Why Social Sciences are important

Simantini Dhuru

Before setting out to write this piece I talked to a few children and a teacher from a municipal school in Mumbai. I asked, “Why do we study the social sciences? Imagine if these subjects were eliminated from our curriculum?”

While all agreed that textbooks were loaded with information, often incomprehensible and disjointed, they emphasized the crucial need for the subjects. Some of the interesting answers were:

  • “There are two sides to a coin – social sciences help us understand both and to make a choice.”
  • “Pure Sciences teach us about how technology is developed and used. Social sciences help us understand the impact of technology.”

The aim of society and that of its education system are intertwined. While the aim of education is explicitly stated in policy documents, legal instruments and curriculum frameworks, it is tacitly woven in the selection, arrangement of content, its frequency and the transaction modes. Social science content not only defines and validates societal aims it also has the capacity to provoke learners to critically examine them on the anvil of universal values of social justice and environmental sustainability.

The NCERT National Focus Group on ‘Teaching of Social Sciences’ puts it thus – “The Social Sciences carry a normative responsibility to create and widen the popular base of human values, namely freedom, trust, mutual respect, and respect for diversity. Given this, social science teaching should aim at investing in children a critical moral and mental energy to make them alert to the social forces that threaten these values. Through the discussion of concerns such as threats to the environment, caste/class inequality, state repression, through an interdisciplinary approach.”

Social Sciences provide a framework to look at content emerging from other subjects – to see how that content is used in society, for whose benefit. Even the so called pure sciences are embedded in a certain social culture and are influenced by it. More often than not the technology based on application of science is selectively used for the benefit of the dominant groups who control it by aiding research and development or by influencing policies including those related with education. The impact all these have on defining the character of a society can be understood by the use of tools rooted in social sciences.

‘The popular perception of social sciences is that it is a non-utility subject’*. The low status accorded to social sciences in formal education is the reason behind this. The importance given in the school timetable to pure sciences, math, (and increasingly English in India) as against social sciences and regional languages is one obvious indicator of this. Teachers who deal with these subjects are often given a special status vis-a-vis those teaching social sciences. Students interested and excelling in social sciences are not considered bright. It is assumed that high scoring students will naturally opt for streams leading to engineering, medicine, and not humanities. The choices are also influenced by gender and caste/class dimensions. Upper-caste, better-off boys are groomed to choose branches related to pure sciences and girls, SC/ST, economically weaker sections are driven to opt for social sciences. Overall, low self-esteem, disinterest, casualness dominate the educational culture.

The reasons are many. In school they are directly related to the fragmented, incomprehensive content load and lack of critical pedagogy. Content is selected and arranged not on the natural demands of the subject but with certain hegemonic compulsions. Instances of exploitation of social sciences to push a certain political agenda at the cost of justice and peace are unfortunately many. Skirting issues of gender, caste, glorification of violence and hatred for other communities under the name of nationalism, eulogizing and politicizing historical figures out of time and cultural context (King Shivaji’s history in Maharashtra in Class IV), unquestioned promotion of certain technological choices (nuclear technology, big dams) are some of the examples of this bias.

In general, our educational ethos is steeped in behaviorist traditions. Discussing real issues that children experience in everyday life is seen as unnecessarily exposing young minds to ‘delicate’, ‘controversial’ issues. It is argued that this will affect their innocent minds and that they’ll imitate ‘wrong’ things. The fact that there is an intuitive sense of wise decision-making in all of us, that the decisions we take are a complex mix of multitudes of factors is not taken into account. What goes under the name of social science teaching are mere slogans, platitudes. Efforts at objectively and scientifically approaching a subject-matter are actively discouraged when cries of ‘hurting sentiments’ are raised. Thus the dangerous culture of saying the right things while doing what is convenient comes into play.

