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Review: Sexuality in Moral Science and Adolescent Education Textbooks

Black and white drawing of a young boy whistling. Around him is written "drugs", "alcohol", "love affair", "dirty jokes", "cigarettes", "AIDS" in clockwise direction. With each of these words is drawn a representation of that word.

Textbook Regimes: A Feminist Critique of Nation and Identity is a book published by Nirantar that explores the linkages between nationalism, identity and gender in school textbooks. The study attempts to understand the politics of school textbooks, moving beyond standard techniques of addressing gender.This feminist critique uses power as a key concept to analyse how structures and hierarchies are reflected and validated in the content and pedagogy of the language, social sciences and adolescent education/moral science textbooks. By intersecting gender with other categories of caste, class, religion, and with issues of sexuality, the study attempts an understanding of how inequities are recast and communicated in textbooks.

This article is an excerpt from the conclusion of a chapter called ‘An Analysis of Moral Science, Physical and Adolescent Education in Textbooks’ which studies how discipline is shaped in adolescent bodies to manifest in sexuality. The texts analysed include Moral Science textbooks (UP), textbooks for Health and Physical Education as well as Value Education (Gujarat) and Adolescence Education/Life Skills education (West Bengal, New Delhi and national level).

It is in the Moral Science, Physical Education and Adolescent Education (AE) textbooks that the body firmly becomes the site for communicating socially acceptable behaviour. The overall objective might be couched in terms varying from ‘character building’ to the more recent ‘behavioural change’, yet the overall purpose is to prescribe norms regarding self and society.

Sexuality emerges as a key component of these norms, and crucial linkages emerge between sexuality and the nation. Norms related to sexuality prove central to defining who a citizen is. What also emerges are patterns that are strikingly similar in seemingly dissimilar texts.

The manner in which adolescence itself is constructed is very interesting, revealing as it does a great deal of anxiety about adolescents and the kind of threat they are perceived to pose to the nation. Discipline, fear and control make for a highly status-quoist educational agenda.

On the face of it, the Moral Science texts and the AE material appear to be different. In some ways, the Moral Science textbooks could be viewed as the site for the construction of modernity. Also, the perception is that the AE material is more radical in the sense of being more sexually explicit, in contrast to the didactic asexual nature of Moral Science textbooks. However, in the course of this study it became clear that the two sets of materials are part of the same continuum. This, despite the more overtly religious/value-laden nature of the Moral Science material, and the claims to being scientific and learner-centred of the AE material.

We found that while the AE material struggled with the modernity-related agenda of HIV and AIDS prevention, and as a result felt pushed to address ‘sex’, overall it located itself in a moralist and instrumentalist framework. The AE materials try to draw upon tradition to combat the demands of morality. References are made to ‘our’ Indian culture: the subtext is that even though the material has to respond to the demands of HIV and AIDS and talk about the body and sex, it will do it in a manner that does not compromise ‘our’ culture.

For example, while being forced to talk about condom use, it asserts that marriage is the only legitimate space for sex and tells adolescents that if they follow the rules, they will gain social protection. Another way in which the AE material seeks to deal with the demands to modernity is to take an anti-globalisation and anti-Western ‘decadence’ stance. At times it is modernity itself that is drawn upon to deal with the anxieties. For example, the AE material resolves its inhibition to address the body by dealing with it in a technical, medicalised manner.

However, the writers of the AE material are not entirely successful in their effort to resort to tradition. They try, not always smoothly or successfully, to compromise tradition and modernity – at some point in the text they may be scientific in the information they give, but a few pages later they contradict that with a more conservative voice. With the AE material we find that there is an anxiety-ridden, clumsy to and fro between tradition and modernity.

The Moral Science books are more direct and the problems in their perspective, their biases, are obvious – be it gender, sexuality, caste, class or religion. This is made possible also because religion is the source through which these textbooks draw their authority to define what is moral.

In the case of AE, there is no such categorical grounding that informs the content. Despite claims to the contrary, the paradigm is not even scientific. Therefore one finds that the AE material, unlike the Moral Science texts, do not venture near the question of ‘why’, nor do they offer any answers. This leaves the reader with a sense of having passed through a haze, mist if you like, coming out of which one is not quite sure what it was that was sought to be communicated.

