What is worth teaching, learning and exploring is a crucial issue for any educational system and institution. Somehow this does get decided. This is not just about today, but has been true for thousands of years.

Through the history of education, religious bodies have played a pivotal role. The Church, the Muslim clergy, etc., and, if you were to look further back, the Buddhist Sangha, have been key stakeholders in education for most of history. So what was to be taught, learnt and explored was determined by theological priorities.

In practice, this translated into a wide range of institutions. Nalanda and Takshashila were centres of learning with very broad and eclectically determined areas of study, not entirely driven by Buddhist concerns. On the other hand, madrasas in the middle of last millennia were focused mostly on religious study.

Let’s jump to the present, and ask ourselves this question: how do we today decide what must be the matter of study in our schools and colleges?

The answer seems so obvious that the question doesn’t seem worth asking. It seems clear the government somehow handles this issue. It also seems obvious that the government doesn’t decide this in an arbitrary fashion, but gets this done through some group of sensible people, who in turn must be following some thoughtful process.

As we go deeper into this issue, it becomes more complex, and also more confusing. It’s not so difficult to intuitively understand how this group of sensible people decide, for example, “whether to study physics or not”; it becomes more difficult to understand how is the decision made that studying biology is more important than studying carpentry, or how much relative importance must be given to studying languages vis-à-vis mathematics. It becomes more complex when you look in the next level of detail, e.g., within geography do you pay more attention to physical geography or to social geography and then what topics to take up in what detail.

It’s apparent by now that what seemed like a fairly simple question, hides many complexities. But we can still take comfort from the fact that the bunch of sensible people charged with this task will somehow do a reasonable job. After all they have probably been chosen because they understand these issues well.

Let’s not forget that these people were chosen by the government. We should also ask why should it be that the government has the mandate to take this decision, in the first place.

The answer seems obvious. Since education is a crucial social good, a definite avenue for developing individuals and society, decisions related to education must somehow be determined by larger social will, factoring in social, economic and cultural concerns. The government is representative of this social will. There is also a defined process of functioning of the state, e.g., what issues can be decided by the executive, what by the legislature.

It must be obvious that I am simplifying matters, and brushing away nuances, but we are not missing the broad nature of this thing.

Let’s mull over a more controversial and intriguing thought. What would the group of sensible people, acting as agents of the government, which in turn is representative of the will of the people decide on what should be stated as the origin of the universe, as a matter of study. Is any of us surprised (in India at least) that origin of the universe is not attributed to divine creation, in standard school curriculum, though that may well be the prevalent belief in the country.

So somehow in this particular matter (as in many others) the accumulated wisdom of humanity overrides the seeming current “collective will and belief”.

Actually what gives legitimacy to this override is the expressly articulated vision of our society. This vision is built by us, most concretely represented in our Constitution. The Constitution makes us secular and emphasizes scientific temper. Which is where the legitimacy of this (and many such) overrides comes in to being. The good thing is that we intuitively understand this in our country.

It’s such situations that make it clear that the choice of what to study is not driven primarily by some here-and-now collective desire. It is driven by a methodical and cumulative set of choices which are in consonance with our vision of our society and its individuals. It is also validly drawn from the generally agreed (and accumulated) body of knowledge that humanity currently has.

Ordinarily, the group of sensible people do a good job of this and have done so in our country. But once in a while they are overruled by the state (or some wing of it). When this overruling is to protect our constitutional ideals, it has legitimacy. However, when it is driven by political expediency it has little or no legitimacy.

The guardians of our Constitution and its ideals have decided to drop a cartoon from a textbook, and are considering banishing all cartoons from all curricula; does this override have the legitimacy of the constitutional vision, or is it an act of populist, political expediency?