Monday, April 19, 2010

Humphing textbooks

For the past few mornings Abhilasha has been helping two of the cook’s children with their English lessons. It hasn’t been easy – she found that despite being in the eighth and sixth standard, they had a problem reading out basic sentences, or understanding what those sentences meant. On being asked what happens in the classroom, they said the teacher typically gets a chapter read out by one of the two or three students whose English is good, and then explains the gist of the chapter to the others ... in Hindi. “I’d really like to get my hands on their exam answer sheets,” Abhilasha said, “I can’t imagine what these kids must be writing – maybe their answers are in Hindi too.”

Nor was she helped by my chuckling fit when I came across the following exchange in (a mildly abridged version of) the Kipling story “How the Camel Got his Hump”:
“Does he say anything else?”

“Only ‘Humph!’; and he won't plough,” said the Ox.

“Very good,” said the Djinn. “I'll humph him if you will kindly wait a minute.”
Okay, forget that mental picture of the Djinn setting off to “humph” the camel. I’m not sure how the over-formal, old-world English prevalent elsewhere in the story is of much use to these kids, who are struggling with even basic words and sentence arrangements, and who will certainly not be using sentences that begin “Presently there came to him...” anytime in the future. Besides, what is a description like “howling desert” supposed to convey to a kid who hasn’t even been properly taught what “desert” means? (He might have heard the word “registaan” during a Hindi conversation, but he has no practical understanding of what such a place is like anyway. No wonder most of these kids have to reconcile themselves to rote-learning.)

Flipping through this NCERT text-book, I was reminded of my conversations with the redoubtable Atiya Zaidi, publisher, Ratna Sagar, during our German trip last year. Among other things, Atiya spoke about the regressive attitudes in textbooks that provide children with their introduction to the world of reading. Here are some of her thoughts, which I had transcribed at the time (and partly used in this story for the Hindu’s Literary Review):

“There are still so many gender biases and stereotypes in children’s textbooks in India. When children are asked to draw a teacher, they reflexively draw a matronly woman dressed in a sari with hair in a bun; they wouldn’t think of drawing a young woman with short hair. When asked to draw a doctor, it’s always a man. In Mathematics problems a husband will always draw a higher salary than his wife, girls will always get fewer marks than boys. These things are rife in textbooks but nobody bothers; there is no official body as such that will point out these things.

“There’s a school textbook for class 7 that says ‘Ferozshah Tughlak, even though he was a Muslim, was a kind man.’. These guys get away with any nonsense. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found any south Indian name in our textbooks – there were mostly north Indian Brahmannical names. Even today you won’t find a north-eastern name or an Oriya name. Imagine the conditioning effect this sort of thing has on children over the years. A sheltered child might not even know that it’s possible to be called Baruah, or that Mr Khan can speak English too. A textbook is such a potent weapon but we aren’t bothered.

“Moral-science books project God as a punitive, threatening person. I remember a cautionary story where a nurse reached the hospital late and a patient died, and the ‘moral’ of the story was that you should be on time or else ‘God will be angry with you’. The people who write these textbooks are stuck in a time-warp, they are simply doing what they’ve always been doing.”

“For a child a book is like a gospel,” Atiya noted afterwards, “If you try to correct him he says no no, my book says this.” Well, Abhilasha’s been experiencing some of that with these kids. The books are sacrosanct, even when they don’t understand a lot of what’s written in them.


  1. Completely agree Sir. For most of the Indians, even now, north-eastern India doesn't exist. People equate north-east Indians with Chinese, Nepalese and what not!

    This is partially a fallout of what is sowed in the mind of a tender child.

  2. Dear Jabberwock,

    I can fully relate to the pictures presented by textbooks with specific reference to all the items you mentioned in History.

    Nice article!

  3. I could get over the fact that a middle class person employs a cook.

    After I do that, maybe I will bring myself to agree with the rest of the post which I am sure makes perfect sense.