The continuum between modernity and tradition is apparent also in the fact that although the AE material appears to be modern by creating an illusion of agency and choice, of being learner-centred and interactive, it is in effect status quoist. The Moral Science material is openly authoritarian and expresses its biases and intentions in clearly stated ways. The AE material also seeks to control and discipline, but instead of strictures it does this through the more subtle and insidious means of creation and strengthening of norms – through ideas of what is more often woven in terms of assumptions: who is being imagined as the citizen -subject, the nature of concerns being addressed, by projecting a particular reality (for instance, a Hindu, middle-class nation) and maintaining a silence about certain realities. For example, the AE material does not have explicitly anti-women statements, but in being gender neutral, it fails to address gender injustice.

While the Moral Science material is simply moralistic, we find in the AE material a cocktail of moralistic, medical and modern. So AE material will seek to appear to be scientific and to provide factual information. It will even go as far as to say that the only solution is information. When information is provided it is strongly informed by moralistic perspectives and anxieties about sex.

The ideologies underlying Moral Science and AE are not that different. Both want to discipline, both are moralistic, judgemental, fear-inducing, highly negative in their attitude towards sexual desire. Both don’t address rights. Unlike the more ‘hammer and tong’ approach of the Moral Science books, in the AE material, one needs to look more closely at how normativities are being created. We have to look out for the assumptions and for how ideas of ‘what is’ and/or how ‘it should be’ are being constructed.

Normativities have emerged as being critical in the construction of the nation. The nation demands homogeneity, including sexual homogeneity. The nation also requires discipline in order that its citizens fall into the homogenised mould required.

The construction of the nation is also one which emphasises duties, not rights. The focus of the materials is on individual, not social responsibility. Therefore violence is a problem that has to be dealt with by the individual adolescent girl. She has to protect herself. An understanding of the reasons underlying violence, information about laws or responsibilities or institutions do not form part of the material. The private-public dichotomy, instead of being challenged, is further strengthened.

Sexuality emerges as an important lens in the analysis. This is because of the strong agenda in the material of controlling sexuality. Young people are seen as being potentially disruptive, particularly in terms of their sexual behaviour. It is important to note that even when the material is not addressing sex, sexuality is being constructed, and immediately controlled. The overwhelming message to ‘say no’ pervades the entire AE material. Whether it is caffeine or excessive TV, the culture of discipline and control seeks to impose certain sexual norms. Sexuality is the site where the dynamic between modernity and traditions plays itself out clearly (whereby modernity seeks to assert itself but also is delimited and justifies its delimitation with reference to tradition). Sexuality also emerges as critical in terms of the nation, in terms of the need for sexual homogeneity – a uniformly heterosexual population that must reproduce itself – and this in turn plays a crucial role in defining citizenship.

Our analysis of AE materials shows the importance of global influences. For example, the impact of the HIV and AIDS agenda emerges as being critical. This cannot be captured merely by the number of pages devoted to the topic – HIV and AIDS agenda ensures that the AE material is instrumentalist. In order to control sexual behaviour, the entire agenda of the material is to control and discipline young people, even when it is not addressing HIV and AIDS. The desire to control also involves generating fear, which impacts the very construction of adolescence as a traumatic phase of life. The analysis has also shown the influence of the neo-liberal paradigm since everything in young people’s lives has to be ‘managed’. The thrust of the material is to be goal- and performance-oriented.

Neither the Moral Science nor the AE material can be said to constitute ‘education’. All principles of education are violated by the materials analysed. The agenda is one of drilling messages, not of enabling young people to build a critical understanding of their realities. The method used in the material is fear-generation. Although not articulated as such, in effect the AE material in particular constitutes Behaviour Change Communication[1] material. Behaviour Change Communication cannot be a substitute for an educational curriculum. The agenda of Adolescence Education cannot be merely limited to behaviour change. An educational curriculum has broader objectives such as enabling critical reflection. Educational curriculum needs to enter the realm of understanding the structures underlying existing behaviour and the motivation for behaviour change. Both the Moral Science and AE texts are highly instrumentalist. The adolescent, clearly, is not at the heart of the material.

Source: Bhog, Dipta, Mullick, Disha, Bharadwaj, Purva, & Sharma, Jaya (2010). Textbook Regimes: A Feminist Critique of Nation and Identity, An Overall Analysis (2nd ed.). New Delhi: Nirantar.

[1] This tool is being extensively used in programmes, HIV and AIDS programmes in particular, around the world. Behaviour change communication (BCC) is the strategic use of communication to promote positive health outcomes based on proven theories and models of behaviour change. BCC employs a systemic process beginning with formative research and behavior analysis, followed by communication planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. Audiences are carefully segmented, messages and materials are pre-tested, and both mass media and interpersonal channels are used to achieve defined behavioural objectives.