On July 29, the Indian government approved and unveiled a new education policy. The set of reforms encompasses a whole range of ideas and promises, from vocational education through schools to higher studies. Some of the promised changes reach deep. It is, however, a declared policy for now; the devil, as always, is in implementation. Yet the intent of the ambitious policy in itself is something worth covering, even though I will restrict myself to one aspect: The new policy declares that it will establish a common curriculum in the last classes of school education.
The plan’s full description is unavailable at the time of writing, but its summary is accessible in various sources, such as the personal website of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The summary is also comparable to the 2019 draft version of the policy, which was a 484-page document available online.
Indian school teaching branches out into three separate streams in the last two classes. These streams are: science, commerce, and arts (humanities). Such a division is followed in classes XI-XII (when children are 17-18 years old) on the level of intermediate college – which, despite its name, is the last stage of school before university. This specialization is thus intended to prepare teenagers better for future work (or future studies) by letting them pick the area that interests them.
Under the new education policy, however, it seems that these streams will form one river, as their contents are to be mixed into one curriculum. “There will be no rigid separations between arts and sciences,” the new plan for Indian education declares (commerce is not mentioned here but would surely not be left aside as separate). And yet the students are to enjoy “increased flexibility and choice of subjects,” meaning that they would now choose not between curricula, but between set subjects within one curriculum.
It is not stated directly that the streams will disappear, but it certainly seems so. Such a conclusion is reinforced by the 2019 draft version of the same policy, which envisaged a high school teaching system in which “[t]here will be some essential common subjects for all, while simultaneously there will be a great flexibility in selecting elective courses.” Not only the streams, but the intermediate colleges as a type of school are to disappear as well, to be merged into high schools, which are now to cover Classes IX to XII (ages 14 to 18).
This solution relates to some core issues in the discussion on education. Should school education be seen as mainly pragmatic, as a system that prepares the pupils for professional life and endows them with other practical skills, or should it be seen as a wider system of knowledge, not all of which is directly useful in everyday life?
Choosing specialized curricula even before college is seen as pragmatic. It allows for an earlier focus, instead of forcing students to learn many different subjects at the same time; it also gives the young students agency, offering them a chance to walk along the paths of knowledge which they prefer (provided that their parents do not choose for them, and that these choices are really available in a given institution).
Another view, and one I support, is that education is ideally about the complete development of a person. A wider scope of subjects burdens students with more to learn (in terms of a more diversified pool of information), but it also opens their minds to a broader outlook. A strong emphasis on pragmatism, in turn, leads to narrowing the scope of learning, usually diminishing the role of humanities. In a choice between mathematics and philosophy, what do most people perceive as more useful in life?
Let me give an example from a field I know better than other parts of Indian education: history textbooks. The textbooks brought out by the central government’s relevant institution, NCERT, are certainly of value. “Our Pasts (Hamare Atit),” the textbook used in classes VI-VII, offers interesting takes on Indian history as a confluence of many different communities. Subsequently, the “India and the Contemporary World (Bharat aur Samkalin Vishva)” textbook, used in classes IX-X, allows the student to see the history of contemporary India as set against the broader canvas of global history. Indian history then continues to be taught in classes XI-XII but along with it, the history of other countries starts to appear more visibly, with a separate textbook devoted to it: “Themes in World History (Vishva Itihas Ke Kuch Vishay).” Many students, however, were not taught from the last text, as by this time they chose other streams (history belongs to the arts stream). They thus miss a chance to learn more about the history of other nations, and, given that they had already chosen other streams, they probably did not study it at the university level either.
Moreover, the full choice of three streams may be on offer especially in larger urban centers and bigger schools. But in some of private schools I visited in mid-sized Indian towns, there was in fact no choice: the only stream available was science. The prevailing interest in the science curriculum, and resource limitations, meant that it was not feasible for the schools to offer other sets of courses.
In case a counterpoint would be raised that the schools I have been to were private, an intermediate college in India, even a private one, typically follows a government syllabus. The main purpose of the intermediate college is to prepare the students for the intermediate examinations, which open the gates leading to universities. As these examinations are organized by the state, it only makes sense for an intermediate college to follow the public curriculum. The schools I mentioned above, while private, have thus followed the government system, although they had a specific clientele they catered to. This also means that if the New Education Policy comes through, the private schools will follow the public ones in merging the three streams into one river.
There are obviously a lot of question marks over New Delhi’s current plan to do away with the rigidity of separate curricula in classes XI-XII. Will the government be able to implement this reform? Which subjects will be mandatory for all and which of them will be electable? Will it not overburden the students? How many textbooks will have to change and when will the government be able to do this? Will this reform cover only the schools affiliated to the central government institutions or to the state education boards as well (as India is a federation, public education functions on these two levels)? Will the schools be able to adapt, also in terms of hiring cadres to cover new subjects? How will this affect the teachers and their job options?
While the plan has been unveiled recently and doubts remain, the idea to merge the streams still appears to be wise, as it may be an attempt to strike a balance between mandatory and selected subjects within one curriculum (instead of three separate curricula). It may thus save a larger part of teaching of humanities from the iron hand of pragmatism.