In the world of growing commodification and marketization, social sciences has no takers. This is both a cause and an effect. Keeping social sciences over- burdened with meaningless information load, devoid of the pleasure of critical engagement and enthusiasm to create new knowledge makes the subject disinteresting or ‘unwanted’. On the other hand, by shunning spaces for critical engagement, the natural spirit of questioning things in the young is dampened. Thus, gradually, adverse effects of the use of technology that benefits few, that tramples on human rights and destroys the environment under the name of development remain unquestioned. The casualty here is the very essence of science based on empiricism and questioning.

This takes us to the beginning of this piece. The answers to the challenges outlined here lie in the ethos, the aim of education. The nature of social science teaching or for that matter teaching of all subjects will change when we have the opportunity to re-examine the purpose of education. Is education just about acquiring high percentages, degrees (with expensive tuition), doing jobs devoid of the pleasure of creation, which involve actions that are anti-poor, destructive to the environment? Is this what is progress? Will this give us a happy society? The urgency of seeking answers to these questions is immense and within the frame of formal education the onus of examining these issues is at the core of social sciences.

Teaching-learning kits

Sangati (developed by the Avehi-Abacus Project, Mumbai) is a thought-provoking series of six interactive teaching-learning kits that attempt to make school education more relevant and more vibrant by enhancing the quality of what is taught and how it is taught. Each kit contains a teacher manual, supplementary interactive visual TLM in 3 languages and worksheets, stories, extra reading for children in 8 languages.

The emphasis of Sangati is on the links between specific themes rather than on isolated pieces of information. These themes are organized in a way that will provide a perspective to understand and analyze the world around us.

These interlinked themes are:

  • Knowing about myself means understanding that I am unique and yet share something with every other human being. It means understanding the potential and limitations of my body, and realizing that regardless of our differences all human beings have the same needs.
  • It is our earth that provides the resources that make it possible for us to fulfill our needs. All life on earth, including human life, has evolved in a complex and continuing process. This makes all of us part of the web of life.
  • Over thousands of years, people have learned to use the earth’s resources and to live together in societies. Understanding how societies developed all over the world will help us understand our own lives better.
  • Continuing changes in technology and different social, economic, political and cultural institutions influence the way we live today.
  • Change characterizes our relationships with one another, with other forms of life, and with the environment. It is only by understanding these changes and their impact that we can learn to deal with them and to create the kind of society is socially just and environmentally sustainable.
  • Preparing for our future – building and enhancing the skills, attitudes and values that will ensure a better future for ourselves as individuals as well as for our society and our earth.

Sangati has been used in 905 Municipal schools in Mumbai since last 6 years.

Seeing is believing

Call for six volunteers to play the game. Ask each volunteer to go to a different part of the room and lie down in a different position; for example, one child could lie on her back and look at the ceiling, another could lie sideways at the opposite end of the room, a third could lie on his stomach in a corner.

Now ask each player to describe the view from his or her position. Tell the class to listen carefully to these descriptions. After all the ‘views’ have been described, the players can go back to their seats.

Discuss the game with the class with the help of the following questions.

  • What did each volunteer describe?
  • Were their descriptions similar? Why?
  • Did any one of the volunteers provide a complete description of the classroom? Why?
  • Can we say that the descriptions of all the volunteers put together give us a more complete picture of the classroom?

Sum up the discussion by making the following points.

Since each volunteer was in a different part of the room and lying in a different position, each person’s view of the room was different. We cannot say that anyone was wrong; at the same time, no one gave us an accurate description of what the classroom really looks like. Even if we put all the descriptions together, we don’t get a full picture, but we do get a better idea of the classroom. In other words, looking at something from many different angles gives us a better idea of what it is really like.
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*National Focus Group on Teaching of Social Sciences, NCF, 2005.

The author is the Director of Avehi-abacus Project, Mumbai and is involved in curricular revision at the National and State level. She is member National Executive Committee, SSA and all India Forum for Right to Education. She can be reached at simantinidhuru@gmail.com.