that all children get the same level of education, regardless of location or economic capacity of the school. But here lies the catch: The best schools do not rely only on textbooks to deliver learning; they have access to great libraries, excellent teachers, Internet-based resources, school tours and exchanges and so much more to add to the perspective that the textbooks provide. Again, it is those with fewer resources who are trapped in the single narrative provided by a national authority.
There is a great deal of good in having a basic low-cost textbook at especially in the younger years. The NCERT textbooks provide vast amounts of knowledge at the cost of a basic roadside meal or the daily wage at the poverty line designated by the government. But in trying to create a low-cost ecosystem there have been compromises on quality. The rate for editing a government agency textbook is five-to-10 per cent of a commercial editor’s rate. Peanuts and monkeys come to mind.