Many years ago the co-founder of CHS-Sachetan, Winin Pereira, conducted an analysis of school textbooks used in Maharashtra and found evidence that they actively promoted the Western industrial model of development, in which a small group of the rich and powerful control and exploit the vast majority.
The textbooks, which I saw, conditioned children to see urban life as admirable. The advantages of village life – the clean air, varied wildlife, unbroken family and community ties – were ignored; instead the emphasis was placed on comparative size and quantity. The village “has small roads … only a few buses … small schools … few shops … small dispensaries.”
Pereira’s thinking is similar to the earlier work of another polymath, Ivan Illich –- and the later – and current practice of Bunker Roy who founded and runs the Barefoot College in Tilonia and many other activities.
A summary of his findings
Education systems are designed to support and strengthen society. An analysis of some of the school textbooks used in Maharashtra provided ample evidence that they actively promoted the Western industrial model of development, by influencing the minds of children – conditioning them to see this as the most desirable way of life.
Wealth and possessions bring happiness
The Western assumption that human happiness increases as the quantity of material wealth possessed rises is wholeheartedly adopted by these texts. The families and homes of the affluent are repeatedly described and illustrated, accompanied by statements that these families are always happy.
The books he analysed encouraged the use of a wide range of non-basic items. They featured large industries and Western practices but ignored traditional ones.
Alternative models submit that striving to amass material possessions, over and above the basic necessities, does not bring happiness but rather increases greed and selfishness. They state that the production of goods to satisfy the basic needs of the masses should take priority over the supply of luxuries for relatively few. As large industries are dehumanising, treating people merely as factors of production, and inefficient when ’external’ social costs are taken into account, basic material goods should be produced in small traditional units, by individual artisans or co-operatives.
The city: its comforts and conveniences …
Large cities, described as ‘engines of development,’ are seen as an essential part of the Western model. The texts pictured the city as good and the village as bad, with none of the disadvantages of the former and the advantages of the latter mentioned.
They focussed on the services and comforts of the city: pictures showing formal gardens, ‘well-dressed’ people, good roads, hospitals, markets and so on. Any reference to the horrible conditions of life in its slums, the congestion, the pollution, the inconvenience of having to travel in crowded transport over long distances, the high prices of necessities, the breakup of families and communities, and the extremes of poverty and wealth, was omitted.
A lifestyle which would involve heavy exploitation and pollution of the environment was advocated; children were instructed that paper and other ‘rubbish’ was to be thrown away or destroyed, spraying with persistent and poisonous pesticides was recommended and large city houses put forward as the ideal.
Alternative thinking finds the notion that pieces of paper are “rubbish” is absurd in a world running out of sources of paper pulp. All our paper and household “waste” needs to be recycled or composted. Unnecessary regular spraying causes pests to develop immunity; DDT is so poisonous and persistent in the environment that it is banned in most countries. It should not be recommended at all.
The village …
The advantages of village life – the clean air, varied wildlife, unbroken family and community ties – were ignored; instead the emphasis was placed on comparative size and quantity. The village “has small roads … only a few buses … small schools … few shops … small dispensaries.”
Alternative models state that these inaccurately described engines are taking us in wrong directions, causing devastation in the hinterland, and that a large proportion of their populations are living under inhuman conditions.
A modern lifestyle is best …
Certain devices were used to present Western practice as good and, by implication, our traditions as third rate. The particular interpretation of words such as ‘progress’, ‘modernity’, co-operation and ‘beauty’ in this context should be studied carefully, as should the equation of illiteracy with ignorance and the juxtaposition of ‘modern’ with ‘scientific’.
“Every city has some very big hospitals, too. They give modern medical treatment…”
Here “modern” is equated with “good”. It is implied that good medical treatment cannot be obtained by other methods. But it is extremely doubtful whether the Western allopathic system can ever reach all the population. Besides, because of its reliance on curative, high-cost rather than preventive health, it results in further marginalisation of the poor.
Allopathy – discussed before Ayurveda and Unani, implying that the former is superior – is described as being “probably the most popular system of medicine in the world.”
Considering the vast and varied number of traditional medical systems still in use and the growing popularity of alternative medicine in the West, this is doubtful. Nevertheless, in the sections on the manufacture of drugs and vaccines no mention was made of traditional medicines.
“Motor trucks and goods trains are the chief means of transport which carry foodgrains … Bullock-carts and beasts of burden used to be the only means of transport in olden times. Even today, those means are used but the modern means of transport have simplified the task.”
Draught animals are still the most important means of transport, with carts carrying more goods than all Indian trains combined.
Also it is well known that “modern” transport will never replace carts for many reasons, chief among them being the limited availability of oil. The very concept of transporting products over long distances for processing in large factories is based on oil which has been deliberately priced low.
“Nylon, terylene, rayon, etc. are some of the varieties of synthetic fabrics. Cloth made from these artificial fabrics is very fine.
“On special festive occasions… people wear rich and colourful clothes made of materials like nylon, terylene, wool and silk.”
Such texts induce children to value foreign artificial materials more than local, natural ones. The disadvantages of artificial fibres are not mentioned: their unsuitability for our hot climate, the dependence on foreign knowhow, the loss of foreign exchange and their use of non-renewable resources.
