Critical Mind and Labouring Body: Caste and Education Reforms in Kerala

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Sunandan K.N.

Sunandan K.N. is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Transnational Research Group “Poverty and Education in Modern India” and currently based at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. His research explores the concepts of mental and manual labour in relation to the caste experiences in the domain of education in India.

Exploring the various educational reform programs implemented in primary schools and high schools in Kerala in India in the last two decades, the project seeks to analyze the dichotomous concepts of mental and manual labour, theoretical and practical knowledge, and general and technical education which constituted the premise of these reform interventions. The broader objective of the project is to understand the role of caste practices in conceptions of body, skill and knowledge as constructed and disseminated in the practices of educational institutions in India. The work focuses on the crucial connection between the reproduction of the above concepts and caste as it is practiced in contemporary Keralam.

The critical scholarship has already mapped the failure of reform initiatives in challenging the continuing domination of patriarchal and casteist forces that operate in the domain of education. Most of these studies conceptualize the question of domination as problem of exclusion of the marginalized groups. This is expressed as the lack of representation of women and Dalits in the decision making bodies, lack of resources for these groups, their low enrollment and high drop-out rate in schools and in general as a problem of socio-economic exclusion.  Naturally the suggestions were focused on educational programs which can become more inclusive and incorporative of marginal groups. While these explanations are valid and important, this works attempts to extend this criticism to basic concept of ‘school’ itself, and as an extension, to the basic assumptions behind the present educational methodologies. The attempt in here is to shift the debate on the exclusions and dominations in education from the domain of institutional to the epistemological. This project attempts to locate the Brahmanical and patriarchal domination not just in the institutional structures but in the very conception of education based on the division between mental and physical labour. The major objective of this project is to develop some preliminary concepts that would help us understand education not only as a project of developing ‘critical thinking’ but also as a project of creating ‘critical action.’

Analyzing the debate on educational reform processes in Keralam in the 1990s and 2000s, my project attempts to understand the role of the dichotomous conceptualizations of mind and body and mental and manual labour in reproducing the colonial –Brahmanical notions of knowledge. This unsettled debate regarding the educational practices in Keralam brings out the various aspects of the contemporary crisis of the colonial-Brahmanical model of knowledge production. I argue that though the problem of this model is recognized at various points of the debate, the fundamental of this model is kept intact or even reinforced by various stakeholders of the educational reform processes.

The 1990s witnessed large scale structural reform programs in primary education initiated by global funding agencies and national governments in Africa, Latin America and south Asia. This was part of what is generally termed as ‘new economic policies.’ Scholars have studied the various historical reasons that created new initiatives for universal education. The major reason pointed out was the political agenda of globalization in which education became the new domain of economical and political domination. The critics of this new agenda have pointed out that reform programs in primary education such as the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) initiated by the World Bank and / or national governments were aimed at the gradual withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities of primary education and the reduction of investment in formal educational institutions. These programs while projecting social equality as their main objective, refused to address the basic factors behind the production of inequalities.

Critical scholarship has already mapped the failure of reform initiatives in challenging the continuing domination of patriarchal and casteist forces that operate in the domain of education. Most of these studies conceptualize the question of domination as problem of exclusion of the marginalized groups. This is expressed as the lack of representation of women and Dalits in the decision making bodies, lack of resources for these groups, their low enrolment and high drop-out rate in schools and in general as a problem of socio-economic exclusion. Naturally the suggestions were focused on educational programs which can become more inclusive and incorporative of marginal groups.  While these explanations are valid and important, I argue that this criticism should be extended to basic concept of “school” itself, and as an extension, to the basic assumptions behind the present educational methodologies. My attempt in this research is to shift the debate on exclusions and dominations in education from the domain of institutional to the epistemological. I attempt to locate the Brahmanical and patriarchal domination not just in the institutional structures but in the very conception of education based on the division between mental and physical labour.  The major objective of this paper is to develop preliminary concepts that will help us understand education not only as a project of developing ‘critical thinking but also as a project of creating ‘critical action.’

My research so far explored the deployment of the dichotomy of mental and manual labour in the domain education in two interconnected and interacting locations: the first one is the domain of curriculum development where the main actors are policy makers and experts; the second location includes class room and home where the object of analysis is experiences of children from different sections of the society. When we analytically juxtapose these two locations what emerges is a hierarchy of modes of experiencing and a disjuncture faced by the students from the marginalized groups. The remaining session of this presentation will explain the processes in these two locations.

