Saturday, 6 October 2012

Education is sinking India: Some reflections on the state of education in India

Bloomberg TV’s The Outsider, featuring veteran journalist Tim Sebastian (of BBC’s HARDTalk fame), has undoubtedly been one of the more intellectually rigorous TV shows on Indian television in the last year. The episodes covered a wide variety of issues—dynastic politics, women’s rights, education, corruption, and so forth. However, since it is nearly impossible to do justice to The Outsider’s oeuvre in one piece, I shall restrict the scope of this paper to one of their motions: ‘Education is Sinking India’.
Education has always been an area that has intrigued me, both personally as well as sociologically; and being a part of this ‘system’—and I still am—I believed that questioning it from time to time was imperative; not necessarily to formulate answers, but to figure out what’s wrong with it.
The debate on The Outsider brought out some interesting insights; but it was, I felt, also terribly blinkered. For one, Mohandas Pai, who spoke for the motion, kept throwing Chinese figures and statistics, and lamented India’s lost “potential”, blissfully side-stepping the cultural and social repression that the Chinese state forces on creativity and critical thought. The panellists speaking against the motion, on the other hand, just had optimism on their side—or as Pramath Raj Sinha put it, in very clichéd terms: looking at the glass half full.
Education, just like most of the topic covered in previous episodes of The Outsider, in an incredibly complex issue; it is a systemic problem—intersecting with politics, governance, public policy, and infrastructure (issues covered by the panellists). But, it is more than just that: it is also an equally social and cultural problematic, embedded in discourses of inequality, power and hegemony. My argument is that the formulation of the motion itself is erroneous; that, it is imperative we identify the deeper problems in education, and not merely address the symptoms. My focus, therefore, is on three specific areas: the structural problems of higher learning; hierarchy among the so-called “streams” and constructed aspirations; and, finally, the impediments posed by state and political ideologies.

Firstly, it is important to look at education in totality, i.e., inclusive of infrastructure, ideology, state policy and culture. For instance, in the debate, Mohandas Pai, in his rather verbose style, threw a lot of names and figures (quite a few of them Chinese statistics), and he did make a lot of sense—particularly his idea of “cramming schools”, like Kota, which train, coach, and brainwash kids in the name of IIT-JEE (Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Exams) preparations. While Pai’s analysis is incredibly insightful and pertinent, it also runs the risk of being symptomatic. We know that 500,000 students apply for 500 seats. But it is equally important to ask why. I think I may have a part of that answer.
It is important to underscore the fact that education is embedded in cultural and social discourses. As a culture, we tend to give more value to a means-end education, which is one of the reasons why engineering and medicine (and to an extent, commerce as a “stream”) are so popular among the India’s middle-class: it is presumed that these courses come with a built-in industry that can absorb students once they’re done with “education”. In my school batch, out of a hundred-and-thirty odd students, I was among the five who opted for the “arts”—and that too voluntarily. Thus, in the social and cultural discourse, there is a predisposition towards categorising education in these “streams”, each with a predetermined trajectory, and internalised by the student as he/she grows up. The fact that so many lakhs apply to engineering and vocational courses—and not a bachelor’s or master’s course—is indicative of an extremely warped mentality among the general Indian public. Add to this the abysmal condition and lack of institutions for higher education in the social sciences and humanities, and to an extent, the natural sciences—although we do have Indian Institute of Sciences—and, the answer grimly presents itself.
Before I discuss the structural problems in depth, I would like to complicate this argument a bit more. Look at the general attitude towards what can be called alternative educational models, like applied arts or sports. The wider cultural and social system is rigged to continually discourage the student who wishes to make a career in any of these two broad fields. I know people who are slugging away in third-class engineering colleges (if they ever attend college, that is) who did not—were not allowed to, more appropriately—pursue arts or sports despite having tremendous potential.  On a social level, excellence in arts and sports does enhance the cultural capital of the student; but most parents are not very keen that their children pursue these interests professionally—indicative of this nice, little beautiful idea we have of “cultured beings”, who, at the end of the day, would conform and have nine-to-five jobs. Yes, there is a larger systemic fault as well, but I am underscoring the importance of the cultural and social systems precisely because I maintain that subjective interest can be equally empowering for the child.

