A study  in Texas on the Social Science textbooks last year showed how something as apolitical as grammar is employed to play down Atlantic slavery in America. Statements like ‘some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves.’ are problematic on many levels. But it is the subsequent statements—‘However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery’—as per the study, that indicate the use of grammar in focussing attention away from something. By simply removing people from these statements, questions such as ‘who whipped’ and ‘who was whipped’, are left out of the discussion. These choices were made keeping in mind the strong influence of Republican political philosophy in this state.
But it wasn’t merely that the textbook writers were influenced by a particular strand of political philosophy and so wrote what they did. To understand what went inside this textbook, or any textbook for that matter, one is forced to ask – what are some of the foundational assumptions made in a curriculum framework? You may well ask – why a curriculum framework? Because it is that which provides us the reasoning of what is there in the textbook. This takes us to the next question – what are these foundational assumptions? These could be epistemological assumptions, assumptions about learning, assumptions concerning the child and her context, and/ or an assumption about a desired society. It is the final assumption that I want to take up for further examination. Moreover, it is an assumption of a desired society in a democratic set- up which is of interest here.
In a democratic set-up, we seek a society that is pluralistic and is based on the principles of justice, equality & freedom. Human beings in such a society should be autonomous beings, ‘connected with each other in mutual appreciation and knowledge’ (NCERT, p. 16).
We might consider that these assumptions are given, standard and same for all, specifically in democratic societies. However, it is important to study and map the approaches used to reach an idea of what we consider to be a desirable democratic society.
White (1983) states that democracy implies that everyone ‘has an access to an equal share in the exercise, or control, of power’, and that ‘no conception of the good life is arbitrarily imposed on anyone, and no one is subject to arbitrary interference’ (p. 6); thereon she unpacks the basic assumptions of democracy and meanings of power, participatory democracy and egalitarian society. If the twin principles of justice and freedom form the bedrock for democracy, it is important to recognise the fact that a) no democratic state (consequently, political power) can be controlled by one set of people and b) the state cannot work within a defined notion of ‘good life’ and impose it on the people, even in the guise of being a morally good life. These two principles (justice and freedom) therefore are the starting point for her argument.
She then moves on to look at three basic assumptions which are necessary to make these two principles work:
- There are no moral experts who can tell us what constitutes a ‘good life’. The right to take such a decision lies with the individual herself.
- So that each individual can work towards their defined idea of a ‘good life’, a wide range of goods, services and opportunities should be provided by the state for realisation of the many concepts of ‘good life’.
- Democratic citizens have certain abilities and behaviour traits, like wanting to be guided by rule, ability to make choices, unprejudiced tolerance towards others.
Clearly, all three assumptions have implications for education. First, it is important to recognise that nobody can tell me what a good life is and subsequently I too have no right to impose what I feel is a notion of good life on somebody else. Second, education is, according to White, a fundamental institutional machinery which makes some of the opportunities possible for an individual to realise her idea of a ‘good life’. Third, even with some basic assumptions about the nature of people, if we want them to exercise ‘unprejudiced tolerance’, the children will have to be educated in this important trait that is expected of a democratic citizen.
This last idea of a ‘democratic citizenship’ and its subsequent implication for education is something that White and Enslin (1997) explore. They compile contemporary debates on the idea of citizenship, raise some problems in coming up with a working model of ‘who is a good citizen’, and examine some of the implications this has for education, particularly when education is seen as imparting ‘citizenship education’. This means that in a democracy we have a certain ideal of what democracy means and should be; we locate citizens as an important component in this structure, then make a list of ‘civic virtues’ which we expect the citizens to possess, and attach a tremendous amount of importance to education.
However, identifying what we feel constitutes a democratic citizenship, and then arriving at a suitable definition for it, is not an easy job.
At the beginning of their work, White and Enslin raise the question of why there is a genuine concern with introducing a dichotomous understanding of citizenship by pitting maximal/active citizenship against the notion of a minimal/passive citizenship. It is simply presumed that the first model, having a more positive ring to it, is the more desirable model. But through the paper, with the help of arguments from the works of other political philosophers, they show exactly why, a) this is not adequate, b) it creates an idea of citizenship which is exclusive rather than inclusive, and c) this has great implications for education.
But first, they try to explain that citizenship is inexplicably linked with the idea of a state—no matter what its nature. Therefore, it is something that is conferred by a political body. This also helps understand how it works in including some groups while excluding others. Three qualifications are necessary to get the status of ‘citizen’—relevant knowledge of public affairs which justify participation, mature judgement which comes with age and finally, a sense of long term commitment towards the larger good of the nation-state for which the citizenship has been conferred. But again, there is a problem with the idea of conferring a citizenship which equates it with something that has to be earned. The alternative view, and one which they take forward, is that citizenship should be seen as having a dual nature where, on one hand it is a shared status with some inherent rights available to all who have been granted this status, but at the same time, it is also a normative ideal, with some civic virtues attached to it. Education, in these civic virtues—which we could explain simply as ‘duties’ towards the state and nation—becomes important. This basically means that education is important, in terms of knowledge and commitment, to enable everyone to reach the normative ideal.
