An agenda of incoherence
THE crisis which faces the natural environment has had to wait a long time for recognition from modern socio-political institutions. The case for institutional reform in the relationship between man and nature has been made countless number of times, but callous exploitation of nature"s resources continues; still, a change in recent times is evident. The crisis stands acknowledged - not just by researchers, but by modern states and their institutions as well.
In the case of our primary education system, symbolic recognition has come in the form of space given in the curricula to environment -related knowledge and concerns. The illustration of a factory spewing forth smoke, captioned "Idols of modern India" in textbooks of the 1960s, now carries the revised caption "Sources of pollution"-. But even the new curricula do not serve to impart to children a coherent understanding of the issues.
Substantive knowledge about such concerns is imparted mainly as part of the teaching of science. But attempts made to reorganise elementary school science as "environmental studies" (EVS) and to incorporate ecological concerns in secondary school science have not altered the character of science learning. EVS merely triggers a conflict of values in the context of man"s relationship with nature, which cannot be resolved within the prevailing value-premises of science learning. Science as EVS arouses concern for the destruction of nature, whereas school science in general imparts a sense of control over nature.
The EVS idea EVS attempts to develop the idea of co-habitation or adjustment with nature: not just with animals and plants, but even with physical phenomena such as rivers, mountains and oceans. The value-premise underlying this idea is that all human acts need to be reviewed in terms of the impact they might have on living as well as non-living components of nature.
The syllabi and textbooks used in the teaching of EVS reveal a two-fold objective: one, to impart knowledge about the environment; two, to arouse concern for the state of the environment. The first objective requires children to learn about different components of the environment and the inter-relationships which connect them. This EVS-imparted knowledge has now been reorganised around the concept of sustainability of life. The current presentation of these topics also features information about the concepts of "degradation" and "pollution". These ideas imply an obvious value-judgement, whose basis is the concept of life. The ability of elements like air and water to sustain life provides a delineation of the scale on which "degradation" is said to have occurred.
The second objective of EVS often finds a didactic expression in the shape of suggestions on "what needs to be done" to repair the damage to the environment or to improve its degraded state. Answers consist of telling children what they can do. For instance, in the context of garbage disposal, children are asked to be more careful about where they dump garbage. A second type of answer consists of telling children that scientists are working to find solutions to environmental problems - like new kinds of pesticides which would only eliminate specific pests. A third body of answers consists of informing students that the government is taking steps to improve the situation. For instance, to control river pollution, the government is making arrangements for the treatment of sewage in all riverside towns and cities. Culprit: modernisation
EVS attributes the cause of environmental degradation to industrialisation and modern lifestyle. For example, in the context of pesticides, while use of these chemical killers have been proved to be harmful to the environment, what scale of their use might deserve to be called indiscriminate or excessive is left uncertain. Let us consider the case Of DDT. That DDT is harmful to organisms other than mosquitoes is mentioned in EVS texts. Yet, when it comes to -discussing malaria- carrying mosquitoes, children are told to spray DDT regularly. The next sentence (which figures in NCERT Grade v textbooks), says: "Take care that it is not sprayed in excess,". It is difficult to understand what "excess" might mean, when the spraying is supposed to be regular.
EVS texts do not just question modernisation; they project a categorically different Organisation of the world. This runs counter to the knowledge represented in the rest of the curricula. The relationship between EVs and other school subjects involves a conflict between two structures of ideas and informations that do not seem to be reconciliable. In one structure, concepts of change and progress are forwarded, together with ideas of economic growth, exploitability of earth"s resources and "faith in human ingenuity. In the other, knowledge is held together by the concept of limits to the exploitability of the earth"s resources and the parallel idea of the morally- oriented limits to exploiting life forms for human needs.
The values that are concomitant to belief in economic growth appear to be inimical to awareness of the limits and problems posed by the natural environment. In this context, the knowledge that EVS imparts would appear as a major source of discordance. In post-independence India, school education has played an important role in projecting a benign, uncritical perception of modern science and technology. But today, questions are raised by children in classrooms which neither textbooks nor teachers answer. One finds children wanting to know if Medha Patkar and Baba Amte - opponents of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada - are great people or a nuisance.
The conflict between the EVS perspective and that of modern science has its roots in values, and not in poor management. These values are centered in the perception of nature as an object. Historically, these values and attitudes found a cultural symbol in the European bourgeois, and an ideological symbol in modern science. The manner in which the scientific outlook has been defined denies any consciousness or sensibility to nature. Such denial is also characteristic of the capitalistic outlook which presents nature as resource to be exploited for the maximisation of profit. This consistency between the two outlooks has facilitated the use of science for profit maximisation.
Behind the positivistic veneer of school science, there lies the agenda for distancing the child from his or her own nature. In a bid to make science - learning a means of developing the capacity of objective study, school science curricula attempt to give a value-neutral character to the study of natural phenomena, including the non-human living members of nature. A specific attempt is made, for instance, to help children overcome any hesitation or inhibition that they might feel in dissecting for examination a live frog or rat. But no science text discusses the manner in which animals respond to the violence inflicted on them in the course of study by humans, apparently because such discussion might generate an attitude incompatible with the attitudes and values into which the school science curriculum attempts to socialise children. A truly positivistic orientation towards science would surely treat this issue as a valid subject of study.
Since the ecological crisis is related to the political economy of modern science, the role of education in promoting the study of science in this value-neutral manner should be seen as a factor contributing to the ecological crisis. As an institutionalised activity, education has a distinctly promotional role in the context of ideas. Education enables men and women to shed - during childhood - all those instincts and inhibitions that they might feel when confronted with situations requiring them to act as invaders or destroyers of nature or as witnesses to such destruction.