    Feudalism must be where everyone else is a jerk.

  4. Not sure I agree with the conditioning aspects of textbooks. Me and most of my friends and classmates read NCERT text books and we did not turn out bad. and before you say anything I must add that I studied at a school we ere we had all economic classes being a small town.

    Also firstly the teachers need to be somewhat good for the child to be really influenced by the text book and if the teacher is very good then this influence would be moderated

  5. I could get over the fact that a middle class person employs a cook.

    Jarring: two cooks, actually. One at our flat and one at my mother's place five minutes away. Oddly, they are even more "middle class" than we are.

  6. Me and most of my friends and classmates read NCERT text books and we did not turn out bad.

    Oddan: well, I read NCERT textbooks too, for what it's worth, and so did most of my friends. Not trying to make a simplistic correlation here. Thankfully, most of us have other positive influences in our lives too, including our parents.

  7. Thanks heavens they still use NCERT textbooks these days!

    I thought the CBSE must've migrated to Chetan Bhagat books as far as subjects like English literature and Social Sciences are concerned ;)

  8. "A sheltered child might not even know that it’s possible to be called Baruah"
    I am a Baruah from the northeast and a lot of people of my age have heard about Baruahs from Assam. I think a lot of us were lucky to have grown up with Doordarshan around because whatever the textbooks lacked was made up by Doordarshan's national integration drive. Even though at times these programs seemed superficial it helped in forming my idea of India.However I am sure any kid today will think that a man named Taka Imli Sonap Ao Imgen can never be an Indian (He was my hostelmate from Nagaland during my engineering days)

  9. Ms Atiya Zaidi's remarks sound more like a liberal rant. I'm sure most studious kids will have better things to do with their time than notice the gender and income of the protagonists in math problems!

    And I find that amusing Ferozshah Tughlaq tidbit too incredible to believe! I'm tempted to wonder if she's making up things here.

    The NCERT world history texts that I read back in school were notoriously liberal. No wonder I grew up completely oblivious to communism's bloody reputation.

  10. In fact, I barely remember reading anything on British and American history in those texts. What I do recollect is a disproportionate emphasis on Russia and China. Hope NDA's text revision drive has improved matters.

    There is evidently an unhealthy liberal bias in our humanities texts. Which is why I cringe when Ms.Zaidi cavils at gender inequality/lack of non-sanskrit names in math problems. She's clearly missing the wood for the trees.(pardon the cliched expression)

  11. I've been reading up the latest NCERT textbooks for classes 7 to 10 for an exam. Something that really caught my attention is this bit in a geography textbook where the mother is talking to her children about the nutrients in the snacks the father makes for the kids every evening. I think its interesting that the text is finally not reinforcing the 'cooking is what mothers/women do' idea.

    Also, the examples in all the chapters have obvious Christian, Muslim, Sikh names, as well as south Indian and north Indian names. Overall, the impression I got was that a lot of thought had gone into these little details, and the message they could convey to the kids.

  12. I find it even more odd that you thought of your parents and their household. I'll just put this down to geography though I can't seem to ignore it.

    I guess just as Atiya Zaidi can't seem to get over NCERT, I can't seem to get over regular people employing domestic helps and cooks to merely live their lives.

  13. R: that's good to hear, though I should reiterate that Atiya wasn't referring specifically to NCERT textbooks.

    And I find that amusing Ferozshah Tughlaq tidbit too incredible to believe! I'm tempted to wonder if she's making up things here.

    Shrikanth: I'd like to think that you know how to make your own arguments without accusing your targets of lying. I've seen some fairly bizarre stuff in textbooks myself in the last few days. Or maybe I have a - gasp! - liberal bias too.

    ...I cringe when Ms.Zaidi cavils at gender inequality/lack of non-sanskrit names in math problems. She's clearly missing the wood for the trees.

    That may be so, but "cringing" when someone complains about regressive gender portrayals in children's textbooks is nothing to boast about, no matter what the context.

