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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 18, New Delhi, April 17, 2021

Malhotra on Rakesh Batabyal’s The Modern School (1920 - 2020)

Friday 16 April 2021

Book Review

The Modern School (1920 - 2020) A Century of Schooling in Modern India by Rakesh Batabyal, Westland Publication Private Limited, Delhi, 2020, pp. 399.

Like the Apu trilogy, Modern School (1920 - 2020) A Century of Schooling in Modern India by Prof. Rakesh Batabyal can be called as the third part of the trilogy on the history of education in Modern India. The first one is his edited work, The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches; the second JNU: Making of a University; and the third one is the present work on school education, i.e., on the Modern School. Through these works, Batabyal has created a seminal framework for writing the history of education, educational institutions, modernity and the intertwined process of nation-building in the 20th century India. Widely known for his meticulous scholarship on the history of nationalism and communalism in South Asia (see, Batabyal, Rakesh, Communalism in Bengal: From Famine to Noakhali 1943 — 47), he presents us with a grand perspective to locate our nation-building process as envisaged by several nationalist visionaries. The educational spaces, as we come to know, were an integral part of the national movement and this work of Batabyal in fact restores the Modern School, a school founded during those days of the national movement, to its original spirit.

In twelve chapters and a comprehensive introduction and epilogue, the historian has traced the origins of Modern School in old Delhi and its close ideational link to the nineteenth century. In an intricately woven narrative, Batabyal takes us on an evolutionary tour of the school, its constituents, i.e., students, teachers, curricula, and the overall spirit inside its premises, first in Daryaganj and since the 1930s in Barakhambha road. The book also brings in the other campus of the school which opened in a completely new milieu in Vasant Vihar in its ambit. It talks objectively about the context, mission, policies and above all the people associated with the institution.
The contributions of its founding principals, Kamala Bose and then M.N. Kapoor (1947-77), are very engagingly assessed. In a beautiful way Batabyal shows how for both these principals the partition left a message: Bose lost her home to east Pakistan, while Kapur to the west. This also had a lesson, as Batabyal indicates: Modern was not parochial as their Principals form the beginning looked outward without fear. A century of schooling in India, thereafter crafts a very powerful narrative of the way the school finds its way through the Partition, the post independent development of an educational structure in the country and the coming of new economies and societies since the rapid economic prosperity. 

At the surface level it is a work on history of school education in India with critical insights into education patterns, pedagogy, scientific and cultural teaching - practices, educational ethics and institution. As one delves deeper however, a lyrical quality begins to overwhelm the reader. The stories, anecdotes, memories, individual dreams, observations, rich references from Hindi, English and regional literature, all related with major-minor characters are so nicely interspersed that the oft-talked about division between micro-history and grand and meta history seems to get obliterated.

One of the finest moments for the school and the book both come during the most tragic moment for the city: the partition of India, coming of the refugees, and migration of its own old residents to Paksitan. Batabyal’s treatment of the refugee population in Delhi needs commendation as it is for the first time in modern Indian historiography the refugees have been accorded dignity without necessarily harking back to the trope of victimhood, which in any way was already there. The book is also the story of the people, the refugees, who built the Modern day capital of India with their resolve, grit and hard work.

The Modern school is treated with a consciousness, as if it were the Visva Bharati of modern Delhi. The urban context is dealt by the author very well: the urban spaces, emergence of a modern capital city, social mobility, and the recent spectre of alienation and segregation are described in detail. There is a context to schooling at Modern, the context of social groups, economies, dynamics, social power centres and new parameters of the social fabric. With the intricacies of social classes interacting upon the social and cultural ambience, the reader is so engrossed as to find it difficult at times to categorise the book within any particular branch of history. In this sense, it suggests a ‘total’ history.

The book traverses in phases; after delineating the foundation of the school, independence and partition of the country, it describes the M.N. Kapoor era when Modern school emerged as the foremost institution in independent India. By 1977, when M.N. Kapoor left the School, it had become the best in social sciences, arts, culture, science, technology and sports spheres. While dealing with each sphere the author probes into all the antecedents and ongoing debates, reflecting the range and rigour of the scholastic pursuits of the author.

