Discarding ideological blinkers

Issue 22 - Jan 2009
Renu Pokharna

Consider the following statement: “(Socialism) emerged as a reaction to the rise and development of capitalism. Laissez faire doctrine led to great difficulties in society…..But at the end of the nineteenth century, the fallacies of the doctrine became evident.”

This is an excerpt from a Class XII textbook of Political Science prescribed by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) that designs the syllabus that is set as a benchmark for central board schools across India. The book has chapters on both Liberalism and Socialism under the heading of ‘Major Political Theories’, but it glorifies socialism with statements like “It  protests against the harsh materialism and individualism of classical liberals. A capitalist society produces ugly conditions.”

On the other hand, the chapter on Liberalism gives a very misconstrued idea of what liberal means. For example, it says that liberals widely believe that “free people are not equal, and equal people are not free”. But it is given as “They did not believe in economic equality. Certain sections indeed believed that economic inequality was not only inevitable, but positively good for all concerned.” Nowhere is ‘rule of law’ talked about despite it being a pillar of liberalism. Further, the textbook talks about Liberalism as if it were a defunct ideology, and doesn’t connect it to the prosperity and growth enjoyed by economies around the world, first in the West and now in China and India. To complete the demonisation, the chapter concludes that  “the concept of market swallows up the concept of justice and equality.”

Ironically, the chapter on Socialism concludes with a mention of the opening of economies in the 1990s and laments at the loss of socialistic ideas. A student, who is influenced by all this at an age where opinions strengthen easily, would obviously be perverse to the ideas of a free market economy and markets providing public goods.

The issue here is not only of textbooks, it is also of the extent to which the teaching faculty influences the students. At the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), it is ironic that an educational institution funded by one of India’s biggest corporate companies should actually be anti-capitalist. Recently, in response to corporate interest in rural health care, a very senior member of its faculty argued in a newspaper that it was not a plausible idea “as it depends on the business house’s charity quotient rather than on a sustainable module.”

Thousands of students in India pass out from colleges dominated by teachers who still believe in a Red Revolution. The teaching faculty has a right to their opinions of course, but when an institution is filled with the same kind of people espousing the same kind of ideology, convincing the students about liberal ideas after they have been so indoctrinated becomes a difficult task.

Post-independence India saw the adoption of a mixed economic planning which leaned more towards socialism due to Nehru’s admiration for the Soviet Union. That initial fascination explains why the education system emphasised the benefits of a socialised economy. Times have changed and India’s democratic and economic development requires its youth to a better understanding of Liberalism. 

At the very least, it cannot afford to put ideological blinkers at a time when it stands at the verge of exploiting the demographic dividend. One positive trend has been the emergence of private schools and colleges many of them experimenting with the syllabus. Yet a majority still adhere to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) or the local State Boards where the textbooks and the ideas in them have not been updated over time. It is abundantly clear that unshackling the education system by introducing competition and empowering the students is the way forward. Liberating minds by transforming the curriculum must be part of India’s education reform project.