Trees, Textbooks and Teachers

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Two unrelated incidents occurred last month – one took place in my neighbourhood, in fact just on the road in front of my apartment complex, the other took place a few thousand miles away, in our capital, in fact in the seat of our government – Parliament House.

Some weeks ago, in Bangalore, we experienced a couple of hours of strong winds and heavy pre-monsoon showers. The temperature fell dramatically, much to the relief of all city-dwellers not used to centigrades in the late 30s! However some other things fell too. Just on the street that I live two large, healthy flowering trees crashed to the road, as did two more around the corner. So in all four trees died just within a 100 metre radius of where I live. In other parts of the city many other trees were badly damaged. On the same day, a young colleague of mine, travelling in an auto narrowly missed being hit by a branch that snapped from the tree trunk! Surprisingly nothing was written in the local media about the devastation of trees on account of a brief heavy downpour.

Meanwhile up north in Delhi there was another storm playing out in Parliament – over a 63 year old cartoon in a high school textbook. Angry voices and strong condemnation of a caricature, drowned all reason and perspective. In an extraordinary show of misplaced solidarity, all political parties in one voice called for banning cartoons from textbooks, expressing grave concern over young impressionable minds being negatively influenced by the parodying of politicians in cartoons.

So what parallels can we draw from these two incidents?

The loss of healthy trees is almost as much of a tragedy as loss of human lives ! However the absence of discussion and debate on the possible causes points to a callousness on the part of all of us in the city. City Corporation officials and workers who are responsible for the upkeep of the city pavements have in the past few years been assiduously laying concrete on many pavements right up to the base of the trunks of trees that still line so many of Bangalore's avenues. ( Of course it's another matter that the condition of our pavements is appalling) Over the years, the concrete has cut off rain water and oxygen from permeating down to the roots. This has resulted in the roots either dying or getting severely weakened. Consequently any big gust of wind or rain could uproot an apparently sturdy-looking tree. Once uprooted, the tree is quickly chopped up to clear the road blocks and the branches and twigs are distributed amongst various local individuals who may sell the spoils for short-term financial gains And the city moves on relentlessly till the next scandal or stir breaks out.

The 'one voice' verdict on our textbooks is not very dissimilar from what the trees have to contend with. Just as trees have little say in demanding for their well-being or insisting on city planners and residents being more ecologically conscious, teachers too are mute spectators. Nobody has thought of asking the professional in the classroom – how their adolescent learners respond to the NCERT textbooks in general and the cartoon in particular. How are politicians equipped to decide what needs to be taught in school and how it needs to be taught? Will they soon decide on what needs to be done if someone has a heart failure or epileptic attack? Will they also decide how the patient needs to be medicated and monitored? Most likely not – because the Indian Medical Association and other doctors' professional networks would have been up in arms about government interference in professional decisions in the medical field.

So what is it about school education and the teaching community in particular that makes politicians presume that they can take arbitrary uninformed decisions. How do they know what is appropriate curricular material for teenagers ? What do they know about how young people make sense of the world around them especially in today's media- swamped digitally-connected world? Surely not through textbooks alone ! If our politicians are genuinely concerned about how Indian high schoolers view them in particular and politics in general, they need to do some introspection rather than ban decades-old cartoons. Their demeanour within the Parliament and outside conveys volumes about Indian polity. No teacher and textbook that's been muzzled can ever measure up to this in terms of powerful influence.

Just as the concrete has undermined the trees on my street and several other city streets , decades of treating teachers with scant respect, of systematically stifling their autonomy, disregarding the need to train and support them both pre-service and in-service, have severely undermined the foundations of the profession. Admittedly school teachers were on vacation last month, but none of them have as yet voiced their concerns over the textbook furore. And once they get back to school, they will be back to their usual busy routine of teaching and testing to have time to engage in textbook policy matters.

One can't blame the vast majority of teachers when they take cue from their political 'superiors' and focus on keeping up appearances of doing their job. Teachers would rather leave the passionate sloganeering and subversion to the university academics and social activists. They are more comfortable following orders.


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