Politics and Education: Impact, Interventions and Interactions

There has been a lot of talk about how education should be a priority of anyone aiming at sustainable development. The longevity of any form of progress is dependent upon the efforts taken to improve future generations. Education is an obvious factor in the measurement of good governance. A lot of talk has also happened as to how much, where all, and what type of interventions by the government are to be encouraged keeping in mind both, past experiences with the same or the lack of it. There are several platforms that connect the two worlds.

Image: Max Pixel

The purpose of this piece of writing is not to just criticise or appreciate the forays that politics makes into the field of education. Rather the purpose is to identify the various fulcrums on which this nexus rests and to identify the various spaces in education that are in fact affected, regulated and manipulated by politics.

This will also note the characteristic features of politics that make these interventions inevitable as well as meaningful and/or problematic. This piece will explore a few questions in specific areas that are closer to my observation and experience both as a student and a teacher.

The first question that one needs to ask is how much can politics control education? Which aspects do political frontiers clash with the educational space in India? If so then which areas have been and are being regulated, modified or affected by politics?

If I had to list a few of those aspects of education that politics can directly affect, then these would be it:

  • Curriculum and Syllabi
  • Assessment models and structures
  • Temporal Structure of courses and degrees
  • Meanings and Values attached to grades and marks
  • Content (Textbooks)
  • Organisation of subjects
  • Quality of education dispensed (North East- postings)

I have taught at the higher secondary level for two years now in a mainstream national curriculum board. I also recently studied at two of India’s premier universities. Therefore, my perspective on how politics has ventured into the education space will focus on the teachings  in schools and its relationship with the demands of colleges both within and outside India, as well as demands of work life. But before I get into the specifics of what I have encountered regarding this theme in my work and student life, I’d first like to highlight, if not explore entirely, certain general concerns that intrusion of politics in the field of education might have created in India.

What is it about the intervention of politics that may lead to a difference in the educational backbone of the nation?

It could be the person and the personal disposition in terms of ideology, educational or professional background (or the lack of it), political and personal motives of the individual. It could also be a collective sense of ‘good’ or collective purpose of the State with which educational reforms are introduced.

Exposure to alternative forms of education seen elsewhere, baggage of collective ideology, and ideological pressures, lack of nuanced understanding of the psychology or sociology of education on the part of those who make these decisions are some more factors that could make tangible differences. But all in all, a lot of political decisions taken regarding education, and the implementation of these have reflected an enormous lack of experience, perspective, expertise and exposure of those making decisions about the functioning of education.

Perhaps the repercussions of structural changes introduced were not anticipated. The base on which these new decisions were implemented are fundamentally built on a completely different knowledge and experience based models. Education models cannot be copied without numerous studies of settings in which they are to be implanted, as a meticulous process of adaptation, acculturation and assimilation of agents, ideas and functional structures of the two sides must necessarily accompany such decisions.

I teach social sciences, history and sometimes civics at a high ranked ICSE ISC school in the capital of the nation. It is affiliated to the CISCE (besides IBDP and IGCSE). Prior to this I taught for about six months at a progressive school, in Gurgaon, affiliated to the CBSE curriculum (and now to IB as well). I was pursuing an MPhil in History from a premier university in Delhi until a year back, and before that I completed my Masters in History and a BA. Hons. in History from two top ranked institutions in the University of Delhi. My schooling was in the science stream (with Computer Applications as my fifth subject).

There are two major problems I would like to offer my insights on:

1.The assessment models of the mainstream boards have a major disconnect with the rational goals of education and demands of the future existence of a student.

We might have noticed a conscious effort of these boards to emulate to the patterns of the West, but this transition has created greater chaos than anticipated primarily because of the lack of foresight. With increasing popularity of boards like IB and IGCSE amongst ambitious and elite circles of upper class in India, a need to reform assessment patterns was felt.

The CCE assessment model introduced in CBSE schools was a product of this thought. It is a visionary beginning, no doubt. But the implementation of formative assessments as a concept has witnessed several issues. First, not all schools understood the best ways this opportunity could be used and resorted to conventional methods of testing, like class tests. Secondly, any real or valuable level of testing dismisses all the skills that are developed through interesting formative assessments. Most of our education system retains rote learning as a manner of expressing quality at higher levels of education.

The larger skill set that is aimed at developing through formative assessment go largely ignored by competitive exams and entrance examinations in India. Moreover, innovative methods of testing are actually implemented as a part of CCE only in schools that have been able to divorce itself from conventional teaching methods, like higher end schools in urban areas and/or progressive schools. However, in a majority of CBSE affiliated schools in the country the testing is still very conventional only adding to the constant pressure of writing tests after tests for the students. The lack of board exams must be replaced not by internal methods of testing but alternative methods like research papers or project based assignments, if it’s to be removed at all.

The same system, just internalised only to be followed up with the ancient manner of board exams in higher secondary has rendered this change completely unnecessary. Application and analysis are pitted on the other side of board exams which rely mainly on memory. This disconnect will never be bridged given the current content heavy school education system of ours.

There are still reforms required to create a more comprehensive connect between the demands of college and work life with what the schools teach the students. There is a definite lack of understanding what holistic development means. Worse is the implementation of whatever little there is in the proposed curricula to achieve any level of holistic development

2.Plight of social sciences and regulation of it’s content.

