Making Education a Collective National Challenge

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Photo by Githa Hariharan

Though somewhat old fashioned, one of the several perspectives on education is that it is all about knowledge. There have been other perspectives too, that held sway in different phases of human history. For early man, it was probably of prime importance for the very survival. In ancient times, after humans entered the agricultural mode of civilization, it came to be respected as a repository of collective memory. Much later, it acquired the function of training young minds, perhaps in the interest of preserving the social order, or, simply, because the collective memory had by then gained autonomy. For the last few centuries, education has become a regime of scrutiny that a young one must imbibe in order to be socially acceptable, economically productive, and politically non-volatile. Just as the objectives of education have changed through history, the formal arrangements for its transmission and reception have also passed through transitions from epoch to epoch.

In our time, education is, once again, facing the need for a complete metamorphosis. Often, the “sea-change” so rapidly taking place in the human idea of education is placed alongside the question of knowledge. Thus, Lyotard’s analysis of the post-modern condition proposed a wide scattering and utter fragmentation of knowledge in the twenty-first century into “knowledges” pegged not on analogy, but on what he called “paralogy”. Throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century a large array of theory went into the archaeology of knowledge to highlight the epistemic shift in human knowledge.

Two major factors – at least the most visible and easiest to grasp, as well as with an unusual power to hurt or to please – made their presence felt precisely at the same time when the established idea of knowledge was going through a seismic shock. One, the post cold-war western economies began to unleash an unprecedented disinvestment tendency in the field of education; and two, a development in the field of artificial intelligence and chip-based memory began questioning the content in established educational practices. The order of the day became governments keen on cutting the public costs of education and institutions, cutting thereby some of the more traditional fields of knowledge from the gamut of institutional education. While this was happening in the West, and surely as fallout in the countries that had accepted the idea of a universal knowledge and, therefore, a “universal idea of education”, some of the UN agencies were raising alarm signals on the plummeting development index in the global South.

Thus, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, in countries like China and India, there appeared a mixed and fairly confused situation in the field of education. On the one hand, the number of universities multiplied as never before in history; on the other, governments actively promoted the idea of education as a kind of industry that cannot be developed without private enterprise. Lo and behold, in India, if one had been talking of a 130 universities at the beginning of the decade, by its end, the number was in four digits. We have today several categories of universities: national universities, central universities, state universities, deemed universities, open universities, private universities and foreign universities operating through franchise arrangements, some of these as large as an enviable industrial empire, and others tiny as laptop shops. Added to these are nearly 60,000 institutes of tertiary technical education. This should be a thing to welcome, except that the explosion of institutions has precisely been the phase of the state’s accentuated withdrawal from the field. The UPA governments trod this path and the present government is, likewise, treading it. The torrential invasion of ICT and the drying up of state patronage to all fields and disciplines of knowledge have, together, created new rapids, new pitfalls, new puzzles, and new unfilled spaces in the field of education in India. Here is a random and a merely symptomatic snapshot of the “news” in the field.

The country has watched on television, and read in newspapers, the gruesome and blood-curdling scam involving tens of thousands of young persons whose education was not equal to the requirement of intellectual competence expected of them. So they went out seeking relief through impersonation, bribery, cheating, and simply falling prey to greed and murderous crime. If this shameful and horrifying scam took place in a short calendar space, the intellectual and moral rot upon which it stands has been around for quite a while. Saying this is not a defence of the scamsters – vicious as they are – but a necessary comment on the larger scale tragedy and deception of which the young in India are hapless victims. Add to this sordid tale of mockery of knowledge the mediocrity and greed witnessed on the campus of practically every university and research institution. Add also the neglect of several key fields of knowledge and academic disciplines that makes knowledge generation hugely lopsided and heavily laden with the idea of “knowledge for profit”.

The decay and decline of the idea of a knowledge institution is exacerbated by frequent intimidation and brow-beating of institutions that still care to produce thought and raise challenging questions. This show of raw strength matches the show of unmasked affection for the like-minded or the kinship-blessed when it comes to offering academic positions. If these happen to be key-posts, they are perceived as unquestioningly political positions; and going by this principle, interference in the autonomy of knowledge institutions is seen as the constitutional prerogative of the regime. It does not matter if the institution in question is a prestigious institute of technology, university, national academy, museum, research council or a public body for research and teaching. The principle is simple: if we pay you, you shall play the tune of our choice. No matter if the tune hurts the foundations of knowledge, or if it diminishes the quest for knowledge, or destroys the ability to raise new and meaningful questions that go into making education a pursuit of knowledge. It is as if knowledge is no longer at the heart of education.