Curriculum Development: Theory and Practice

In 1997 the left front government came to power in Keralam and this government took an initiative to introduce major changes in the education sector. This was an attempt to address the demands raised by the left students’ and teachers’ unions, Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) and other similar left oriented organizations and individuals. The curriculum reform was part of this initiative. Contrary to the content of the curriculum statement which underscored the importance of democratic decentralization, locatedness of knowledge and learning as a move from particular to abstract, the curriculum making was a top-down process with a theory to practice approach. The curriculum approach paper which introduced basic theoretical and ideological issues was prepared by experts – the left intellectuals associated with KSSP –  and at the same time was presented as the initiative of SCERT.

Around 40 experts – again who were all left oriented teachers, activists and intellectuals – discussed the approach paper to form a detailed curriculum statement which was then presented at various district and block level meetings of teachers and activists. Considering the comments and suggestions in this meeting, a state level expert committee formalized the final version of the curriculum. A school teacher – who is also a member of the teachers union associated with the CPI(M) explained the way the block level discussions were conducted.

The teachers who participated in the discussion raised many practical questions. Many of them pointed out that while preparing the curriculum the real class room situation was not sufficiently taken into account. The state level experts, however, considered this as an attitude problem, i.e. teachers’ reluctance for change and their lack of motivation. They thought that ‘it is fine as far as the theoretical issues are sorted out; the practical problems could be addressed later.’ If you check the draft curriculum presented in these discussions and the final versions you will see very little difference which means the suggestions from the teachers were not included.

The words of the one of the experts who participated in this workshop explain the conceptualization of the reformers regarding theory and practice. In an interview he described an event in the workshop for text book creation: “We were almost finishing the design of Malayalam text books when the Director of the program brought an outside person, who was an Adivasi and social activist. The activist evaluated the texts and thoroughly criticized it for its upper-caste language. Then we recognized that we have to start again from the beginning.” This cannot be a surprise looking into the caste characteristics of the committee. Out of the forty members, 35 were from upper caste and 33 of them men. To my question whether this Adivasi activist was included in the further deliberation he said that “Oh no, but we consulted with some of the Dalit and Adivasi activist and incorporated some of their view after critical scrutiny.”

The above conversations allow us to explore the dominant ideas that determine not only the curriculum development process but the concept of knowledge production in general. In this conceptualization, knowledge is a disembodied object which could exist without human presence and which could be exchanged like any other object. Written form is the most appropriate form of knowledge though other forms like spoken word can carry knowledge but less accurately. Knowledge is representation of outside reality but in practical purpose it can even substitute this reality. Since knowledge is an object that has to be produced knowledge production and knowledge transfer became two separate activities.  The objective of teaching or education in general is to transfer of already produced knowledge and the production of knowledge is generally marked under the category of research.

The educational institutions and practices in postcolonial India were more or less a continuation of the colonial practices especially in their concept of knowledge production and knowledge transfer. The plans and priorities in institution building in the education sector reflected the hierarchical series of knowledge constructed in the colonial period: a series with knowledge at top and ignorance at the bottom. Paralleling to this notion the government established research institutions and universities as the highest level of knowledge and at the bottom adult education programs to open schools for the illiterate and uncivilized majority who were not yet qualified to be the full-citizens of the new nation.

The objective of general education even in its most radical interpretations is to develop critical mind. The training in mental labour is the preferred practice in education. Those who are not qualified enough to engage in mental labour could move in to the domain of manual labour through vocational training. Here the image is that the general education aims a larger purpose of disseminating knowledge where the material pursuit of employment or vocation is secondary. Those who are with lesser intelligence and those who are not capable of entering that world of knowledge may be trained in manual labour.

The second concept is regarding the relation between knowledge and language. In the context of schooling the In India, the issue of practice of language in school is mainly discussed in debates on education policy as a question of medium through which knowledge is to be transferred. In the current practices in school, reading and writing are the two fundamental activities. Both activities are based on language skill.  Furthermore, language is considered a vehicle of thought and knowledge, or language is representational in the sense that it represents the outside reality. Hence reading and writing in school are not two activities for their own sake – unlike say singing – but they are part of a process of transferring knowledge from one person to another, most of the time from a teacher to a student.

