Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Science Education and Social Justice – A Critical Appraisal

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening of custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving poor...
Jawaharlal Nehru


"Towards a just, equitable, human and sustainable society" is the prominently stated motto of the recently started Azim Premji University with its headquarters in Bangalore. Its guiding principle is that "...  knowledge and learning have human and social consequences and that their pursuit cannot be separated from these consequences". Towards this end the University has started several initiatives one of which is the sensitization of college students to how science education can be a means for promoting social justice. It is in this context that I was requested to give a talk on the theme to a group of final year college science students in Mysore last week.  The material presented here formed the essence of this talk.

Nehru's Vision

It was fortuitous that the first prime minister of Independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a strong background of Science – he was a graduate in the natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge – and had a clear vision of the role of science and science education in both the economic and social development of the fledgling nation. The eloquence of his following passage on the transformative potential of science speaks for itself:

"It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening of custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving poor. Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid. The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science."

One of Nehru's earliest initiatives was in starting a number of major scientific and industrial research establishments and universities for higher learning in different parts of the country.  He looked upon them as the 'temples' of a modern India.
Unfortunately, Nehru's dream of a swift economic transformation suffered from his unrealistic and unimaginative 'socialistic' agenda and that of a social transformation suffered from being probably too far ahead of his times.  He met with little success in either of them in his own lifetime.

The title of this write-up contains four words – science, education, society and justice – each of which is intuitively well understood by most literate people.  However, to understand the connection between Science Education and Social Justice, it is desirable to delve into each of them in some depth by first addressing the following questions:
  • What are the main aims of Education?
  • What is Science?
  • What constitutes Science Education?
  • What is Society, particularly in the Indian Context?
  • What constitutes Social Justice?
Aims of Education
The broad aim of education is two-fold:
  1. Development of the individual in society     to produce a full human personality with courage, conviction, vitality, sensitivity and intelligence so that people may live in harmony with nature and with each other, and
  2. Consequent development of the society – a society reconciling technological and scientific advancement with general well-being and security of its members, enhancing joy of life and eliminating all forms of exploitation.
The primary purpose of education is transformation, not transmission.  The great Irish poet and writer W B Yeats, who first introduced Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali to the western world, said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire".

Education is "... not to condition the students in any particular belief, religious, political or social, so that their minds may remain free to ask fundamental questions, enquire and learn."

What is Science?

This is not a trivial question and no single statement gives a holistic picture of what Science is.  Indeed, no two reputed scientists may come up with an identical description of what science is. 
The following two randomly chosen statements may be taken as typical:

Wikipedia:  Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

Encarta Encyclopedia:   Science is … systematic study of anything that can be examined, tested, and verified. From its early beginnings, science has developed into one of the greatest and most influential fields of human endeavor. Today different branches of science investigate almost everything that can be observed or detected, and science as a whole shapes the way we understand the universe, our planet, ourselves, and other living things.

Science has attained its unique stature today through its successes in understanding the nature of things and happenings in the world and the universe around us.  There is an underlying ‘method of science’ which is well tested, established and applied to solving most problems that we encounter.  The essential steps in the scientific method are: 
  1. Observing something that draws our attention or interest,
  2. Coming up with a tentative explanation (hypothesis) that is consistent with the observations,
  3. Using the hypothesis to make predictions,
  4. Testing these predictions by experiments or further observations and modifying the hypothesis in the light of the findings, 
  5. Repeating steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observations, and
  6. Establishment of a workable theory, principle, law or model as a result of the foregoing steps.
Knowledgeable scientists may look upon the foregoing 'steps' as highly idealized and perhaps stiflingly simplistic, but they still capture the essence of how science has evolved.  One can never discount the role of serendipity and 'accident' in scientific discoveries as also the occasional possibility of a complete hop-step-and-jump from step 1 to step 6.

