Education is not a commodity

Education lifts people out of ignorance, deprivation and insularity but the Indian State has failed to bolster the necessary good practices

Ratna Raman Delhi 

Across India, things are awry in the field of education. The central and state governments have failed to nurture and foster best educational practices. Their misplaced belief in their role as dispensers of largesse – as if it were a feudal system – has contributed in great measure to this breakdown in Indian education.

Good educational practices cannot evolve if things like providing mid-day meals for children in primary schools and ensuring free education for all children under 14 become an indicator of quality education. Meals and free education are certainly important, but equally important are infrastructure, skilled teachers, scholarships for bright students and adequate emoluments for quality teachers. For political or bureaucratic reasons, or because of pure laziness, the State seems to think its job is restricted to providing sops and incentives to parents so that they send their children to school.

Considering that people under 25 form the largest demographic group in today’s India, it should be the responsibility of the State to ensure that the educational system produces not just literate citizens, but also those whose talents and creativity are nurtured.

As well, given India’s demographic, the demand for educational opportunities has continued to spiral despite a woefully inadequate supply system.

Recently, newspapers carried pictures of parents and relatives outside a school in Bihar climbing walls, literally, in an attempt to provide material that would enable their wards to pass the crucial Class X examinations. Incidents like these illustrate how, in today’s India, parents have become hyper-aware of how important it is to pass these make-or-break exams. 

The system of schooling in India – with its emphasis on the physical sciences, social sciences and language skills – is a legacy of our colonial history. In an ideal world, 12 years of formal schooling (10 years of general education, followed by two years of specialisation in the arts, sciences or commerce) should suffice to, at least, produce competent young adults who are literate and reasonably informed about their core strengths.

Unfortunately, because of the huge disparities – be they socio-economic, urban-rural or caste-based – the school system in India is floundering. The recent refusal by teachers, in a drought-ridden state, to ensure the distribution of free mid-day meals to schoolchildren during the summer break is a case in point. If food relief is the only role for teachers, it becomes apparent that the State has erred seriously in assuming that the primary purpose of education is to feed the stomach, instead of the mind. This lopsided vision has led to people thinking of education as a commodity.

Let’s examine how the State has dealt with languages and literature.  While the scripts of several national languages enjoy pride of place on our currency notes, they remain just that. School-leaving records of most young people across the country show that they are educated in only their second language, up until Class VIII. (The second language is usually the language of the state the child resides in. In some cases, it can also be the child’s mother tongue.) And then, suddenly, from Class IX onwards, the medium of instruction is restricted to one language.

In their years at school, students are barely exposed to language and literature. While there might be some amount of instruction in two languages in ‘progressive’ private schools, in the early phases of schooling, by the time students reach middle school, they have hardly learned anything of the languages and their literature.

Let me offer as an example details of a progressive school in New Delhi.  At this school, in the primary section (Classes I to V), the medium of instruction is Hindi. English, Hindi and Sanskrit are introduced early on.  The school changes over to English as the medium of instruction in all subjects from Class VI, and it remains the medium of instruction till the end of schooling. Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati and Urdu are introduced in Class VI and students are instructed in these languages for three years.  The level of proficiency at the end of these three years of studying a fourth language is very low. Children can barely identify the script or read it, let alone write. It is uncommon for children to take up any of these four languages for further study in senior school. The study of Hindi or Sanskrit is optional after Class VIII. Students study English and choose either Hindi or Sanskrit for the Class X board examinations.  Students spend the last two years in school usually with a single language.

The reason for this disconnect is that there is no sustained gradient in the teaching process and both the first and second languages are taught at the most functional levels, bereft of any literature. This problem has assumed epidemic proportions all over the country. A culture of reading was never an integral part of children’s lives. The idea of a library, filled with enticing books that could be taken down from shelves, remains in the imagination of those young people who learned to love reading despite all odds. Libraries are few, and they tend to be dismal places.

Then, take the writing of an essay. As a writing exercise, the essay no longer features in the curriculum of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the predominant curriculum across the country. Students are encouraged to write brief answers and critical thinking is thrown out of the window. Examiners are instructed not to deduct marks for poor grammar or bad spellings. The maximum marks obtained by CBSE students have remained 97-99 out of 100, for over a decade. Authorities in charge of education seem to believe that an increase in marks automatically indicates an extraordinary Intelligence Quotient. Checks and balances are no longer present in the evaluation process. 

Education ought to be able to lift people out of ignorance, deprivation and insularity. The State has failed to bolster good educational practices or nurture gifted and skilled teachers. Yet, our current Prime Minister says
he plans to export lakhs of Indian teachers to Europe, perhaps on imaginary airships.

At the end of schooling, students need to have access to skills so they can find jobs and become economically able young adults. The inability of the State to foster skills training, and the paucity of vocational institutes, results in thousands of young aspirants entering higher education, whether they want it or not. 

Students with elevated cut-off grades and diminished abilities enrol in universities across the country. Cash-strapped universities, hit by overcrowding and poor infrastructure, are being viewed as new training centres, and the State is now pushing through hastily-cobbled plans to turn the country’s premier universities into providers of vocational training. 

India’s premier universities focus on the best traditions of a liberal humanist education. What they provide is three years of a holistic undergraduate education. A university is a privileged space, that should allow young students to learn and think critically. Universities are seeding grounds for debates, social responsibility, great ideas, expansive thought, sensitivity and inclusionary vision. They must not be reduced to self-financing, self-serving teaching shops. Rigorous academic excellence in all disciplines must remain the defining criteria at every university, if we wish to continue living in a humane and enlightened world. 

University learning cannot be dumbed down in order to make up for the shortage of vocational and skill training centres or the absence of community colleges. The solution is to open more vocational institutes, and not to diminish the stature of existing universities. In any case, vocational training and skills training centres are short-term interim measures. Human development indices the world over are not measured by ‘what is manufactured’ in a particular country or the nature of the services provided.     

The attempt to introduce credit-based courses in semester mode is yet another academic travesty. This examination-centric system puts undue pressure on students and short-circuits the learning process altogether.  Academics call this the cafeteria approach to higher education, because multiple menu choices lead to a reduction in knowledge bases in core disciplines. Cafeterias sell processed, junk food full of empty calories and ignore nutrition issues altogether. 

At a convention about policy directions in higher education, Professor BS Saraswat of the Indira Gandhi National Open University said that the choice-based credits system has been in place in distance learning centres for decades. It has met with little success as students desirous of pursuing mainstream postgraduate courses, or jobs at schools, are turned down because they don’t have much in-depth knowledge in core disciplines. 

Instead of bringing in draconian measures to destroy premier institutions of higher education, the Indian State needs to pause and take stock of the situation. New-fangled programmes relying on uniformity, mediocrity and much-touted technology need to be reviewed and discussed. Tried and tested practices should not be jettisoned.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2015