Taking forward their concern with the minimal/maximal debate, White and Enslin examine the first aspect of citizenship, which is seen in terms of shared status, making citizens as bearers of rights. If one is to look at how the scope of rights has expanded over the centuries, it is quite impressive, but what is also evident is that individual, liberty rights (right to speech, free trial, life, and private property) which are seen in relation with citizenship, actually conform to a minimal notion of citizenship. Welfare rights (right to food, housing, education), which can provide a maximal notion of citizenship are seen as being more demanding on the state. Welfare rights would require the state to be actively involved and concerned about the citizens and are therefore has more to do with ‘action’ on part of the government. On the other hand, liberty rights promote ‘inaction’ by the government, and are therefore less demanding and more akin to a minimal notion of citizenship, where the citizen is left free. In this case, the minimal/maximal dichotomy doesn’t really work.
To add to the worry, an expansion of welfare rights, without an equivalent focus on gender sensitivity, could lead to further complications. If we look at this in context of the feminist theory, the case in hand becomes clearer.
While it seems that feminist theory would support the participatory, active, maximal model of citizenship to make up for women’s earlier exclusion from politics and public spaces, this is too simplistic an understanding of the implications of such a model for women.
For one, this model is too steeped in the idea of a male image. The distinction between a good citizen and bad citizen based on citizens as either being bearers of rights or citizens of ‘robust republican virtue’ (White and Enslin, 2007, p. 113) is troublesome. Citizens of the latter category would necessarily put public life before their private life. It is against this point that the feminists have argued that while participatory model sounds like a good idea, it cannot work within the framework and assumption of the ‘robust republican virtue’ of excessive participation in the public sphere. This is because the gendered world works in a way in which the private domain is the woman’s responsibility while the public domain is man’s responsibility. Not only would this imply that women fall in the former category of being ‘just’ bearers of rights, the implication is also that citizenship excludes the private domain. But what a child actually sees and learns at home is part of her education too. This is why it is equally important to change the gendered relations at home which are actually producing an in-egalitarian family and which seems to imply that women’s exclusion from politics and public affairs is the natural order of how things should be.
So the demand is not only for a greater participation of women in the public sphere but equally that the private needs to be given its due too, while at the same time necessitating a re-ordering and re-structuring of home relations. To assume that what people do at home is not part of their civic duties is dangerous. And here, once again, the configuration of citizenship in a minimal/passive and maximal/active model raises many concerns.
Indeed, White and Enslin speak of an emerging modern view of citizenship which actually supports an individual in the private roles. In this scenario, democratic institutions such as a free and independent judiciary, a responsible press and so on perform the necessary vigilance, allowing the citizen to focus on their personal affairs. This resonates with what White (1983) implied, where she warned against a participatory model which might completely ‘politicize’ a person’s life. The choice of what one wants to participate in should be left to the individual because this again reiterates what democracy stands for—no one has the right to impose an idea of ‘good life’ on anybody. But this would imply that the citizens are educated enough, and have sufficient civic virtues (rational thinking, unprejudiced tolerance, trust and so on) to make such machinery work in a un- biased and conscientious manner.
A new democratic society that is being spoken of is the idea of ‘deliberative democracy’. The basic idea here is that everyone ‘deliberates’ on the issue at hand. The reasons everyone has are collectively evaluated and different points of view, even those contrary to each other, are included in this process. This makes a strong case for diversity, because it assumes that differences will always be there, but through this mechanism everyone feels a part of whatever final decision has been made. Now this mechanism could either function directly or indirectly (such as through representatives, the civil society, interest groups, or the press). This idea can be examined in tandem with the feminist theory on citizenship. For instance, let’s take Young’s communicative model of deliberation (White and Enslin, 2007, p. 115). This is to counter the fear that such a model of deliberative democracy would promote the views of the groups adept at argument, pitting them unfairly against a group which has always been excluded from the decision making process. In the model he suggests, Young says that it is possible to allow argument to be augmented by an ‘emotional and embodied talk’ by the second, hitherto excluded group. This becomes clearer if we look at Dorothy Smith’s method of reaching a situated knowledge, which does not already exist, rather is created when women come together to discuss their problems. A part of the Feminist Constructive Project, it aims at recovering women’s voices and experiences and argues that there is no universal woman and therefore no universal women problems. By inventing new categories for analysing women’s experiences, the idea that knowledge is subjective is propagated. This form of a subaltern perspective, giving an emotional and embodied voice to the lived experiences of women, could be connected with Young’s communicative model. Further, locating this within the feminist argument on citizenship, this model also provides an opportunity to women to be heard, and to participate in the process of deliberating on decisions which directly affect them.
Now that we have formed a certain basic idea of what should, or rather what should not define and limit citizenship to a standardised definition, I would like to study the implications of this for education. As already mentioned at the beginning, while providing a curriculum framework, the designers have a vision of a desired society in their mind. Schools are an important institution, providing access to opportunities for realising our idea of a good life. This means that school, and consequently formal education, is important.