From the field work data I argue that both these above conceptualizations of knowledge helps in producing a hierarchy in class room situation, in most of the cases which is further translated into hierarchical caste practices. I further map this correlation into the question of different modes of experiencing. On the one hand, studies of marginalization in schools focus on outside cultural and social factors which enter and influence the classrooms but ignore the epistemological role caste exercises within pedagogic practices. On the other hand, until recently the studies which attend to epistemological issues of learning and experience depended on universalizing theories of phenomenology or child psychology and ignored specific contexts in which the experiences of children are formed. Hence the question of how the very process of experiencing itself is varied, and determined by culture (and hence by caste in India), was not taken up for critical inquiry.  Some of the recent studies have explored the production of inequality within the pedagogic practices and, how certain sections of students are marginalized through the daily practices in class room. In this work I attempt to establish a connection at the epistemological level between the practices outside the school and within classroom. In other words, the research focuses on the varied modes of experiencing associated with learning both inside and outside of the school and argues that the question of marginalization in schools should be understood as a process of privileging one particular mode of experiencing in the formal educational system over different other modes.

I use the term mode of experiencing in a particular sense: it includes the activities of sensory organs, bodily dispositions towards the outside world and reflection to the senses not just as thoughts but as different forms of actions. I attempt to map these activities experiencing and to explain the varied aspects involved in different modes of experiencing. How are the acts of sensing, its processing and reflection on these senses determined by the location of the individual? What kind of experiencing is privileged in the current form of learning in school? How is it different from the experiencing of Dalit students at home?

In a Dalit household, both parents and children are engaged in various activities through which the child is trained in a particular way of sensing the outside world. This process of sensing can be understood neither based on the Western model in which the visual and aural senses are privileged nor the ‘five sense model’ which is prominent in many Western and non-Western philosophies. David Howes points out that the relation between the senses is a social relationship and it is socially constructed. The disposition of the body towards the external world and the processing of sensation or sensing process are determined by social and cultural factors. Further, it is not just the five senses but many other parts of the body are part of the sensing process. Paul Stoler, in his work Sensuous Scholarship explains that the Songhay of Mali and Niger consider stomach as a sensory organ and eating a process of knowing the world. “Songhay sorcerers and griots learn about power and history by eating,” by which he means that it is through senses developed by eating they attempt to categorize different powers and different pasts. In many of the artisanal cultures in different parts of the world, the hand is considered as a sensing and even thinking organ. Sundar Sarukkai points out that in many Indian traditions the mind is considered an independent sensing organ. Hence the five sense theory is only one among many ways of understandings about sensing process and they are many other views in which stomach or mind or hand could be a sensing organ.

Through the analysis of Dalit students’ struggle to inhabit two distinct worlds (worlds at home and school), I attempt to understand why many of them ‘fail’ in the domain of knowledge production. The world they were primarily occupying is a place of continuous action which privileged co-ordination than expertness and where the performative element of language was more prominent than the representative format. In school, the activities were specialized and discrete, and knowledge was supposed to be possessed by the individual student and language was considered a neutral carrier of this knowledge. The struggle of Dalit students to inhabit two distinct worlds is a struggle to cope with two distinct mode of experiencing.

In an upper caste home, a child receives various forms of indirect training in creating a hierarchy of senses. Most of the children in these households associate taste and smell with eating and touch as part of expressing intimacy, love or friendship, whereas visual and aural sensing are considered a part of learning. Here the process of separation of visual and aural senses from other senses is not just an articulation of different roles of different senses, but the former is considered more important than the latter.  Observation is considered as the most important part of learning. Observation includes seeing and hearing but completely excludes touching, smelling or tasting. The basic aim of learning at school is not just to improve the observational capacities but to train the student to objectify what they see and hear in to language.  Reading and writing are the basic activities at school which are practices of objectification and which are dependent more on visual sensing. The response of the students to the visual or aural sense or the processing of these senses is supposed to be taking place ‘in language’.  This means that the students can respond either through speech or through writing. Any other forms of bodily action are not considered as proper response.

The research uses existing literature in sensory anthropology and in phenomenology to analyze the everyday practices at home and school which include various modes of experiencing and learning processes. By elaborating on the various aspects of sensing practices through which experiences are formed, I argued that the disjuncture experienced by a Dalit student between the world at home and at school is because of the privileging and authorizing of certain modes of experiencing over others.


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