The basic ‘method of science’ transcends the natural and physical world in its applicability and can be very helpful in tackling problems we face in everyday life as well.  Underlying the scientific method is a firmly established conviction that all natural phenomena occur within the framework of and subject to the laws of science. 

Scientific Temper

The term ‘scientific temper’ embodies everything that makes science so distinctive and different from other human pursuits. It is the mindset that results from repeated reliance on the basic method of science to solve problems of all kinds.  Some of the characteristics of scientific temper are:  open-mindedness, suspension of belief, critical thinking, application of logic and reasoning, avoidance of bias and preconceived notions, readiness to question unsubstantiated claims, disinclination to accept anything on the basis of authority alone, reliance on evidence based judgment, seeking explanations that are consistent with well established laws of science, willingness to consider alternative explanations and subjecting unfamiliar situations to the scrutiny of the scientific method.

Under the Indian Constitution it is a fundamental duty of all citizens "to develop a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform."

A Vision of Science Education

Assuming that a sound foundation has been laid at the elementary and secondary school stages, however improbable and over optimistic it may seem, science education at the tertiary level should aim to impart education in various science disciplines with a strong emphasis on the processes of science inherent in each discipline, bringing out the essential unity of science cutting across the disciplines, and geared to the promotion and practice of a scientific temper, spirit of inquiry and humanism.

Three factors are involved for an effective science curriculum at any level.  These are:
  1. The nature and capabilities of the learner,
  2. The learner's environment – physical, biological and social, and
  3. The purpose of learning (Science).
As enumerated in an NCERT document on the teaching of science in schools, an effective science curriculum should satisfy the following basic pedagogical criteria:

Cognitive Validity – the content, process, language and pedagogical processes should be appropriate  to the learner’s capabilities.

Content Validity – should convey scientifically correct and non-trivialized content.

Process Validity – focusing on methods and processes that lead to the generation and validation of scientific knowledge – should promote learning to learn.

Historical Validity – should enable learner to appreciate the evolution of science concepts with time.

Environmental Validity -  linkage to learner’s environment, both local and global, and preparation to enter the world of work.

Ethical Validity – should promote the values of objectivity, honesty, freedom from prejudice and fear, and develop environmental concerns.


A dictionary definition of Society is that it is a 'structured community of people bound together by similar traditions, institutions, or nationality'.  Wikipedia defines it as a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships (social relations) between individuals who share a distinctive culture and institutions.

Social Justice

The term justice is understood as the fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated and decisions are made.

Social justice denotes the equal treatment of all citizens without any social distinction based on caste, color, race, religion, sex and so on. It also means absence of special privileges being extended to any particular section of the society, and improvement in the conditions of socially and economically backward classes and women.

Economic justice denotes the non-discrimination between people on the basis of economic factors. It involves the elimination of glaring inequalities in wealth, income and property.

A combination of social justice and economic justice denotes what is known as ‘distributive justice’.

Social Justice implies the elimination of barriers to development which, in every society, have been used to oppress historically disadvantaged population groups, especially women, the aged, the poor, children and youth, disabled persons, political and economic refugees, the mentally ill as well as persons who have been disadvantaged on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, social class, caste, and sexual orientation.

Safeguards under the Indian Constitution

With people like Dr Ambedkar in charge of formulating it, the Indian Constitution has built into it numerous safeguards for ensuring social justice, however ineffectually these are being practiced by successive governments, both at the centre and in the states.  The following are some of the more important ones:
  • People's right to "equality before the law" and "equal protection of the laws“.
  • Prohibition of discrimination against citizens on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
  • Authority of State to make "any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens" (besides the SCs and STs).
  • Citizens' right to "equality of opportunity" in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State - and prohibition in this regard of discrimination on grounds of     religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
  • Authority of State to make "any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens.
  • People's freedom of conscience and right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion - subject to public order, morality and other Fundamental Rights.
  • Right of “every religious denomination or any section thereof  …    to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable proposes, ‘manage its own affairs of religion’, and own and acquire movable or immovable property and administer it” in accordance with law.
  • People's "freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in educational institutions" wholly maintained, recognized, or aided by the State.
  • Right of "any section of the citizens" to conserve its "distinct language, script or culture".
  • Restriction on denial of admission to any citizen, to any educational institution maintained or aided by the State, "on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them".
  • Right of all Religious and Linguistic Minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.
  • Freedom of Minority-managed educational institutions from discrimination in the matter of receiving aid from the State.

