CURRICULUM IN QUESTION: An Interview with Dr. Pankaj Jha

Updated: Apr 1

The University Grants Commission published a new draft curriculum for the undergraduate course in History. The new proposed curriculum has been under much scrutiny by academia - teachers and scholars of history alike. The UGC attempted a “corrective”, and the new syllabus sees veritable alteration from the present curriculum. Apart from structural changes of papers, there is heavy omittance of topics that have been core to the present curriculum.

Dr. Pankaj Jha presently teaches History at Lady Shri Ram (LSR) College, University of Delhi. Dr. Jha has worked with Sanskrit and vernacular sources as well as Persian texts to study medieval South Asian history. He has also served on the Editorial Board of the peer-reviewed international journal, Indian Economic and Social History Review. COEUS reached out to Dr. Pankaj Jha for his comments on the new syllabus.

Since this is the first time that the UGC has issued a full-fledged syllabus instead of issuing guidelines - why do you think this change was brought about?

The UGC should have had sufficient faith in its own appointed teachers i.e the teachers appointed as per the rules and regulations established by itself. The covering letter with the syllabus actually doesn't explain why they are coming up with a full-fledged syllabus, beyond simply noting that the quality mandate of the UGC puts emphasis on curricular reforms. What exactly the curricular reforms are meant to do is not specified. In fact, last year all the central universities received this order from the UGC saying that they need to change their curriculum according to LOCF and we did it in quick time. This was actually two years ago in 2019, not last year that we had received this. And the University of Delhi did it within 4 to 5 months which was quite a feed. In spite of that, we are yet again being given another syllabus to experiment with, which is sad.

Considering that the students and teachers are the primary stakeholders, were they consulted before devising the new draft syllabus? Is the process of curriculum designing inclusive of students’ and teachers’ opinions?

Well, I think far from reflecting involvement of, or opinions, ideas and experiences of the stakeholders namely the students and teachers; in fact the entire process through which the syllabus has come about actually throws any notion of transparency to the winds. We have absolutely no idea of who made this syllabus, who constituted the expert committee, who were the experts, under what rules of UGC were such an expert committee constituted and what was the mandate given to them. So, again the document on the UGC website claims that they sought and received feedback from the stakeholders, but that is not at all clear to us, as to what was the channel through which such feedback was sought and received and we do not know what kind of feedback was received. The entire process appears to be extremely nebulous to put it mildly, because if you claim that you’ve received feedback and nobody sees and knows what the thrust of the feedback was then you could do whatever you want to in the name of having received feedback. In fact, not just with the UGC document and various ministries, even with a variety of different other institutions we have seen this pattern that you put anything online, you seek feedback and then you do whatever you wish to do claiming that what you have done is on the basis of feedback, because nobody comes to know what the feedback was because it is not a public platform where dialogical interaction takes place, it is a one-way interaction where only one side of the dialogue controls what would be visible to everyone.

The new draft syllabus has reworked not just the reading lists and themes/units to be taught but also changed the structure of the curriculum- do you think it is in coherence with CBCS (in reference to scope and accommodation)? According to you, how will this impact the students and their learning process?

Yes, they have restructured the entire syllabus, I think the context is very important. Let’s remember that it was in 2011 that the semester system was introduced, 2012 was the year in which it was also introduced in humanities and social sciences. In 2013*, that is exactly after two years, they introduced a new system which was FYUP- Four Year Undergraduate Program, 2015 is the year in which they introduced the CBCS. 2016 was the year in which they introduced the new CBCS. 2019 is the year in which they introduced LOCF. In other words, if you count, in the last ten years, we have had six different kinds of courses. This is actually reducing the students of central universities and the other universities of India to mere guinea pigs. It is equally important to point out, one: that on several occasions almost all of the last ten years, within a session or at any given point of time in a college there were more than two types of different courses being taught by teachers, which is not healthy at all because none of the courses that you are actually teaching get the time to settle down where you can start seeing its pluses and minuses. You can start analysing its advantages and disadvantages so this is like being in a hurry experimenting with the students’ careers and not coming to anything at all.

Second thing is, of the six different kinds of courses that were introduced and structures of undergraduate programs which have been experimented with, none of these have ever been officially or unofficially studied for their advantages or disadvantages. So we jumped from one kind of reform to another without taking a pause, looking at what we’ve done, analysing it out, finding out what the problems are with the existing structures and then trying to address those problems with the coming of the new reforms. None of that happens, it all appears to be completely arbitrary. And I’m saying this with full responsibility, it has been happening since 2011, so it is not just about this government, it is about the very casual and cavalier approach towards higher education. An approach which is singularly marked by any level of involvement of the faculty members and the student are willfully and staunchly kept out of the process, so that their experiences, knowledge and scholarship never comes into picture, never is factored into the process of making these structures.

The syllabus is revised by a committee of teachers every 2-3 years since the semester system started in 2011. Do you think there was suddenly a need to completely change the structure and content of what is being taught?

When you look at the structure that they have introduced now, you notice a whole variety of changes. For example, they have specified the learning outcome, what they call the PLOs - the programme learning outcomes. These programme learning outcomes, it is scandalous, are kind of staggered in a manner where when you do most of the Indian History papers, all you do is learn facts and factual narratives and contexts. It is only when you do the Generic Elective papers that you learn more cognitive-based skills. So, as anyone who has done elementary research in techniques of education, particularly learning outcome-based curriculum would know, that in education, usually, they say there are three different levels of learning that happens. Usually one after the other but in an overlapping manner.

