Updated: Jun 27, 2021
On the 15th of February, 2021 the University Grants Commission (UGC) published a draft syllabus/curriculum for the undergraduate history courses.
“Change is certain. Progress is not”
- E.H Carr
“What is history?”
WHAT THEY GAVE, WHAT WE NEED?
On publication of the new UGC curriculum in February, the subject neither received attention nor criticism, either from academia or from the media. The matter played down due to the simple fact that there was no adequate notice/information given out by the concerned bodies. It was only in the third week of March that the nitty-gritty of the new draft curriculum came to light ensuing a series of hushed discussions in academic circles, only to be scrapped a little by a few media houses later in the week.
Historically, the designing of curricula, especially history, has been a Herculean task- ranging from discussions that took aeons and academics arguing their case out of what should be included and why. Accountability, as a matter of fact, was upheld in teaching communities with suggested readings and methods brought to scrutiny only to be put to revision in the next academic year. In the last decade (2011-2020), the University of Delhi has implemented five different curriculum methods, each revised the following year. Although the fast pace of changing curriculum methods was incommodious for teachers and disruptive for students, accountability was ensured in the syllabi making process. The UGC, this year, arbitrarily published a curriculum that they deemed fit. Earlier the same exercise was in the manner of UGC publishing guidelines, which left the teachers the scope to amend and re-work the curriculum that warranted a tested teaching-learning process designed by the teachers who would be teaching it. The new draft curriculum efficiently avoided any feedback whatsoever from the two primary stakeholders- the students and the teachers. Therefore accountability for the same was nullified.
When the transparency and accountability of designing such a syllabus remain in question- the trustworthiness of the learning outcomes can only be sought nimbly. The preamble and introduction to the syllabus enshrine in good spirit the language of history writing- but sadly the language and grammar put to use are rather bleak. There is an incessant dependence on polemics and rhetoric, an abstract sense of motivation that seems to go unaccounted for. In vain efforts to pursue “epistemology”, “appropriate questions” are expected from students only to later find that their opinion was neither taken nor deemed. The only major takeaway from the preamble is the introduction of two new courses- history of communication and history of cultural heritage.
The soul of the syllabus is determined by the objectives that it proposes. On simple evaluation one can easily assert the fact that the UGC plans of imparting “requisite information” about the past, gleefully downplaying the teaching-learning process that invites questioning, debating to meet the goals of epistemology.
All students of history are taught that we must try to grasp the past on its own terms and not reduce it to the present. The proposed curriculum aims “to provide the students with a sense of how interconnected our present is with our past”. The curriculum makes incredible anachronistic connections that not only undermines the past by treating it as a figment of the present but hurts the whole foundation of the discipline by seamlessly making ahistorical projections of contemporary categories and concepts onto the past.
A major problem for teachers has been that such an extensive course cannot be done justice within the structure of the semester system. While attempting this major pedagogical “corrective” UGC has added to the burden of hapless students by introducing not just new themes in older papers but even adding new yet redundant papers to the UG course itself. It must be highlighted that in the CBCS- LOCF system, a student pursuing any B. A. Hons course spends about 22 to 29 hours every week in the classroom, attending lectures and tutorials. This does not include the time one has to spend in writing and submitting eight to ten assignments every semester, which is roughly just 3-4 months long!
With the NEP planning to roll out the FYUP, it might even be assumed that there is a noble intention to adopt the credit system and structure of American universities. Yet it is appalling how there is failure to see that while students in American colleges spend 15-16 hours in the classroom each semester, an Indian student spends over 22 hours. The fetish in westernising the Indian pedagogical system is rendered pointless when we try to replicate the framework but not the coursework's structure. Less time spent in classrooms does not mean less learning. Discussions among peers, engaging with texts and not just skimming through them, thinking, rethinking and debating ideas are also equally if not more important than classroom lectures.
A CURRCICULUM OF PRESUMPTIONS AND AHISTORICITY
Few political and certain academic discourses have been splitting hairs on issues of history and identity. The present power regime has turned history into an ideological site where the game of narratives has gained more traction than civilised debate. Introducing a paper, titled “the idea of Bharat” is in itself an academic feat, but the feat assumes its proper character only when the discourse is made subject to all debates, narratives and questions. The syllabus is disingenuous when it focuses on selective sources to reconstruct this “idea of Bharat”- the focus of UGC is merely cultural and based on presumed unity, much of which is rendered implausible due to the ignorance towards many aspects of what that “idea” represents.
The endeavour to teach the history and formation of a nation through selective texts and sources makes it exclusionary. While many historians and scholars of the past have ably cautioned us against making anachronistic connections between early representations of space, cultural imaginations and nation-hood, the UGC draft curriculum exactly does so. The inclusion of highly contested terms like “primitive”, “glorious” takes away the fundamental basis of studying history in the first place, restricting the avenue of critical thinking and re-questioning popularised dogmas. The uncritical glorification that the curriculum presupposes by equating history with “eternity” downplays the need to study change and continuity- defeating the very principle of historical research.