 The new horizons of children’s education in the form of Frobel’s gift — the ‘Kindergarten’, and Maria Montessori’s method of ‘freedom to finding out things for oneself’, coupled with Tagore and Gandhian models resulted in the most complementing amalgamation in the Junior Modern School, inaugurated in 1961. In 1975, Modern School Vasant Vihar (MSVV) was opened, and like the country, was considerably more established, had more resources and enjoyed the fruits of greater development. Throughout, the interwoven themes are - colonialism, nationalism, traditional and modern systems of education, social change, social mobility, economy, curriculum, languages, art, culture, sports, even architecture of various MS, and above all individuals and the collective stake holders - principals, teachers, staff and students.
By the turn of the century with tremendous growth of industrial sector, Delhi became an economic hub with a growing need of manpower at all levels. Delhi soon overtook Mumbai as the most populous city in India and acquired a mantle of stunning contrasts —wealth and poverty, beauty and extreme urban ugliness, generosity and violence. Batabyal presents a scathing analysis of this contrast through the school. The new century brought two significant changes: one, the rising rich for whom education was fast becoming another consumable product, the costlier and fancier the brand the better; and, two, the government regulations that chipped away at the school’s autonomy and its individual way of doing things particularly its admission process and pedagogical style. These changes pressed the need for reinvention on the strength of trusted academic structure and principles, and new branches were opened in Kundli and Faridabad.

Batabyal trusts Modern School’s capability to counter the new challenges of growing crassness and the tardy pace of smudging lines of social inequalities, sustainability and diminishing utopian quest for absolute social justice in Indian society in the future. The optimistic role schooling plays in making the future citizens and leaders engaged with progressive and inclusive social change reflects the author’s faith in Harvey’s co-evolutionary argument of seven interrelated activity spheres. The contesting spheres of technologies and organizational forms, social relations, institutional and administrative arrangements, production and labour processes, relations to nature, reproduction of daily life and mental conception of the world are of consequence here. This optimism is ridden with inherent tensions and contradictions, as all the spheres in search of profit in dynamic interaction with others are subject to perpetual renewal and transformation, where future social change is perhaps contingent rather than determined. In these circumstances, education becomes a larger national, social, cultural agenda which must try to realign the dynamics of capitalism and alternatives.

Batabyal’s work questions the wider context of objectives of education through the case study of a hundred year old urban school of rich people and examines its commitment to moral enterprise and transformation of the society through elite leadership being generated in the school. The undercurrent of the theme relates to the Habermasian theory of knowing with the core of Deweyian thought of social engagement leading to communicative capacity and ultimately communicative action. The book is not about the past, it is rather a key to understand the contemporary and future demands from the education systems and educational institutions in India. It is strongly recommended as a must read for education policy makers and practitioners, interested in understanding the future direction of education in India.

The cover page depicting a beautiful black Saraswati by the eminent artist, Ramkinkar Baij appears anachronistic but is a fascinating metaphor of the amalgamation of tradition and modernity. Similarly, the Modern School motto: Nayamatma Balahinena Labhya, knowledge of self can be acquired only by those who have the desire and strength to acquire it, inspired generations of Modernites to take up the colonial, global and parochial challenges with indigenous excellence, themes and modern thinking.
The author’s uneasiness with the tag of elitist school being attached to the school both by the insider and outsider becomes quite evident at many places. For him, the spirit of the founders of the school as well as its successive generation of principals, teachers and students has been ennobling, and not representative of elitism. Modern was founded, he argues, to further education as an ennobling acquisition, facilitating upward mobilization in a developing society. Education rather than furthering the hierarchies in the given set up, a potentially harmful tendency, is to be seen as a leveller. Clearly the definition of the elite needs to be redefined and refined in the context of cultural and social patterns in a nascent independent nation. Here, the author also looks at education as a nation building agency; the educational programmes may be elite, courses may be elite, syllabus may be elite, languages taught may be elite, books may be elite, communities, societies, institutions and educational institutions may be elitist. But nation simply cannot be elitist. A true democratic nation cannot be selective of its people nor can it insist for a very long time upon the contexts and conditions which include and exclude the people, because people sooner or later will make their rightful place in the dynamics of ever changing patterns of social and cultural matrix as envisaged and proposed in the Preamble.

(Author: Dr. Richa Malhotra, Department of History, College of Vocational Studies, Delhi University)

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