The first is where you store information, you develop the ability to store information, develop the ability to work with your memory and be able to see a pattern. Second, then you develop specific skills to work with that information. So you develop the skill of, analysis if you are working in science, learning about particular laws, doing things in the laboratory, developing the skill of how to mix certain liquids and produce a third one and so on. The third level of learning is cognitive learning which is supposed to be the highest form of learning, where you develop your cognition in such a manner that you learn how to learn quickly. So you reach a certain level of cognition development where you become a quick learner of various things and you develop the ability to look beyond what you have been taught, to start thinking in terms of principles to be able to research and so on. Nowhere the learning outcome that the programme entails, specifically is tied to particular courses, so most of the Indian history papers are shown to develop only the factual knowledge of the student. And it's ridiculous because Indian history is the area in which the students at the undergraduate level get to engage with the sources. That is where they learn to pick up the elementary skills of research. That is where the sharpest of the analytical tools are utilised by teachers in the classroom, researchers in the books that they are prescribed and students in the way they engage with the scholarship. And here what is happening is that we are going back to a historiography which is older. If you look at the reading lists in Indian History papers, most of the books that are prescribed are actually books that are written fifty or sixty years ago, even those that appear to be more recent are actually books that are not written by historians, that are written by local cultural enthusiasts or well meaning individuals wishing to celebrate their pasts and so on which is fine but they don’t teach you the skills of historical thinking. They do not have the potential to engage students with the craft of the discipline of history. And that is sad, if you are meaning to spend three years without learning those skills, that’s not worth the time.

The syllabus has spelt out its learning outcome objectives- to learn “a basic narrative of historical events”. The focus has been more on knowledge rather than reasoning - how do you think this will affect future historians and students of history? Adding to this, the first unit itself, of the syllabus has stressed on “glorification of Ancient Indian history/texts” including topics like “Eternity of synonyms Bharat”. At a teaching level, (using terms like ‘eternity’) what could be its consequences? What does it signify?

The first thing is to understand that it’s not just the difference between historical knowledge and reasoning, it is also the lack of any application by the syllabus makers for the purpose of developing a historical sense for the purpose of engaging with the discipline of history in a manner in which the student learns to be sensitive to time, to space, to context, to human agency. So it’s not reasoning just like that, reasoning in order to establish simple cause and consequence relationship but reasoning with a view to develop the historical common sense with a view to develop elementary tools of historical analysis. If you simply pack the students with lots of information and facts about the past then you’re doing a disservice in the name of education, because then I think you are trying to produce memory chips. They are not trying to produce thinking individuals

Secondly, the specific topics that you have flagged, one of the things that the discipline of history is fundamentally based on and I’m referring here to discipline of history as it stands today in India and in various places, one of the things that is crucial to it is its understanding of change, its understanding of the fact that everything that we see around ourselves is human-made and hence subject to change. It is based on the idea that the world we live in is an imperfect world and in order to understand its imperfections and in order to facilitate positive interventions by concerted human action, we need to understand how this world has come about and in order to understand that we will have to understand how this world was produced in the first place. Now if we assume that this world has always been what it has been, if we assume that it is 'eternity' that we are looking at when we are looking at the world then the purpose of reading history itself is negated, to begin with. So there is no harm on the other hand in trying to study how the idea of eternity is produced, what is the context in which it is produced, what kind of powers it is that are exercised in the name of eternity and how the whole world needs to work day in and day out and keep changing things within changing contexts in order to keep the idea of eternity intact.

So, the problem lies not just in the framing and wording of the syllabus but also the fact that the reading list that accompanies it has absolutely no sense of what the syllabus is talking about. No history book for example can refer to anything in eternity, obviously religious scriptures do so and rightly because they have a different purpose. And there are many people who can simultaneously be devoutly religious and yet be great scholars of history because they understand what to read how. They understand that when you are reading the scriptures as a devoutly religious person, you read it differently from when you are reading a text to analyze it historically.

So these are two different approaches. And the approach that this syllabus unfortunately takes is the one which is more noticeable and permissible in one’s religious life, not in one’s academic life and certainly not in the discipline of history.

The present DU syllabus has three papers, taught over three semesters, devoted to the period 1200-1700. The new UGC draft syllabus has reduced the course work on the period only to one paper (Paper VII- 1206-1707). Do you think such a reductionist change undermines the history of the concerned period? (Also since the period covers the onset of Muslim rule in India?)

It's not just the fact that you have reduced the number of Indian papers that you want to teach. It is particularly sad for three very specific reasons. One is, here is a course which seeks to cultivate pride in one's history and one’s past. By itself, it's not a dishonourable idea, it's a good idea provided that cultivating a sense of pride does not mean that you stop looking at what was not right. Owning up to one’s disadvantages, problems, injustices is part of feeling pride in one's legacy. And one of the most important things that you need to do there is to engage with your past in detail. So a history syllabus that claims to cultivate a sense of nationalism and a sense of patriotism is running away from studying its own history. When you are saying that you will have lesser number of papers from Indian history, that's one thing. Thing is that when you say you'll take pride in Indian history, you have to specify what it is that you mean by Indian history. Do you mean everyone, every place, every community, every caste, every class or do you mean only the history of the elites? If you take pride only in Sanskrit culture and not in others then it means that you have a very elitist, extremist and reduc