Another important reason why I think education has hit abysmal levels in India is because of two reasons: one, the utter neglect of the teaching profession; and two, the increasing dissonance between schools and institutions of higher learning. One such glaring contradiction is that the term ‘education’, or ‘reforms in education’ fail to address teachers’ education, and the problems of the same. There are tremendous pitfalls and pressures on school-level teaching in the country, particularly the state of Maharashtra. In the course of the academic year, teachers are tasked with bureaucratic functions—within and outside formal academics—like census enumeration, election duty, an ever-changing syllabi and ridiculous pay packets. The majority of teachers, then, hardly have any incentive to engage in meaningful teaching activity (see my arguments in an earlier post).
Higher education, too, apart from a few select institutions and universities, does not attract talent; one reason is the relatively weak theoretical and research-based outlook in academia itself (or, an overemphasis on either); an excessively competitive model; and of course, red-tape, like UGC guidelines on appointing faculty staff—which is why many wealthy families find it more convenient to send their children to less competitive universities abroad, than have then study in, say, a place like Delhi. In order to address this problem, there needs to be an intervention at the schooling level itself; there is a need for flexibility in colleges and universities, which fosters critical thinking; an active pursuit of the re-integration of research and teaching activities. However, it is not merely structural problems that hinder the realisation of this vision for Indian education.

The largest and the most glaring failure, finally, is that we have allowed education to be subject to erratic control by political ideology. We are still entangled in the literacy-versus-education debate, failing to see what can be called alternative modes of education; we are also terribly enmeshed in these discourses and constraints: partly because it can be a very powerful tool of state propaganda, as we saw in Nazi Germany and still see in China; and mostly, as one of cultural and social orientation (read: training us as consumers in the capitalistic political-economy). That said, the arbitrariness of political control over education—like chief ministers and vice-chancellors banning specific theorists and authors from syllabi; or newspapers from libraries; or, of political parties “detoxifying” syllabi; or, in political families appointing heads of public institutions—is indicative of paranoia which seeks to affirm political hegemony by stifling the criticality of education (see Avalok Langer's brilliant critique of education in 21st century India; also, see the Delhi University’s latest move to reduce its ‘Indian History and Culture’ course to a “utility toolkit”, which [is] propaganda masquerading as history).
As cynical as we might be, the space of educational institutions still remains one where resistance to political ideology can be articulated. While criticality and creativity are very important points that education has managed to foster in individuals, there is also a need to contextualise “critical” thought, and dismantle its elitist connotations. The criticality of education should extend both outside, and within in. For example, a farmer in Vidarbha may have crucial and critical insights into the workings of state machinery and irrigation policies—better than most bureaucrats. But we do not see him on a show like The Outsider. Education must, therefore, alongside fostering criticality, also participate in an exercise of inclusion.

It goes without saying that there is a pressing need for education to diversify; that it traverses both theoretical and practical planes, and aids in what social sciences call knowledge production—this time, free of ridiculous regulation; because, even with ideological restraints, and “cramming schools”, education may still contribute to the GDP or GNP (as it does in China, we should inform Mr Pai). But I do not think that is a future most of us should envisage for India—a point I cannot seem to underscore enough. Paradoxically, we must work towards problematising education; dismantle the hegemony of elite institutions, and between the so-called “streams”; and address the cultural and social problems. Only then will we be able to make the necessary steps towards constructively helping education to first, aid itself, and then, the country.

Note: This post has been modified since it's first draft, last year, on the occasion of Teacher's Day. The core arguments, however, remain the same. And as I am currently working in a reading intervention in primary school, where most students are from lower SES families, I have realised the need for a sustained argument on education - as a discourse, a profession, and increasing attempts to make it into an industry.
I do think that the question of primary education is most crucial in a country like ours, where many simply do not have access to education, or even that space of learning. Many inequalities, like that of caste, class or social stratification can be addressed more meaningfully and effectively in the space of primary education.
Putting one over the other does not get us anywhere. The failures of higher education can be traced to the failures in basic, primary education; and, our institutions of higher education are also responsible for the multiple failures and shortcomings in the most basic institutions on learning.


  1. Demotivated teachers are one portrait of what "literacy" has led to. I like that you point that out. Two things worry me most about education: the general assumption that adults (esp teachers) know what is good for the pupil, and generally know more than the student. Secondly, the state (people) funding entrepreneurs to teach. Look at this:

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