A new inclusion in the syllabus has been the focus of “ancient Indian philosophical traditions”, yet the concerned unit focuses on selective philosophical concepts rather than a comprehensive overview of the diverse concepts and treatises. The new syllabus exclusively mentions the Indus-Saraswati civilization, a theory that has been much contested. We fail to understand why the theories of debunked Aryan "invasion myths” have been re-emphasized by allotting an exclusive unit to the “Aryan civilization”, while other crucial developments like the pre and protohistoric cultures do not find a place in the contents- and one may only hope that they exist in the minor folds. The inclusion of epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana have been the highlight, although the present curriculum also accounts for the same. The only difference is that the new curriculum adjudges epic literature to be “marvels”; undermining their importance as sources for historical reconstruction, reducing their significance to mere cultural importance.
To any reader and reviewer of the curriculum, the prioritisation of myths and contested ideas over recent scholarship on civilisation debates can only seem illogical, if not completely ridiculous. These exclusionary practices by the UGC are very apparent when they conveniently ignore previous narratives that have explained the civilization debates. The only rational explanation one can find, is that the UGC is stuck in a time warp, which the prescribed readings also suggest. The readings recommended have barely stood the test of time themselves and date back to the 20th century. Recent scholarship and research on the same subjects have been excluded, the consequences of which will not only fall on a student who will be stuck reading pre-dated textbooks, but will also kill their exposure to new literature.
CRAMMED UNITS, REDUNDANT THEMES
The New Education Policy is deemed rather revolutionary as it invites scope and proposes to give students more choices while pursuing their discipline. The new curriculum must have interpreted this policy point wrongly. Previously, the Early Indian history paper was taught over two semesters (two different core papers: 1. From earliest times to the end of Vedic Culture and 2. Proto-historical to Early Medieval phase, followed by a core paper focussing on Early Medieval India). The new draft has reduced the course work of this period to just one paper. And this is not only it, there are more than a few instances of major periods and the study of their development being crammed into smaller units to provide space for the seemingly redundant new papers. While the present curriculum deemed the Early Medieval period to be an area of great scholarly inquiry, the sources, construction and literature regarding the period have simply been omitted.
In the last two decades, the modern discourse has disrupted the frozen idea of periodisation. By disparaging the changes in the early medieval period and focussing solely on the dynastic changes, the UGC has discarded and rejected recent and paradigm-shifting scholarship. Thus, temporal frameworks have been reintroduced into the curriculum, rendering the entire process of historiographical debates insignificant. A change like this takes the periodisation debate away from our analytical gaze and disables the student from engaging with complexities that recent scholarship could have proposed. A thematic study of gender questions, class and society that was available in the present syllabus has regressed into a simple focus on dynasties and their doings. The critical inquiry that the period invokes is shunned and historical consciousness, according to the new curriculum, will only consist of kings.
A similar strategy is observable in the world history papers as well. A great shift from the present curriculum has been the omittance of the biological and cultural evolution of humankind, the emergence of human societies, cultural adaptations, the advent of food production and more. The exposure to allied disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and sociology have simply been cut out- a student can only expect so much from their discipline as the new curriculum would dictate. Lithic ages, the cultural patterns and historical developments from ape to man- the new curriculum invites nothing. Similarly, with the west, the curriculum hops and skips from classical antiquity to feudalism- a whole period of study of over a few hundred years squeezed ungratefully into one unit.
The goals of epistemology that the curriculum pledges to meet is now only beyond the horizon.
Before the ethical and professional surrender of universities before UGC, for the last time, it is very important to ask: what’s left?
The 21st-century scholarship has adopted a method to study from below. To read against the grain. While scholars try to extend their intellectual and epistemological goals, expand the reach of knowledge, UGC, on the other hand, is appreciative of naturalising dogmas, de-sensitizing issues of historical importance and vehemently ignoring any history of interaction between communities. The seventh paper spells out two separate topics of study: “Hindu society” and “Muslim society” under one single unit. Historical learning has been evident to the fact that neither of these topics can be studied in isolation, and what lies between them is a wide array of social, economic, cultural and intellectual history. The effort to suggest any sort of division is hugely problematic- UGC has conveniently rejected the thematic grouping of topics that suggest change and study continuity. A reader can only see an attempted “ideological corrective” in the form of simplification, whereas the goal should be problematising various strands of thoughts and narratives that exist in present narratives. The recommended reading list again is in omittance of many path-breaking works that had created the discourse. The UGC not only rejects the discourse but also blocks all routes for its inclusion. Subaltern histories and in essence, people’s histories have been erased- the modern India paper is only inclusive of history that can be read from above.
Now, the only thing that a student and a teacher of history can ask UGC is, what’s left anyway?
Written by Disha Ray and Pinaki Chandra. Both of them study history at the University of Delhi.