Educators and their epistemic responsibility

Educators’ epistemic responsibility includes consideration to how and what children will understand, and educating them on the possible use and misuse of knowledge

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Should Tipu Jayanti be celebrated or not is a debate that is raging in parts of Karnataka. This is a social and political issue, the fundamental underlying point being whether Tipu Sultan is justifiably a symbol of something worth celebrating today. This is not the issue that I will go into, but will narrate a related matter from my school days.

We first encountered Tipu Sultan in our history class and books, in middle school. We learnt of the heroic Tiger of Mysore, the inveterate resistor of British imperialist expansion in India, who combined courage with cunning strategy and technological innovations, through a life that seemed like an endless campaign.

He was also an enlightened ruler, not discriminating on religious grounds, and ruling for the well-being of all his subjects.

After I moved to Bangalore (now Bengaluru) in the early 1990s, I gradually learnt of a fuller (not full) picture of Tipu and his life.

In addition to the things that I had learnt at school, his life (like most other rulers) had its own dark episodes, ranging from his continuous aggression against Kodagu to the brutal actions in quelling the rebellion in Malabar. From the varnished book hero that Tipu had been made, he turned into a more real figure in my mind.

Tipu was a ruler with his share of remarkable and reprehensible actions. He was certainly an energetic and forceful figure, who cannot be posted to the margins of history.

The problem with this fuller picture is that it cannot be classified neatly as a hero or a villain. Depending on the part of his life we focus on, he can be a symbol of the good or of the bad, in the current context of what we value. Which is why whether or not to celebrate Tipu Jayanti has become a real and live sociopolitical issue.

Let me use the evolution of the image of Tipu in my mind to discuss something that may sound esoteric, but is actually simple and central to education. This is the matter of epistemic responsibility of educators. The word “epistemic” means relating to knowledge or to the validation of knowledge.

The text books and teachers who introduced me to Tipu in middle school did not paint an adequate picture of the man and his life. No life from the past can be reconstructed in full, let alone for school children. But the error in this case was the omission of a part of his life which was the darker side.

I am speculating here, but I would think that this omission was deliberate, to not inconvenience the notion of the heroic Tipu. Or perhaps it was only an attempt to simplify his story, for 12-year-olds to grasp.

In either case, the knowledge that we gained about Tipu was substantively inadequate and one-sided. My educators did not discharge their epistemic responsibility adequately. We learnt a half-truth, what was left out was also important and relevant.

Let’s take a simpler and clearer matter. We would expect that educators would know that one of the first principles of education must be that what is being taught must be true. This seems so basic that it doesn’t seem worth pointing out. But matters do get complicated in the real world of education.

At the extreme there are educators wanting to extol the glorious past of India, exemplified by airplanes during the times of Lord Rama and genetic engineering in the Vedic period.

Such things do not pass muster of any kind, certainly not of expert examination of evidence or of rational public scrutiny, and so they are untrue and must not be taught.

But this doesn’t satisfy people who may think that knowledge revealed in scriptures needs no further justification. Even in the modern world, a theocratic society and state, may take scriptures as sufficient basis for knowledge.

But we won’t, and so the on-the-ground epistemic tension is very alive. It is even more visible in how astrology, the effects of eclipses, the miracles of local deities and a host of other phenomenon are dealt with in class.

The epistemic responsibility of educators includes best efforts to present all sides of knowledge, not just part of it, as in the example of Tipu.

It also involves educating the students on how knowledge is arrived at, including its validation. Such education on the method (different across disciplines) of arriving at knowledge, safeguards against accepting false beliefs as knowledge, and implies that all knowledge is tentative. Fresh evidence can arrive and may upturn our current knowledge.

Educators must not stop here. Their epistemic responsibility includes due consideration to how and what children will understand, and then educating them on the possible use and misuse of knowledge, its relationship to other knowledge and to life, and its possible moral and ethical implications.

While all this may seem too complicated for school education, it actually need not be so in practice. A good curriculum can enable such an epistemically responsible approach. Though, even that can’t substitute personal epistemic responsibility that each educator must bear, it is at the heart of their professional educational responsibility.

Anurag Behar is the chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

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