Questioning existing premises
The socialising aspect of science learning is not a logical adjunct to the intellectual capacities which this learning helps to develop in children. Therefore, it cannot be argued that if science were to be learnt with respect for nature, it would lack certain basic mental attributes which science teaching attempts to develop today with its value- neutrality and indifference to nature. If concern and sensitivity towards the environment are to be reflected in school science as a whole, the curricula need to be designed differently.
The new design must provide for space where the value-premises of modern science - we can identify two - can be questioned. The first value-premise consists of the idea that scientific enquiry has no moral responsibility towards the object of enquiry. Scientific experiments are conducted in a manner that leaves the enquirer unaccountable for the consequences of his actions. Thus, while children are made to dissect and kill frogs, they are not required to study how the collection and killing of frogs would affect the structure of bio -relationships to which the animals belonged. Similarly, a scientist- engineer studying a mineral is not supposed to be concerned with the manner in which mining in the area where the mineral is found will affect the landscape and those dependent on it.
Often, the claim that scientific activity ultimately promotes human welfare and prosperity is used to give it immunity against the charge that it might have caused ecological damage. Such a plea has validity only if we ignore the gross disparities in welfare and prosperity between regions where activities like mining are performed and the regions where the products of mining are consumed. Scientists rarely accept accountability for such disparities; they find a convenient shelter behind the argument that the disparities are the outcome of poor management and visionless politics, not science.
The second value-premise is that specialised activity alone counts as scientific enquiry. Leaving aside some eminent exceptions and idealists, scientists as a community universally treat the right to pursue narrowly specialised enquiry as an aspect of professional science. This right absolves them from taking serious interest in other areas of science. This tendency has provided the social sciences with a model; knowledge in both natural and social sciences now accumulates in a manner that lacks personal or individual integration, as opposed to institutional integration which does occasionally take place under the name of inter- disciplinary research.
As a socialising agency, the school starts preparing children for specialised study from the elementary stage. The label "integrated science", currently in vogue, barely masks the methodological expectation embedded in the lessons - that enquiry must aim at specialised findings. Holistic understanding is professed in prefaces to books and in documents of state policy, but nothing in the actual practice of classroom instruction indicates that such understanding is intended. There is nothing in the study of science that might indicate to children that nature is a set of complex relationships. It is hard to imagine how any socialising function of the school would operate if there were no institutionalised roles available in adult society to which the schooled and socialised children could be allocated on growing up.
Science learning in school socialises the young not just for the roles available in what has been aptly called the military-industrial complex, but also for providing mass assent to the unlimited freedom of this complex to destroy nature in the course of its so-called productive activities. Children who succeed in acquiring roles and positions in the military- industrial complex are few; the majority end up becoming members of a public which gives silent approval to the stupendous expenditure required for maintaining the complex and the huge resources locked in it in the shape of "fixed capital". It is this latter investment, personified in technological installations of all kinds, that makes the total social system - including institutionalised education - so resistant to change.
The trend towards reorganisation of school science curricula by the incorporation of environmental concerns is too weak to make any major impact on the socialising character of science instruction and on the inter-linkages between science, politics and the economy. As an isolated strategy, this incorporation cannot disturb the nexus that prevails between the consumption -oriented capitalistic economy and the teaching of science. This nexus ensures that the awareness brought about by science instruction will never cross the limits imposed on it by the economic interests vested in the continued use and proliferation of pesticides, chemical fertilisers and modern weapons. Allowed only to grow within these limits, the celebrated scientific temper cannot answer the child"s search for coherence.
The lack of vision in the curricula of science is only a part of the visionlessness of education itself. The enormous load of factual knowledge that children learn to live with educates them to become clueless and meek, which is how the consumer-citizen must live in a world ruled by transnational companies, especially if he/she happens to belong to the Third World. Partial knowledge alone seems to help earn a living. General education gives the impression of immensity only by the disconnectedness of the knowledge, of complexity only by its confusion.
Science education in schools must accept the biggest share of the blame for this situation, for in no other area of the Indian school curricula have syllabi and textbooks grown in size over the recent years as much as they have in science. Those concerned about redesigning science curricula and altering the socialising agenda of science teaching will have to look beyond science, both in order to grasp the problem better and to seek the means to solve it. They will have to examine modern science and social sciences in the context of basic problem areas of civic life in our country, such as health, livelihood, housing and consumption.
Also, regional variations will mark any sincere attempt to orient the school curricula towards such themes. It is not proposed that school science or social studies should be confined to themes of this kind. The point is that school knowledge must socialise children into a culture of concern and search for collective solutions. That kind of socialisation alone can deserve to be counted as a valid objective of EVS.
Despite a crisis having been recognised in humanity"s relationship with nature, there is no sign yet that educational planners and curricula designers are willing to treat the crisis in an integrated manner, permitting it to be studied with reference to a transformative social order. Rather, they are willing to let education be used for the promotion of adjustment to a crisis ridden situation. Thus, in our country, they have proposed a set of behavioral objectives which might be used as frameworks for curricula development.
These objectives - outdated copies of objectives suggested a quarter of a century ago in USA - highlight certain "minimum levels of learning" that are devoid of the basic concerns of living. They represent a disaggregate body of technical tasks to be performed by children in the name of education. Anyone anxious about changes in the pedagogy of science in schools must resist this blatant attempt to destroy the philosophical and social foundations of education.