Let us now start with a very simple demand that democratic citizenship makes on education—that it must give young people some understanding of what their status in the democratic society should be. It seems prudent enough to say that this is not enough. Considering that the very idea of citizenship is such a contested one, and that it does not exist as a complete, unambiguous entity, an education in simply what it means is not enough. What is important to impart is that this idea requires closer scrutiny—for instance, looking how a certain definition might include/exclude some groups, or what is the very nature of rights.
Second, distinguishing between citizens just as bearers of rights, and citizens as robustly involved in the public space and being vigilant, is actually necessary for continuance of a democratic government. But the very notion that being active is the best kind of citizenship is antithetical to the very idea of democracy (allowing individuals to decide what they think constitutes as good life for them, without any kind of imposition because there are no moral experts). This assumption of a desirable citizenship also takes away from the choice between wanting to participate or not participate. It brings to the fore the private-public distinction which feminists have already argued is problematic.
Third, how (and whether) gender is tackled in the textbook and the classroom is important. Let us take a few examples of how a conscious effort has been made to include discussions on gender and locating women in history in the NCERT textbooks, post NCF 2005. In the chapter on the French Revolution in the grade 9 textbook, a whole section is dedicated to what the revolution meant for women. By locating them not only as active participants in the making of the revolution but seeing them as a group who did not necessarily experience the revolutionary government in the same way as men, the chapter opens a whole new world of discussion. Similarly, the Social and Political Life textbook in class 7 has a whole unit dedicated to Gender, introducing students to the idea of gender stereotyping, prejudice and the resultant meaning for women. It also speaks of pro- women legislative acts which allow working mother’s to continue their work by sharing part of their child care responsibilities with the state via aganwadis. This is taken forward in class 10 with a discussion on gender and politics.
A disclaimer would be prudent here. The attempt is not to evaluate the textbooks or to highlight these examples as being perfectly virtuous to reach the desired aim. The attempt here is rather to see how there are ways in which a discussion on gender can be and should be initiated in the class. Also, just placing them in the textbook is not enough. Indeed the Position Paper on Curriculum, Syllabus and Textbook, provides a fictitious dialogue with a teacher in rural India to drive home an important point. The teacher is asked the question, ‘why do you want the children to notice this difference (between boys & girls) and then keep this information in mind?’ and continues asking more probing questions, till it is presumed that the teacher might arrive at this answer- ‘Because it seems to be a reasonably effective way of developing sensitivity to issues of social justice social justice, a commitment to equity and capability to act to right the balance’ (NCERT, 2005, p.15), which become important on this discussion on democratic citizenship.
Two things arise out of this example: one is why it is important to teach gender and second, the teacher needs to know why a certain section has been included in the text. However, I want to make a third point here—in the students’ engagement with the text and classroom practices, the need to be able to question what is there, why it is there and how it is presented is essential. Linking this to what White and Enslin say about explaining how any idea of citizenship requires closer scrutiny, we can argue for the same principle here. The very presence of gender in the syllabus is an opportunity enough to have a dialogue on the forms it takes in our lives. But at the same time it is also an opportunity to subject the text on gender to closer scrutiny and question whether its inclusion is justified or not, while also looking at and understanding the biases of the curriculum makers. For instance in the history textbook for class 7, in the chapter on the ‘Delhi Sultans’ a section speaks about women rulers in India – Razia Sultan from North India, Rudramadevi from Warrangal and Didda from Kashmir. One could question whether this inclusion logically flows with the chapter or is a forced aberration. The point is that teacher needs to a) discuss the issue of gender differentiation, b) question why it is important to study these queens, c) why gender mentions are so few and far between, and finally d) is there a continuation of practices to keep women away from the political space and what might the repercussions be. From the point of view of citizenship education, this is important because democracy needs thinking, rational human beings.
A fourth implication for education could be in terms of schooling practices themselves. What happens inside the school, in the classroom atmosphere, will have to unfold along the same democratic lines it chooses to promote. Involvement in the school processes, in how decisions are taken, why it is important to participate, and the right to exercise the choice to participate or not should become important components of school life. Additionally, the student demographic profile, both in terms of gender and social strata, should be diverse enough to encourage the development of skills of negotiation and shaping a tolerant disposition. If the aim is to promote a pluralistic society, then a pluralistic society needs to be created in the classroom—in other words the classroom should reflect the society. Similarly if the aim is to re-order and re-structure gender relations in this society, it needs to start within the school itself.
Fifth, while giving relevant knowledge and developing skills and attitudes for an effective participation, a corresponding social change , starting with education aim and schooling structure, will be needed to ensure that male dominance is not maintained; rather representation is used effectively to tackle issues of gender and gender inequality in the society.
These implications for education, particularly gender and citizenship, are not only based on the studies we have read but my own experiences of having taught in grades 6-10. The importance of framing democratic citizenship through education cannot be undermined. It needs to be treated with a great deal of care, if the desired outcome is to be achieved.
Enslin, P., White P., ‘Democratic Citizenship’, The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education, 2007
White P, ‘Democratic Principles and Basic Assumptions’, Beyond Domination: An Essay in the Political Philosophy of Education’, 1983
NCERT, National focus group on curriculum, syllabus and textbooks. NCERT, 2005