Most textbooks implicitly accept the status quo and teach as if the way things are is the way things should be - whether in terms of stereotypical gender roles, communal attitudes or a pro-urban bias. A few textbooks are being designed, however, that consciously seek to reverse the trend. They teach children to ask questions, challenge prejudices, and inculcate values of equality and social justice. While NGOs have produced some of these textbooks, others are being brought out by governmental agencies such as the NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training), New Delhi.
Eklavya, an NGO based in Madhya Pradesh, was a pioneer in this field, bringing out a series of progressive language and social studies textbooks in the 1990s. Eklavya teams experimented and modified modules in collaboration with teachers and students; the textbooks that emerged were child-friendly, beginning with the child's reality and moving outwards.
Similarly, in Uttaranchal, the Uttaranchal Seva Nidhi (USN) has laboriously produced a series of textbooks on environmental studies that have been introduced into the governmental school system. Eklavya as well as USN textbooks work closely with children's rural contexts, bringing about a sense of pride and confidence in their heritage, and expanding knowledge that enables children to improve the local economy rather than necessarily dream of shifting elsewhere.
Since 1994, NGO Communalism Combat has run a programme called Khoj (literally, search), in private and municipal schools in Mumbai, to sensitize children towards the need for co-existence among people belonging to different religions. Rishi Valley Educational Centre (RVEC), Andhra Pradesh, has also produced history textbooks that awaken the historical imagination and encourage analysis, rather than rote learning.
All these experiments have met with undoubted success at the ground level, yet their geographical coverage remains limited. That is why the ongoing experiment by NCERT assumes significance - for NCERT textbooks go out to across the country, becoming part of the syllabus for tens of thousands of schools.
The new NCERT textbooks are being produced for all school subjects - for Class 1 right up to Class XII - by groups of experts, including university professors, schoolteachers as well as subject experts from other organizations, including NGOs. Some textbooks have already been introduced in the 2006-07 academic year, while others are in the pipeline.
What is most refreshing is the direct attempt to encourage children to question social prejudices, discrimination and inequalities. The Class 6 textbook titled 'Social and Political Life' (NCERT, February 2006) begins with a chapter on diversity. Students are asked to look around and see whether there are any two identical people in their class, examine self-portraits by children on the page, and make a sketch of themselves in the empty box provided. On the next two pages is a simple, heart-rending story by a child narrator, introducing the theme of diverse religions as well as class differences. The textbook directly exposes prejudices - based on caste, class, gender, religion and able-bodied vs 'disabled', among other issues - in our society.
Particularly noteworthy is the integration of elements of gender sensitivity in the text, for instance: 'A farmer wants a loan from the bank to dig a well in her land.' (p. 53) Such a sentence undercuts the dominant notion of 'farmer' as male. Caste prejudices are also brought under the scanner, for instance by explaining the meaning of 'Dalit' as "people belonging to the so-called lower castes...those who have been 'broken' by social prejudices and discrimination." (p. 19).
Such a textbook has the potential for correcting several biases that children have internalized from the adult world. However, therein hangs a contradiction - teachers themselves often bring in their own deep-seated prejudices, and may be unable to teach these chapters in the spirit required. Clearly, it is essential to have intensive teacher-orientation programs if these radical textbooks are to have a chance to be effective in actual classroom contexts. An RVEC history textbook notes, "All of us have prejudices of one sort or another...It is important to lay bare our own prejudices...it is also important to find out why we are so prejudiced. And, finally, the most important of all, it is necessary to free ourselves of prejudice."
The Khoj programme, Mumbai, found it essential to engage in long, frank discussions with students, patiently chipping away at deeply entrenched biases, when dealing with concepts like 'tolerance', 'harmony' and 'respect for diversity'.
The new NCERT textbooks consistently draw students to look beyond the textbook. Their foreword states, "A textbook is important but is only one among many sources that can be used in a classroom. Students should be encouraged to read outside their textbooks. One way would be to find out answers to some of the questions raised in the class in other sources, like newspapers, magazines, books etc." In the senior school social science textbooks, cartoon characters (with names like like Unni and Munni) have a significant place. Turning up on the margins of every chapter, they represent children who constantly ask uncomfortable questions.
Among its objectives for the present textbooks, NCERT has emphasized the need to invest children with normative concerns, such as caste/class inequality, social justice, etc. They attempt an epistemological shift by incorporating local perceptions and encouraging the active participation of the learners. The Eklavya textbooks had shown it is possible to interest children by presenting social, political and historical facts not just about kings, but equally about peasants and common people. According to the National Curriculum Framework, NCERT, we also need "an epistemic shift from the patriarchal frame within which social studies is currently conceptualized". The curriculum can be 'gendered' by making the perspectives of women integral to the discussion of any historical event or contemporary concern.
Gender biases continue to exist in many of our school textbooks, for instance those brought out by the Bihar State Textbook Publishing Corporation, Rajasthan State Textbook Committee and UP Textbook Department for Basic Education. A recent study of textbooks produced by these three state-level entities shows that they depict stereotypical behavior: men active (carrying sticks, playing games, digging, leading his family while his wife walks behind him) and women relatively passive (doing household work, playing with dolls, docile). The stories have predominantly male characters, particularly stories of leaders, heroes and warriors. Biased textbooks are bound to have a very powerful negative impact upon children - reinforcing social messages about the superiority of males and the inferiority of females.
At an even deeper level, language is inherently gender biased, and if used unselfconsciously, this sexism is perpetuated. For instance 'man' sometimes denotes males, at other times both males and females. The present NCERT textbooks have consciously tried to overcome this limitation of the English language. They counter the bias by frequently using 'her' and 'she' to refer to the generic human (whereas the common pattern is to use 'his' and 'he'). This is one more element within the overarching shift in approach - steps towards education actually becoming a means of social transformation, rather than perpetuation of status quo.
Such changes are bound to make an impact. But it is important to remember that teachers are the pivots of the teaching-learning process, and an effective teacher sensitization program is a sine qua non for the successful use of the present textbooks.