We are talking about ... schools cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument—the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of [one’s] own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of [one’s] own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rivals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe. We need hardly say that achieving such a perspective is extremely difficult, requiring, among other things, considerable courage. We are, after all, talking about achieving a high degree of freedom from the intellectual and social constraints of one’s tribe...

- Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, in Teaching as a Subversive Activity
Educational curricula over the ages —whether defined formally or informally, within the home or at school —have their roots in a very simple yet profoundly important question: What kinds of capacities are we looking to nurture in children through our education? What kinds of skills, abilities and attitudes do we hope will deepen as a result of our support as adults? At Centre For Learning (CFL), a small semi-residential school outside Bangalore, we have the opportunity to explore this question with both parents and children in close and intimate, yet rigorous ways.

Thinking about social studies provides an ideal way in which to focus the challenge of our educational intent at CFL. Social studies curricula, and indeed the overall educational project, should, we feel, nurture the capacity for analysis, for critical thinking and the weighing of evidence, all framed by the ability to empathize deeply with the experience of those very different from ourselves. We should, ideally, gain the ability to question social messages that bombard us from all sides: messages that tell us about our identity, who we are in terms of race, class, gender and religion, and which define us in relation to social others.

Particularly with regard to history, we need to examine the way the past constructs the social present and the ways in which the ideologies of the present are used to read the past. Finally, and most importantly, we believe such questioning should lead us inwards into our psyche, into the very processes of identity formation itself, and its social consequences—in terms of creating division and conflict, the sense of self and other.

This broad framework of critical thought is one backdrop against which we run our school and its educational programmes. And yet, critical thought, for us, is itself grounded in deeper questions regarding a responsible relationship between self and society. How are self and society intimately embedded in one another, and how are we to deepen our understanding of this mutuality? Are the specific social orientations we are now accustomed to the only ones available, or are other fundamentally deeper and more peaceful forms of relationship and social structures possible? Obviously, these are not questions that can be contained within some abstract history curriculum tucked away in a teacher’s mind, but are rather vital and important questions permeating all aspects of our social and personal lives.

How do we explore such questions within our curriculum? A lot of our emphasis is on the constructed nature of social reality, both historical and contemporary. This may perhaps be an easy point for the adult intellect to grasp, but it is one that needs to be patiently explored in all its ramifications with students. A simple way to do this in a history class is to show children differing source material dealing with the same events. Colonial encounters, for example, offer an interesting and rich possibility. Through close readings of such complex and multifaceted sources, children come to see the role of interpretation in constructing historical fact and the ways in which such interpretations build our sense of the present.

To consolidate the point, we can offer children many alternative explanations for historical phenomena. As an example, we study the Indus Valley civilization in middle school (around class 6). One of the sub-themes is the collapse of the Indus Valley culture. We can explore various explanations with children: Was the collapse due to economic causes; climate change; the depletion of natural resources? What exactly is the strength of the Aryan invasion hypothesis? Each of these explanations comes with its own logic, the outlines of which even young students can enjoy and engage with. Through such lines of questioning and evidence, children (as young as eleven and twelve) come to appreciate the complexity of the problem as well as the biases from which we are tempted to construct solutions.

Sources need not be rooted in the deep past. A study of lakes and tanks in Bangalore taken up by our senior students, for instance, reveals the layered and complex nature of the city as it is today, as well as the way it is viewed by different groups in society, each with their own specific interests. Students interviewed fishermen whose livelihoods depend in part on fishing rights in the tanks, and discussed the ways in which these rights had been diminished by the privatization of these—as lakes. They also spoke to residents (of various social backgrounds) who lived in the neighbourhood of the lakes regarding their perceptions of the role of the lakes in the socio-economic life of the city. They documented conversations with researchers and NGOs who worked in the field of water resource management, urban planning and urban ecology. All of this was supported by a study of historical colonial accounts of the construction and usage of tanks as lakes. Through this process, it became quite clear that various competing interests colour the construction of social and geographical reality, as well as its interpretation. Simply walking through the city’s historical market area, which our middle school students do as part of a ‘Bangalore project’, reveals as much, albeit in a simpler form.

In a more abstract context, through an understanding of social institutions (marriage, the family, religion, the media), children get a glimpse of the relative nature of these constructs, as well as the urge in themselves and others to take these constructs as the truth, the way of creating social arrangements. We spend a lot of time with students (and among ourselves as adults) trying to understand this urge within ourselves to define a particular aspect of social reality and to psychologically identify ourselves with it, simultaneously perceiving the institution as defining us and our sense of identity: a mysteriously circular process.

A theoretical knowledge of the constructs that surround us is one thing, but to gain an intimate understanding, both for ourselves as teachers and for our students, we find that a deep experiential approach is vital. It is only when we actually engage directly with the people who face the brutal constraints of various social structures that we appreciate the power of their impact. In other words, our social studies curriculum tries to emphasize sensitivity to the lived experiences of others, in very practical terms, in the hope that this might lead to a very different conception of social relationships and responsibilities among young people.

One example is a module on human rights that the senior students studied some time ago. The idea behind this course was to study the abstract conceptions of a rights-based approach to social equality: its history as well as its expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, our students also engaged (in quite some depth) with individuals who faced discrimination in daily life: people with disabilities, children with no access to education, slum dwellers with no secure housing and so on. The study and documentation went on for several months. Similar processes take place on our annual excursions, which can last up to 15–20 days. High school students (classes 9 and 10), for example, travelled in the Western Ghats some months ago, and one part of their excursion was an attempt to understand issues surrounding mining in the region—both the social and the environmental impact of the mines. Engagement with these dimensions of social reality cannot always be confined within the walls of a traditional classroom or indeed within the framework of traditional schooling.

The question of the direct engagement with others from very different social locations raises a potentially troubling question. When middle-class and uppermiddle- class children from privileged backgrounds engage with the disempowered, won’t the encounter smack of condescension? Isn’t there an element of voyeurism in this exchange? On the contrary, we have found that these experiences, when coupled with some knowledge and background, evoke understanding and a sense of connection. They are not treated lightly by students. These experiences seem to lead young people to emphasize the similarities between themselves and social others rather than the differences. The capacity for empathy, when evoked, seems to override the power equations implicit in such engagements.

I have tried to develop a few strands of our thinking behind the teaching of history and, more broadly, social studies, at CFL. We feel that it is the process of gathering evidence and analysing it that is most important in a social studies or history classroom. Our emphasis is on discussion, on open-ended inquiry, rather than fixing explanations through ideologies. It is equally on finding empathetic responses to social issues, both the everyday as well as the structural. The process of analysis and the learning of critical skills are more important to us than covering a lot of content. Of course, my selection above doesn’t convey the complete picture. I have left out significant strands in the material we study (geography, for example), as my emphasis is on a description of a curricular philosophy rather than on describing specific content or skills and how these are systematically developed across the age groups.

The mood of investigation cannot obviously be contained within an abstract description of a social studies curriculum. The intellectual and emotional life of the school, of the entire learning environment, should ideally support and nurture this sceptical energy. It then becomes possible intellectual inquiry as part of a project on understanding oneself and others.

One of the questions I had begun with was that of a responsible relationship between self and society. There is no guarantee at all that any curriculum, or any set of experiences, will guide us, adults and children, into responsible thought and action. Yet it is our hope that, through dialogue, through a patient and rigorous investigation of the psychological and social currents of everyday life, and through frameworks that emphasize empathy and compassion, we can gain insights into society and ourselves (and the relationships between the two) that are fundamentally transformative in nature.