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CURRICULUM IN QUESTION: An Interview with Dr. Shahana Bhattacharya

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. Shahana Bhattacharya has taught history to undergraduate students at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi for the past twenty-five years. She takes the Social Formations and Cultural Patterns paper (SOFO-I and II) for the first-year students. COEUS reached out to Dr. Bhattacharya for her comments on the new curriculum.

What do you see as the major change in world history papers? The Social Formations and Cultural Pattern paper has now been named World Civilizations. How do you perceive this change?

This new syllabus straightaway focuses on civilization and does not allow students to understand the earliest emergence of human society itself or the emergence of what we call ‘human’. The previous SOFO paper allowed students to develop a kind of historical understanding of the ways in which cultures and cultural adaptations occur, understand these as part of a historical process and see how they can be placed in various environmental, political, economic, and historical contexts.

In this context, how does focusing solely on civilizations hamper the understanding of ancient world history?

This new paper does not allow the students to look at the process of emergence of social complexity, study societies which adapted differently, remained foragers and hunters for instance while others turned to agriculture, and in some instances became urban, complex - the existing paper allows/allowed students to grapple with these variations in cultural patterns over time and space and contextualise them. Students can understand culture as a process, historically produced in a specific time, with all variations and nuances which are so crucial but now have been lost in the new paper. In the UGC draft, students will no longer have the scope to question how ‘cultures’ came into being -instead, the focus is directly on some "world civilizations" as arrived entities, rather than understand their formation as a process, and their interactions with other kinds of societies. The way the previous paper questioned these processes and their interactions by going down to the basic units of society and understanding them historically does not feature in the new paper. I personally feel that the possibility and capability of students to intellectually engage with the subject, ability to think critically, understand the historical method, have been attacked. Cramming so much in a very short time will mean that understanding of the basis of various historiographical perspectives will become a casualty, and as a result, the understanding of history itself.

What is missing and what has been ignored?

They have taken away Mesolithic, Neolithic and other such cultures. They are consciously ignoring discussions on culture and the early beginnings of human society. My instant reaction on seeing the new paper was its complete emphasis and focus on Civilizations; the entire syllabus focuses on studying so-called 'success stories, 'great' societies, nations, and civilizations which makes me very curious about who made and curated this paper. There has been complete anonymity on the creators of these papers and this is a very calibrated and planned course intended to rob students of any capacity to understand historical methods. It will also instil in them a very particular biased understanding of the past.

The preamble spells out the curriculum’s objective to help students ask “appropriate questions”. How is the curriculum restricting avenues of independent and critical thinking?

In Fact, the reading list is a relevant issue of contention. There has been a calculated effort to deliberately exclude some crucial readings, and such a big course which is taught in the course of one year has been shoved to fit in one semester. Earlier we used to criticize the semester system, but now they have put everything in one semester. They are deliberately trying to prevent students from thinking critically. They have deliberately placed the Idea of Bharat and the study of big and great civilizations in the First year, so the students believe that these ideas are fundamental and do not question them.

How does it affect the teaching-learning process? What will be the consequences if this curriculum comes into effect?

After studying this new paper students' understanding of history could be hampered. The antiquated and strange reading list, as well as the peculiar thrust of the UGC, made draft History syllabus will lower DU's academic standing significantly. It is crucial that we come together to resist such kinds of courses that change the entire sense and course of history.

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

Interviewed by Disha Ray

Transcript by Meghashree Dev

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