The new curriculum sought to overcome the visual baggage of old textbooks.
Today, India debates whether or not cartoons should be included in school textbooks. Such debates are welcome to improve our understanding of school education in general, and textbooks in particular. But before the review committee throws all cartoons out of the school tub, it would help to understand a few facets of textbook preparation, especially the selection of visuals.
Locating visuals for a textbook is a challenging task, and more so for social studies textbooks. First, the authors are professors accustomed to reading text-heavy books, where usually the only visual relief is the book’s cover. So the experts have imagined and learned the social sciences as texts, rather than visuals. Second, while preparing textbooks under the new curriculum — the National Curriculum Framework, 2005 — the authors need to not only discern but also overcome the visual baggage of traditional school textbooks.
What visual baggage are we talking about? In our traditional school books — which did contain photographs, sketches and diagrams — there were patterns. Photographs in history textbooks, for example, were often of persons who were supposedly heroes or villains. Where we lacked images of dead queens and kings, we resorted to stylised and make-believe sketches. No one saw anything amiss in this, probably because the main text too was a narrative of who, what and when, about kings, queens, leaders or events. This pattern fuelled the belief that the presence or absence of a person’s name in textbooks can affect the balance of power of different political ideologies.
But these images in textbooks were intended to evoke worship rather than thinking. They also encouraged the belief that political and social processes were inevitably tied to individuals. Recall the acts of Mahatma Gandhi or Bhagat Singh in the national movement. By placing images of heroes (and the token heroine) in the middle of long passages on the freedom movement, collective action by the masses was underplayed.
Once you recognise the visual baggage — the limited types of visuals used, and the messages reinforced by the pedagogic tools — you also see its roots in the old curriculum. Traditional textbooks told the reader that the social sciences were a heap of information, and not about interpretation or analysis. Teenage learners were assumed to be incapable of discerning, discussing or debating ideas, and had to be told that events occurred in such and such manner. The photographs, sketches and other visuals represented knowledge in a manner thought ideal for children: as information.
In the new curriculum framework, however, textbooks were not envisaged as an officially sanctioned information bundle to be canalised by the teacher. Instead, the textbooks were to be only one among the many resources a teacher uses to mediate discussions with students. They demanded a wider repertoire of visuals.
In the new books, therefore, cartoons, posters and paintings were suitable because such forms of visual representation evoked emotions in the classroom, and triggered discussion. Unlike the photograph of a stern face, or a diagram, they allowed multiple interpretations and disagreements. The new curriculum desired student activity and lively classrooms, in place of the traditional teacher-centred, “disciplined” space. It seemed that the state was comfortable with debates among students, and a de-disciplined classroom. So why the volte face now?
In the new textbooks for political science, one finds diversity not only in images, but also in texts. We encounter different types of narratives: stories, case studies, newspaper clippings, open-ended questions, poems and bios. An extract from a poem by the Dalit writer Daya Pawar (in a Class X textbook) is as powerful and thought-provoking as a cartoon. It is a pedagogical tool capable of initiating ways to understand marginalisation. In this manner, the textbooks were redefining the discipline at the school level — political science would no longer be a list of rules and regulations, or of powers and functions of the political class.
Cartoons are political statements. They provide a crisp commentary on political events. If students are to be equipped to enjoy and analyse newspapers, cartoons should not be excluded. The right place for cartoons is the political science textbook, and while studying political events or issues, the young adult would benefit from exposure to past records. Cartoons from another era are hence not an anomaly.
In the popular imagination, cartoons are associated with their ability to evoke a smile. But it must be recognised that, just like a political thinker or politician, the cartoonist offers a multi-dimensional critique of contemporary events. So while imaging social studies textbooks, one has to surmount the erroneous belief that the cartoonist was only trying to make us smile. Another misguided notion to be rectified is that that all cartoons are attempts to lampoon the political class. Cartoons provide an opportunity for diverse perspectives.
Textbooks need to be reviewed from time to time. But instead of throwing out a pedagogical device at the spark of a controversy, it is wiser to appreciate that different genres of image and text are valuable in classrooms. In the real world, there are diverse perspectives; textbooks should not remain unreal.
The writer was part of a team that developed NCERT political science texts for classes IX-XII