Human Development

It is obvious that the law has given adequate powers to the state, right from the time of the nation's independence, to bridge the glaring gap between the haves and have-nots in both the social and economic spheres, but there is an equally glaring gap between the intentions and actions on the part of the executive.  Otherwise, how does one account for the coexistence of hungry stomachs with rotting food grains, people dying of extreme cold without even a roof over their heads, small children toiling in sweat shops for little more than a measly meal, children and young girls killed without any compunction to protect 'family honour', girls unable to go to school because no toilet is available near the school premises, the planning commission's sheepishly retracted defense of an income of INR 32 per day as defining the poverty line in urban India!; in short, of 'vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving poor' that Nehru so poignantly spoke about!

Is it just a piece of statistic that 'superpower' India is today ranked as low as 134 among 187 countries in terms of UNO's human development index (HDI)  which assesses long-term progress in health, education and income indicators? To think of this as an actual demotion from the 119th position achieved last year!  The UN report says that "India has the world's largest number of 'multidimensionally poor', more than half of the population, at 612 million". If social injustice is not the root cause of all this, what else is?

Role of Science Education in Promoting Social Justice

Promotion of social justice has always been regarded as one of the primary goals of education in any form and at any level.  Science education has a particularly significant role in this regard.

The unique character and distinctive nature of Science, as exemplified by the ‘Scientific Method’ and the 'Spirit of Inquiry’, empowers and emboldens people receiving a good science education to seek, obtain or dispense social justice, perhaps more effectively than others not so educated. This is evident from a perusal of the characteristics of scientific temper/attitude discussed earlier.

A scientific temper acquired through good science education can counter, arrest and combat discriminative and exploitative influences in the name of religion, race, gender, caste, authoritarian or dogmatic beliefs, superstitions, pseudoscientific, paranormal and supernatural claims, etc., which are tearing apart the very fabric of our society even in this new millennium, long after the nation’s political independence from foreign rule.

Some Examples

The following are just a few examples of how a good science education can have a strong bearing on issues of social justice:
  • A person exposed to the basics of Astronomy is much more likely to understand the fraudulent character of Astrology than the ordinary person.
  • A person understanding the basics of Health and Hygiene is much more likely to understand the effects of a variety of environmental pollutants and adulteration of food and drugs seriously affecting life everywhere.
  • A person exposed to knowledge of Agriculture is much more likely to understand the deleterious effects of chemicals, fertilizers and insecticides on the food we eat and the water we drink.
  • A person exposed to the elements of Geography and Geology is much more likely to understand the absurdity and exploitative character of Vaastu Shastra.
  • A person with a basic understanding of Medicine and Physiology is much less likely to fall prey to a variety of unscientific and even dangerous medical practices.
  • A person with adequate ecological and environmental concerns is much more likely to appreciate how deforestation is disastrous to our lives.
  • A scientifically literate citizen is much more likely to understand the undesirable and even dangerous consequences of a variety of superstitions and irrational beliefs plaguing the society all the time.
  • A person with an understanding of the value of plants and animals to human life is much better able to appreciate the need for protecting and preserving these species in our own larger social interest.
I invite readers to provide more such examples by way of comments on this blog post for wider dissemination.


In summary, Science Education, if imparted purposefully, has the potential to empower and embolden people to seek, fight for and obtain or ensure social justice more effectively than other forms of education. I hope Nehru's vision will not continue to remain a distant dream.

1 comment:

A V G Rao said...

Something must be done to bridge the huge gap that is seen in our country between Theory & Practice.