What ails social science education?
Dr M Manisha explores the reasons behing social science dangling at the bottom of the education chain in our country.
When I passed my class ten examinations, way back in early 1990s, I had the option of taking up either Science or Commerce, since I managed to score decently in my matriculation. To the surprise of all my well wishers, I chose to take up humanities and that too a combination of Political Science, History, and Sociology - subjects that were considered irrelevant for any successful career. Since then, I have wondered why social sciences have been relegated to the lowest strata in our hierarchy of specialized learning. Years of experience, first as a student and then as a teacher, have given me some insights.
While employability may be an important factor in determining the value of a discipline, to my mind what makes the vital difference is the skills that a discipline equips its learner with. Natural science equips its students with observational, reasoning, and to some extent, problem solving skills. Commerce imparts accounting and entrepreneurial skills, and languages instill communication skills. Ideally, social sciences must impart its students with critical skills of interpretation, analysis, understanding, and reasoning, each of which is vital in developing a nuanced understanding of the society in which we live. Social science education in the country has not adequately emphasized on developing these skills for a variety of reasons:
To begin with social science curriculum, in the country is unimaginatively designed. For instance, the history syllabus mainly revolves around military history. Art, cultural and social history are either relegated to foot notes or confined to one chapter. Again, political science curriculum largely deals with political theory, laws and constitutional provisions. The issues related to them such as, how have these theories shaped public policies, how do policies affect us? Are they implemented or atleast implementable? What are the repercussions of implementation? These hardly find any mention in the syllabus. It is this application of theory - which enables the learner to establish the vital link between abstract theory and the real world - that is often missing in our social science curriculum, making them not just boring but also far removed from real world and lived in experiences of the students.
Further, the syllabus is not frequently revised. What goes in the name of revision is mere tinkering. New topics are added without a deleting the old ones, making it unmanageable for both the students and teachers to manage realistically. Thus for instance, the political science syllabus of os several universities includes everything from the pre cold to post cold war period in one topic in its International Relations Paper at the BA Level. So the students began with gusto when the teacher teaches the developments of the pre cold war era, by the time the foreign policy of Clinton and Bush is reached students loose all their energy and enthusiasm.
The existing system of education does not offer many choices to the student. Universities in India do not allow students to choose short courses within the discipline lasting one or two semester. It is only at the final year of graduation or at post graduation level that the students are given few choices. Students develop their own choices depending upon what is important in the examination. So if the question of George Bush’s foreign policy had come in the exam last year, China’s foreign policy became important this year. The lack of originality, in the examination patterns and question papers make it easy to predict questions. None of the questions challenge the understanding of the student or ask for creative interpretation. They rest on memory and test memory.
Much of the emphasis in social science teaching is on “facts”. Skills of interpretation, application or problem solving are seldom explored. Controversial issues are either completely blocked out or glossed over by an unsure teacher, who is not trained to encourage students to take up varied stands, based on reason. Students are, in fact tacitly discouraged from developing opinions. Even if they have one, they are asked to couch them behind some eminent thinker or writer. I remember my school teacher telling me that I should never answer a question on ‘my opinion on the role of president’, with my own opinion. She suggested that I should put forth opinions of eminent scholars like Morris Jones or James Manor and then give a conclusion summarizing their views. That, I may have an opinion, different from each of them, no matter how un-nuanced, was never considered. It is not surprising therefore that independent thinking never becomes a part of the vocabulary of the social science students. Even the language that is used is strictly governed by the standards of textbooks and scholarly works of prescribed authors. Social science education has therefore become an exercise in memorizing facts and reproducing them in the examination with no independent thinking, understanding, or even original writing. The art of complicating issues and finding solution to problems that leads to finer understanding of the nuanced things in life finds no place in our system of social science education.
A related problem in social sciences is that of introducing the vocabulary of the discipline. Every discipline has its distinct vocabulary, a way of expression and terminology. This vocabulary is often terse and difficult and requires discipline and time to acquire. Knowing this vocabulary is of critical importance for developing writing skills. A major dilemma that social science teachers face is - when to introduce this vocabulary. Often, this vocabulary is introduced in the school text books from secondary level. However, introduction of the terminology of the discipline at this level, when the discipline is taught more for the purpose of citizenship education rather than research or academic pursuit, results in making the discipline rather distant and boring. On the other hand, at the higher level, when a large number of students come from vernacular background, teachers hesitate to introduce the vocabulary, fearing the limited language skills of the learners. This is then postponed to next level. It is, therefore not surprising that the quality of social science research in India does not match with international standards.
If the status of social sciences in this country is to improve and if it is to be considered to be at par with sciences, the task for social scientists and educators is well cut out. Social science education has to be reinvented and everything from the curriculum to the teaching method, the academic books written to the conduction of exams, has to be reinvented with a focus on originality and critical thinking. The importance of research, writing and communication has to be imparted at the elementary level itself, and teachers have to be trained to be more tolerant of opinions. A democratic tradition that places emphasis on originality and application has to be developed. Though, of course, it is only easier said than done.