  14. I can't seem to get over regular people employing domestic helps and cooks to merely live their lives

    Jarring: oh I'd love it if I could employ someone to "merely live my life" for me. Unfortunately the cook simply cooks.

  15. Sadly, you can't seem to afford someone to dish out fake profundity that can also be funny. I suggest you fire the cooks and hire me to do that. I can't be worse.

  16. wonderful post. Atiya's words suitable fit into perspective.

  17. Jai: I didn't "accuse" her of lying. Nevertheless, I did wonder if she exaggerated while ranting, as people often do.

    I'm curious to know which text has that bizzarre remark about Tughlaq's abnormal kindness.

    And I don't quite understand how a husband earning more than a wife in a math problem statement can amount to a "regressive gender portrayal". After all, an overwhelming majority of husbands do earn more than their wives not just in India, but in most parts of the world.

    My point is that there is no end to such nitpicking. A few years from now, people might complain about the inadequate representation of gay couples in math textbooks!

  18. shrikanth: okay, point taken. In any case, R's comment is also a reminder that all textbooks aren't stuck in a time-warp.

  19. A very relevant issue for sure.

    Let's talk about Social Science textbooks up to class Xth, till when, these subjects are compulsory.

    Economics and civics textbooks are in a really bad shape, and carry very less weightage to be of any consequence to the final grades. A major overhaul is required here, to add more relevant things which a person should most certainly know about.

    Talking about History textbooks, they did provide a framework in my mind, where i at least got to know the basic turn of events for a lot of major events in history. If i spot a reference to a Nam war or a Boston Tea Party, i at least know what they are talking about.
    The portrayal of the historical events especially, Indian history, is definitely not up to the mark. But it is sufficient to drive me to read a Freedom At Midnight or The Last Mughal.
    What needs to be done is to change the emphasis on the description time-periods, to include more stuff about partition, the 50s-60s socialist policies, wars and issues of contention with neighboring countries, major problems that we faced after independence and steps taken to seek solutions to these, License-Raj, Liberalisation, history of major cities in india(something like a Maximum City, but i guess, that's just wishful thinking) etc. When students get to see the relevance of these in their present day life, then only will they want to know about it, and maybe read related stuff outside the textbooks as well. It can also instill a feeling of national pride, where appropriate. More importantly, it can also give them a glimpse of trauma that resulted from our mistakes(partition violence, for example), and teach students, important lessons of life.

    The effects of these changes will be long-lasting and widespread. But caution is required in biases, that might creep in while incorporating these changes.

  20. Anyone who has tried to teach English to children from a lower socio-economic background will find it a daunting task. Mostly because the available texts are so far removed from their range of experiences and concepts. The state of the schools most of these kids attend, if they do attend them, is appalling, with unimaginative teachers whose own lives are not rosy either. It is my core belief that education will only improve in our country when school teaching is not a person's job of the last resort, but a profession that holds high status and high value, and is something only those with great aptitude are allowed to pursue. The damage done by poor teaching is often irreversible.

  21. Ashish, Dipali: thanks, those are very comprehensive comments. Dipali, yes, the difficulty of teaching kids from a lower socio-economic background is something I should have specifically addressed in the post.

  22. "I could get over the fact that a middle class person employs a cook."

    Why? Is cooking not a legitimate service? Do you have problems with receiving services from barbers or electricians or plumbers?
    Yes, labor is cheap in India -- but that means everybody's labor is cheap (on the whole -- that is why other industries outsource from India). If you treat your cook like a professional, and not as her feudal master -- where is the problem? It is not that receiving services is a problem per se. It is the manner is which you set up the the employee-employer relationship.

    Anyway, Jabberwock, a touching piece, and a subject I've thought about often.

  23. googling Atiya - chanced on this page. found v little but...

    well, too much liberal liberal around your response to comments, etc. *cough* *cough* *choking* *ohgghhhrrghhhhhh* *cough*