Looking at this snapshot, I am woefully aware that it is more a selfie than a sting clip. As someone involved in universities and research over the last four decades, I feel amply guilty about the state of education in India. I should also add that despite the sickening snapshot of the field, there are innumerable individuals, and numerous exceptional institutions, that have shown brilliance, and contributed to furthering research and the advancement of knowledge. But it is the presence of these individuals and institutions that makes the point even more pertinent. Had there prevailed a general atmosphere of institutional autonomy and respect for new ideas and thought, these numbers could have been much larger than the numbers associated with the public examination scams. The point, really, is that academic excellence no longer appears to be the goal of education.

If we step back in history a little, we notice that from the beginning of the nineteenth century, every major Indian thinker, social reformer, scientist and writer has grappled with the question of education in modern India. These “makers of India” include not just Tagore, Gokhale, Tilak, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Ambedkar, and other such historically visible personalities; but also the less visible such as Sayajirao Gaekwad in Gujarat, Bhaurao Patil and J. P. Naik in Maharashtra, Mahatma Hansraj in the North, and those who set up village-level schools or high schools and colleges in various cities through the length and breadth of India. The fact is that modern education in India has not been merely a public institutional system set up only, or primarily, by the state. It is also a cultural product for which a very large number of selfless individuals have given their all. Their vision and creation cannot be seen as a government undertaking, ready for disinvestment when such a move suits the economy.

Unfortunately, after independence, none of the greater visions of education suitable for sustaining the innate strengths of Indian society got organically integrated with education, particularly higher education in India. The idea of producing engineers and doctors as manpower for economic development gained predominance, and secondary school education was crushed by this pressure. The English language alone was seen as the language of knowledge. Easier access to employment for those with access to the English language drove the entire primary school education inexorably to the learning of English. Though there is nothing wrong, per se, with the idea of schooling through the English language, it is a scientifically established fact that education in one’s mother tongue gives young learners a far greater ability to grasp complex abstract concepts. All in all, we now have millions of children who simply drop out because there is nothing in school that can hold them back. Those who continue, have to study in a way that their ability to think originally is systemically curtailed at an early age. When they cross the school age and move to higher education, the institutional rot there leaves little space for them to acquire any genuine intellectual interest, let alone research skills. The college level institution too defines “success” in terms of “placements for jobs”, and on how high graduates can command a first salary. What about knowledge, thinking, questioning, reasoning, quest, research and the pursuit of truth? They are the marginalized beings in the arena of the human resource development: bad news for the nation, bad news for humanity.

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Under these circumstances, the state needs to take a hard look at the situation of schools, and the idea of schooling itself. This is easier said than done. Yet the need can only be ignored at our collective peril. What can be sadder than the fact that the primary school teacher’s job is the very last on the priority list of educated young persons in India? Instead of turning this woeful situation around, we are collectively forcing the school teacher to tow the political line – whether in Bengal or Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat.

Similarly, state support to the universities and institutions should be entirely merit-based. What great good did the Communist regime in the former USSR or China do to the development of research by forcing the academic community to subscribe to their doctrine? What good did the Iranian government do to its universities by forcing only the Islamic vision of knowledge on the professors and writers in Iran? What great good will the present government in India do by expecting academics to subscribe only to a certain understanding of history or culture?

History has more than ample testimony that such moves result in the emasculation of the intellectual capital of a given society. Nationalism and a genuine respect for the cultural past will emerge only if young minds are exposed to all ideologies, all versions of truth, and then encouraged to decide on their own what is worth respecting and what should be discarded. Not even the best among the Indian universities are able to create and nurture such an intellectually vibrant ethos. Besides, if you try to be vibrant and that vibrancy is going to be termed as anti-state, none but a few shall ever make the attempt. In the process, India will be the loser.

Finally, disinvestment may be a principle worth trying out, or it may even a dire need of the hour; but if privately invested institutes drive the entire educational system to the single goal of material success, safeguarding and nurturing the materially less attractive branches of knowledge should become one of the top priorities of the state. Disinvestment – even when it bears the attractive name of public-private-partnership – without the “knowledge responsibility” for the materially non-gainful disciplines, may become the last nail in the coffin of “knowledge”. If the principle of corporate social responsibility can be invoked to improve the access of those made vulnerable by the processes of globalization, why can’t the government impose the responsibility of setting a chair of philosophy or aesthetics, or music or linguistics, in a state university based on the private technology and management universities that are today free to make profits out of education? If our education continues to drift aimlessly, and is only assessed quantitatively; if it is pressurized to follow only certain ideologies rather than giving it a chance exposure to all ideologies, ‘isms’ and perspectives; if the public institutions built through people’s sacrifice; and public funds are not allowed their dignity and autonomy, will India be able to stand with pride in the global arena of knowledge? All of us need to reflect on these questions. Most of all, those who bear the responsibility of giving young Indians what they deserve as citizens of a great democratic country with a diverse heritage, need to probe these questions. It is time the powers-that-be shifted attention from attempts to silence and intimidate those who dissent, and from attempts at covert or overt indoctrination, to the question of Indian education as a collective national challenge.

G. N. Devy is an academic and literary scholar who writes in English, Marathi and Gujarati.