Cartoons in Textbooks are Teaching Tools too

16 May

In this very column, a few weeks ago, we asked for textbooks to be better. To do more to reach out to students and make them think. Think about the decisions they make, the choices they have. To ensure that the range and nuance of information is absorbed, a dash of humour. A little sense of fun, so that the learning does not become a burden.

What can a good textbook in the traditional sense use as a tool to trigger off this virtuous cycle of investigation, analysis and reflection also known as learning? They can use dry prose, as they have done for decades. Admonition and preaching may pass information, but are not enough to build an inquiring intelligent mind. Other tools – case studies, scenario exercises and humour. In words, and in pictures. This is one instance when the textbook makers got it right – when they put in cartoons in the NCERT class XI textbook.

What do you see when you see that cartoon? There is no disrespect at all, neither did the subjects of the cartoon see it as harmful when it was published in 1949. The drawing is very careful, to not imply any attack or harm. Yet the point is made – about the process of making the constitution being long drawn and the sense of urgency of both the political leaders. This is a brilliant visual for a teacher to start a deep and meaningful discussion about the process of making the constitution, the people in charge, the range of concerns, the reasons for the slow progress and the need for a speedy resolution. A strong pedagogical tool has been denigrated here in the name of preventing denigration.

Humour has always been a critical tool of political discourse. Some notable politicians have used it to their advantage, as a gentle (or not) jibe against their opponents. Every court, however cruel has had a court jester – who could say anything. In the guise of the fool, or the humourist, many unpalatable truths were communicated to the ruling classes. India has a grand tradition of Birbal, Tenali Ram and many others who were astute humourists and political players in very rich and powerful courts. Their tales of wisdom wrapped in humour are legend – and part of the informal learning for most Indian children.

Jest is just a way to see the truth differently. It reveals layers of meaning and consequences in such a way that often serious discussions do not and can not reach. There is a role for humour in learning and discourse and of course in politics. For centuries, politicians and those in power have been laughed at more than any other group of people.  Having a thick skin, being able to handle a joke or even a lampoon are essential requirements for a politics. It is in a way a counterbalance to the disproportionate power that is handed to them and a valuable source of informal feedback.

When politicians protest this much, it is just like the line from Hamlet –   ‘The lady doth protest too much” giving rise to more questions – is there something that truly bothered them inside themselves? Something that rang so true, cut so close to the bone that they all erupted in unison. It is only the truth that can hurt so deep. What was it in this cartoon that troubled them so much, what truth did it reveal that even a generation old cartoon was too much to bear?  The response to an situation reveals much about the actors.

A furore over a cartoon wastes valuable parliamentary time. The allegation is that this particular cartoon (maybe a few others in the same book) denigrate politicians. As a tweet rightly pointed out – just watching parliament in action is enough to do so with disruptions, noise, adjournments and a shocking lack of work. Yes, of course parliament does excellent work much of it behind the scenes, but young minds who can be corrupted by this cartoon surely cannot be expected to understand that – they will go by what is shown to them.

These innocent students who do not have the mature minds to understand such cartoons, of course are to be the basis of a parliamentary debate. Not all students – possibly the one hundred reported, and of them, maybe the one who spoke of this page in this texbook. This is a rejection of the work, the research and the expertise that went into making the textbook. There has been no attempt at a national survey that tests what that that one student said about that one cartoon. Just like that, an institution has been bashed and a textbook withdrawn. Sometimes, the only refuge is in mythology – when one mutely points to that Dhobi and his words that sent Sita into the jungle.

This article was published in the Pioneer on May 17, 2012 and is linked here entitled Politicians need to Learn to take a Joke in their Stride.



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