One of the most ignored priorities in my opinion is the way in which social sciences is placed within our school education system. Social Sciences as an area and all the disciplines within it are fundamentally instrumental in shaping the future of the nation. Lack of knowhow or importance given to subjects like – economics, sociology, political science, history, anthropology will lead to an incomplete formulation of an individual’s personality and his relationship with the organically functioning society.

Most of the social issues that our country faces today, like discrimination, crime etc are partly because of the lack of a strong social fabric grounded in principles emanating from rational education of humanitarian values. Left to subjects of choice in this science oriented country humanities or the social sciences are absent from an individual’s mental faculties that have caused a human beings to function a lot more mechanically and not sensitively as they should be. One of the aims of education is to create an intelligent and a constructive electorate. This country’s citizens with very miniscule understanding of how our polity works, where to place themselves in aiding this country to progress both economically and socially. While civics is taught in school, their relevance to larger issues and the application of political theories, ideologies and principles are never adequately explored at all.

The other problem within this is the existing interventions that politics has been making in the content of important subjects like history, which is a subjective domain. Alterations are made to serve the purpose to construction a nationalist organic solidarity (like Durkheim argues in explaining the way in which complex societies glues itself together). In constructing a conscious national identity the interventions are rendering subject like history to be nothing but a passively dispensed story instead of a science of constructing elements of the past and not merely perspectivised presentation of it.  The discourses that dominate the tone of content in social sciences are politically influenced to an extent that its objectivity is almost entirely absent. It still often ends up promoting and consolidating existing prejudices. There seems to also be an imbalance in the syllabi especially regarding proportionate representation of all parts of the country in historical narratives chosen to taught at school levels. Then of course teaching events without the intellectual basis of the same has rendered history to be a boring and passive subject, therefore neglected by most people.

The propoganda related regulation of content in social sciences, and the syllabi of social sciences limits one’s ability to question, analyse and critically evaluate the nature of sources. It also prohibits a viewer to access the realities of multiple sources in history by validating only one side of the same in textbooks. Being a history teacher it has saddened me to know that an agenda or propaganda is shaping the knowledge and analytical faculties of students today, which defeats the purpose of the subject itself as well the goal of education in enabling students to form educated opinions instead of believing in politically constructed myths fed to them.

Should the State intervene in content regulation to alter it in ways that serves the purpose of an ideology of the State? Shouldn’t academic content be independent of ideological forays?

There is a project that students of Cambridge University are working on called The History Project and there is a similar project called the Divided History Project. It compared the history books of Pakistan and India for the different ways in which it portrays the events of 1947 in South Asia. One calls it the Partition of India, the other calls it the Formation of Pakistan and India. This clearly reflects a difference in how the same event is presented in textbook discourse. If one also goes on to compare NCERT history books of CBSE and Maharasthra State board, they all will have different ways in which the 18th century is described.

Textbooks differing in States may serve great local purposes but the absence of a purely academic curriculum in the subject has led to existence of purposeful narratives being taught in schools. Worse still depending on regions, the history of the subcontinent tends to focus on the region of the university even at the higher level of study.

The undergraduate history curriculum at Delhi University hardly has much to offer about south Indian history. The history of northeast India is more marginalized than ever. It is sad how politics of democracy, an unconsciously adopted curriculum has led to wide gaps in our perceptions of our own past. But inclusion of such projects in curriculum will not only enhance the analytical skill set of a student, it will also make them actual students of social sciences than reduce history to just another content heavy syllabus to memorize.

Such narratives differ according to propaganda. That is why such interventions of political agents and not purely academic agents can be very dangerous, as this is the foundation of an individual’s knowledge. Knowledge that will impact their mannerisms and their opinions will be defined by this knowledge. This knowledge will shape their personalities, especially of all the social sciences, which anyway is a neglected super subject. Politics and Education turn to shape each other as a result of this interaction.

In conclusion, education is the cornerstone of development of a country. It is an important state instrument that can be used to effectively tackle most of the issues that it faces in governance. It is also the one avenue through which a majority of the State’s population can be directly impacted. If the State does intervene, it must do so with a well thought out purpose and a well discussed and expert-advised strategy.

The whimsical ways in which our State influenced aspects of education have operated will end up causing greater harm than resolve issues.

Therefore it is imperative that a technocratic approach towards this department in governance is adopted, to ensure a better future of the country as a whole.

Tannishtha Bhattacharjee

Tannishtha Bhattacharjee

Tannishtha is a 25 year old in the field of academics and education and being innately love with history, football, debate, dance, food and travel are essential to her identity. She loves to travel and debate to engage and stimulate the inherent cynicism and curiosity in her. Having done a BA. Hons History at Lady Shri Ram College for Women and MA in History from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi she has been associated with history ever since as she taught history to senior classes at The Shri Ram School, Moulsari for about two years and has written and presented research papers on the perceptions of body and sexuality and history of ideas, gender, culture and emotions, Besides these she also has chosen to be involved with the underprivileged and related social causes through non-profit organisations working with low income schools in slums of Delhi like the Becoming I Foundation and Together for aCause.

She loves languages and has sought formal training in French, Spanish and Persian besides finding opportunities to colloquially pick up regional languages of India.
Tannishtha Bhattacharjee

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