I began teaching part of the prescribed ICSE syllabus for history and culture in Standard VIII in 1983. The syllabus outline was ecumenical in spirit, with an excellent choice of topics highlighting the achievements of various cultures that have made contributions to the Indian past. However, I soon discovered that the examination system drove the course as well as the text books that were recommended for the course. The examination paper had managed to reduce the topics listed in the syllabus to atomic facts with the aim of correlating facts with marks. Name the Four Noble Truths; Name the two doctrines which Buddhism borrowed from Brahminism; Name the deity worshipped in the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho. To reduce history to atomic units is, in effect, to strip it of all context- at least that was what was happening. As a result history had no lesson to teach: it was, as some of my students would say, 'useless'.
At one level I wanted to relocate the atomic facts within their original moral and aesthetic contexts- to recreate for students the vision that guided the architects at Sanchi, for instance.
At a different level, I wanted students to relate meaningfully to the reality around them. In the case of our students this consisted of the immediate environs of Rishi Valley, an arid valley inhabited by shepherds and subsistence farmers, living lives in patterns that have existed since Neolithic times. My hope was that by providing students with a context of framework through which to view the immediate subsistence practices of the rural population of Rishi Valley, I would also provide them with a perspective on wider realities, including the current ecological crisis that threatens our immediate and longer-range future.
This required diversions from the main thrust of the ICSE syllabus. I decided to include anthropological material in the social studies program. Material on the shepherds of the rain shadow areas of the Deccan drew in other crucial themes. Much scholarly writing about shepherds of the Deccan draws upon oral traditions of the shepherd communities. Some of this material is from Warangal, and area adjacent to ours. By drawing upon these myths of origin, I was able to suggest that myths can provide clues to the historical past. One myth I selected referred to competition for resources between forest dwellers, cattle rearers and shepherds. This provided an occasion for describing present day symbioses between shepherding and farming communities which are a social feature of our valley as well as of the wider reality of the Deccan.
That earlier stages of social development are contemporaneous in India was first pointed by D.D. Kosambi. All though this has now been long understood by Indian historians, it has not yet found its way into our classrooms. I decided to introduce students this aspect of Indian reality by sketching portraits of three types of communities: the Andaman Islands' hunters and food-gatherers, the Deccan shepherds and the Baigan farmers of Madhya Pradesh. In order to tie these portraits to the pre-historical past, the children were given an introduction tracing the path of the human race from its African origins.
By tracing this path that all our ancestors have traveled within less than the last 15, 000 years, I hoped to reduce several aspects of growing alienation: between castes, between classes, and specifically between privileged English-speaking Indian students at boarding school and the impoverished majority of our population. The plight of the Baigas in the twentieth century underlines the marginalisation of tribals when modernism touches an ancient way of life.
I also emphasised two points: that human beings are a part of nature, dependent on the earth's varied resources for survival; and that in the course of their existence on earth, they have both adapted to the earth's diverse climates and resources, and also changed the landscape of the earth. Themes were illustrated with a description of wet rice cultivation in Bali, which also served to establish resonances with ritual practices, an integral part of the Indian cultural milieu. This was done in ways which were meant to enrich the student's conception of these practices. The complex civilisation which developed in Bali, without the benefit of any significant urbanisation, offset the Euro-centric view that civilisation is identical with the emergence of city life.
The relationship between knowledge and values in education is extremely complex. One mode of learning instills knowledge and a command of technology, which produces power and access to privileged positions in society. This aspect of learning was promoted to Vatsyayana in the third century when he wrote 'Right Knowledge (Samyag Jnanam) is the means to dharma, artha and kama.'
But, as the ancients recognised, there is also another mode of learning which brings liberation, dispels false opinion and changes attitudes. This mode of learning was also my concern. Thus for instance, Charles Darwin's theories of human origins destroys old prejudices about race and caste by teaching that human beings have a common descent. To explore prejudice, we took up the topic of Darwin's theory in some detail.
The story of his journey to the Galapagos Islands also showed that the methodology of science includes an intimate relationship between facts and theories. Facts have to be embedded in explanations in order to produce theories.
A lesson in the origins of the Indus Valley civilisation demonstrated that the historian's methodology has elements in common with that of the scientist. What they have in common is the centrality of the explanatory hypotheses which are by their very nature falsifiable. In showing that recent evidence falsifies Mortimer Wheeler's theory on the origins of the Indus Valley civilisation, the theme was carried forward and a general point against current fundamentalist trends emerged, that historical knowledge of the past is always tentative, and fresh evidence can always overturn long-accepted theories.
In a culture which thoroughly blurs the relationship between myth and history, it is important, in this way, to contrast historical propositions which are confirmed on the basis of evidence, and mythology which has to be interpreted within the wider context of history.
Part of the aim of the course, therefore, was also to teach a certain detachment from historical prejudice. Detachment is an ancient virtue, and, in the context of education, plays the important role of freeing students from narrowly defining themselves in terms of a mythologised past. This may also enable them to understand their present situation with greater clarity.
To orient students in a broader historical context, informed by present realities, to free them from a false view of the past, is not to strip them of their culture. The beauty and virtue of our ancient cultural past are both accessible in the present.