The mark of progress is to live in the largest possible ” … modern reinforced cement concrete structure… Because of their superiority, modern houses … are fast replacing the clumsy shelters of the bygone days…”
“In modern times, building technique has been advancing… modern houses are…more convenient, more beautiful and more airy… modern houses built of brick…”
Terms like “convenient” and “beautiful” were applied indiscriminately to all that is considered “modern”, while the term “modern” itself is applied only to technology that comes from the West. The improved mud houses being built in Kerala, Pondicherry, Egypt and other places are not considered “modern” and “advanced”. On the other hand, brick houses were built in India from the time of the Harappans more than 4,500 years ago and are certainly not a contemporary invention.
The alternative view points out that the mining of limestone used for cement has caused tremendous environmental damage. Cement is not essential as other cheaper and less environmentally degrading materials are available. The production of millions of bricks is using up clay and good agricultural soil at a devastating rate. The firewood or charcoal used for firing the kilns is another contributor to the destruction of our forests.
The ideal shelter, under the constraints of the just distribution of finite resources and limits to environmental degradation, is the smallest one which can accommodate the family, using a minimum of resources for its construction and furnishing.
Alternative models assert that India and China have the longest continuous civilizations. They state that the development of the West is malign, and that we should work out our own appropriate paths.
The right behaviour patterns must be cultivated … conformity:
“…Every attempt has been made to see that they (the children)… learn desirable behaviour patterns…to fit himself well into the life…”
The texts teach that children have the duties and the elders the rights. The emphasis that community well-being depends only on the people of the community implies that the system does not have to be questioned at all. The responsibility of the authorities to provide for the community is largely ignored. In the section “Our City – Bombay” only a few of the responsibilities of the Municipality are mentioned. Nothing is said about things that it doesn’t do that it should, particularly in slum areas. While children are supposed to “care for public property”, no mention is made of the fact that society has to provide these facilities to everyone: public latrines, parks …
Another omission comes after describing the “Thieves, robbers and burglars … some of the anti-social elements.” The existence of perpetrators of white collar crime, corrupt bureaucrats and politicians and oppressive, exploitative employers is ignored.
Unthinking acceptance of the type of texts we saw will mould children into a form which fits in with the goals of contemporary society. Alternative models state that power should be decentralised so that people can control their own lives. Excessive hierarchy and authoritarianism should be discouraged in an education system which wants to train people to bring about the changes needed for a just society.
Though the Western model promotes competition between individuals, the term “co-operation” is freely used in the texts. Its meaning has, however, been twisted to suit a system where the mass of the population ‘co-operates’ to serve or produce luxuries for the few.
“We now understand how millions of people are engaged in the production and transport of food and cloth – our basic needs. These people work for their own well-being as well as for the well-being of others. They work in co-operation with one another.”
When people work in true co-operation, both the work and its benefits are shared equally. Alternative models state that unlimited competition increases selfishness and is the breeding ground for communal conflicts and war.
In the Western model justice is said to be done by the provision of equality of opportunity; wealth, it is asserted, will trickle down from the rich to the poor, removing present inequalities. The system claims that full and free mobility can enable those in the lower ranks to rise to the top.
The texts gloss over the defects of present society in a pretence that equality exists, all are happy, there are no problems, there is no need for change. Poverty is rarely illustrated or described and when it is, it is done in a distorted manner. There is no indication that structural oppression exists.
Class gradations are built into the system which assumes that city people are superior to rural people, management to white collar workers, the latter to factory labourers, who are in turn superior to farmers. The texts effectively serve to keep the poor ‘in their place’ by deliberately inferiorising them.
The needy produced by society: the hungry, the naked, the shelterless – those who need justice – are not mentioned. The “needy” people described are old, crippled, sick – a concession to the fact that all misfortunes are not the result of faulty or flawed individuals.
” Generally speaking, our society is largely composed of people belonging to the lower middle classes, the upper middle classes and the higher classes. But there is yet another section of people which may be ranked below lower middle class… Somehow or other they make ends meet… They cannot afford to have nice, strong flats or bungalows… (Their) huts do not even have bamboo supports. They are made of rags and paper thrown away by well-to-do people.”
The fact is that about 50% of the population live below the poverty line. No doubt it is a compliment to them that “they make ends meet”, but an explanation of why they cannot have “regular jobs” or why they “flock round big cities” would help. Those who can afford to have the “nice bungalows” are probably the cause of the poor having to live in the slums.
Alternative models state that there is no evidence that wealth does trickle down – indeed reports increasingly confirm the growth of inequality in the wealthy West. Equality of opportunity is also an unrealised ideal in industrialised countries.
The textbooks, openly or implicitly, portrayed a world which, for the vast majority, is an elaborate construct of fantasy, an illusion to lull the readers into supporting an unjust system.
The ideas presented have subtly taken over and occupied our minds. Like viruses, they multiply and spread to gain their own ends, with the education system serving as a major centre of culture and infection. Yet the tighter we allow ourselves to be enchained, the more ‘progressive’ and ‘developed’ we think ourselves to be.
Gandhi declared that our main problem appeared to be that we hug the chains that bind us. The first step, therefore, is to realize that these chains exist, for only then will we be able to rehabilitate our infected minds so that we can think clearly.
Reforms of the formal education system are being confined to methods of teaching and school administration, and are rarely extended to the content of the textbooks. Successful reforms will only make the transmission of this material more efficient.
In order to cure ourselves, we need to isolate ourselves from the system and to feed on alternative ideas – a fertile source being our ancient traditions – remembering that ‘to educate’ means to lead out, elicit, develop and that ‘development’ is growth from within, not imposed and copied from outside, the gradual unfolding of what is in the germ, inherent.