CURRICULUM IN QUESTION: An Interview with Dr. Rashmi Pant

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

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. Rashmi Pant is an Associate Professor at the Department of History, Indraprastha College for Women (IPCW), University of Delhi. COEUS reached out to Dr. Pant for her comments on the new curriculum.

 

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?


It is not just from 2011 that teachers redesigned syllabi. I have been in periodic syllabus making committees since 1981. Further these proposals have had to pass through teacher General Bodies and various statutory committees and boards of the university and eventually be passed in the AC before they could be adopted as syllabi.


Which are the papers that you teach?


The papers I teach are Social Formations I and II and History of India 1857-1950s


In the world history papers, there is a massive shift of focus from social formations and cultural patterns towards a more civilization centric course. Does the new curriculum do justice by underplaying themes like biocultural evolution, hunting-gathering societies and advent of food production? The syllabus has also explicitly used much contested terms like “barbarian invasions” and “primitive life”. Ignoring the debates around these terms and and using exclusionary terminologies, how will it affect the teaching-learning process?


The existing Social Formations paper emphasizes the processes of historical transformation in which culture is just one factor among many others such as ecology, demography, social, economic and political structures. The UGC syllabus on the other hand has reduced the study of ancient societies to just a question of cultural typology. By eliding over prehistory it flattens out the complex processes of how societies became what they were from the earliest and simplest scavenger-foragers to politically complex and socially stratified civilizations.


As a result the difference between civilizations becomes simply a descriptive one of forms and we cannot go behind their obvious differences to the common processes they must have grappled with. As a result no one civilization has anything to contribute to understanding any other. Despite the LOCF blurb of the UGC syllabus, “They can acquire knowledge about the origin, features, nature and class composition of various societies. They can compare to each and other among the several societies of the world.” --- there are in fact no theoretical frameworks that enable comparison in the syllabus rubrics. So although students will be loaded with a lot more factual material on different civilizations, there will be nothing to help them understand or evaluate different historical trajectories.


There has been a veritable alteration from the current reading list. What has been included and what has been ignored?


On the recommended readings I speak here are comparing the readings for the existing Social Formations paper with the proposed Civilisations paper.

The UGC reading list is replete with “popular histories” like Will Durant, HG Wells etc. rather than scholarly histories. These popular writings tend to oversimplify history to fit popular narrative tropes in order to make them ‘readable’ and ‘accessible’.


Another problem with these works is that they rely on secondary works uncritically and cannot be compared to even the basic textbooks in the present syllabus, like Brian Fagan, Peter Bogucki, Roger Lewin, etc who are specialists in their fields today and no less ‘accessible’.

Moreover the UGC readings are very old, barely making it past mid 20th century, though the syllabus tries to disguise this fact by giving the date of later reprints rather than the date of first publication both for this paper as well as in the reading lists of other papers. This unabashed recommendation of outdated works and outmoded frameworks assumes that the Past is past and cannot be re-written.


But in fact new research from the time these books were published has completely transformed how we think about the historical past. Even a book like Gordon Childe (on UGC syllabus), which was a basic text earlier, is now more useful as a case study of how perspectives have changed since then based on nearly a century of scholarship and debate. Because of this non-professional view of history perhaps it is not an accident that the UGC syllabus of History Hons. has not given a single reference to an article in a scholarly journal, despite the wide availability of e-journal sites like JSTOR and Project MUSE which our students use regularly at present .


In the Indian history paper which covers the period from 1857 to 1947, the division of units is mostly event based, while the current curriculum consciously focuses on processes and patterns in history, deliberating on questions of gender, caste, communalism and nationalism. How does this affect our understanding of the period?


On the Modern India paper, now called Nationalist Movement, the UGC syllabus is unable to disassociate itself from the temporal narrative of events and therefore fails to reopen the oft-told story of nationalism to critical enquiry.

The best thing about the present syllabus is that it allows the student to understand the process of nationalism as the projection of the idea of an imagined community from multiple points of view; not only the Moderates Extremists, Gandhi etc., but also contestatory perspectives from within the intelligentsia and parties both of the left and the right that remain relevant today.


It also allows them to explore the imagined Swaraj of tribals, peasants, Dalits, industrial workers and the women’s movement that were not often consonant with the goals of the nationalist intelligentsia., but who nevertheless backed them as subalterns. It opens up again and again the very difficult but important question of why then did the subalterns back movements they could not or did not win.


To read more on UGC's change in curriculum, check out this article.

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