W hile the West Bengal government continues to ponder on whether to be in the arena of higher education, those involved in the business of education have been left in a quandary by a set of paradoxes. For example, last month, on the eve of admissions at the undergraduate level, Calcutta University directed its affiliated colleges to restrict seats in the general stream. The directive was later retracted. Again, the more industries fold up and the job market shrinks, the more our ministers inaugurate new engineering colleges where the fees are as steep as the facilities meagre.
Something is rotten in our state of education. And attesting to that is the Pratichi Trust’s report on the state of primary education in three districts in the state which exposes the casteist bias in the classroom. Even before the shock of such a revelation sunk in, the minister for technical education came up with a surprise announcement. Plans are afoot to let the students of 90-odd polytechnics and technical colleges evaluate their teachers.
If we study the trust’s report and the minister’s plan together, a curious paradox surfaces. While the system fosters inequality and deprivation based on caste and class at the primary level, at a later stage, it tries to overturn the power balance between the teacher and the student through a radical method of evaluation.
Amartya Sen’s report on the state of primary education, though invaluable, is not really a revelation, since casteism and elitism have been there for a long time and have severely compromised all aspects of learning, from the curricula to the examination system.
The government’s language policy — introduced in the early Eighties and withdrawn 15 years later — is a case in point. No one has bothered to find out why the functional communicative method of teaching English, adopted by many non-English speaking countries, did not succeed in our rural schools. To be effective, the method demands close and live classroom interaction between teacher and student. But in most of our rural and semi-urban schools, the classroom discourse is one of dominance and power, where caste and class often play defining roles.
A glance at the language question papers of the secondary and higher secondary examinations reinforces this view. In an oft-repeated question in grammar, examinees are asked to join sentences with qualifiers like “poor” and “honest”. Beneath the teaching-learning process, there flows a subterranean stream of elitism that wells up at the slightest opportunity and shuts out the underprivileged.
As a result, the field of education becomes an exclusive space, where the also-ran have no place. Thus while an alarming number of underprivileged examinees fail each year in the board examinations, the government organizes lavish felicitation ceremonies for toppers.
A setup that allows this situation to persist while planning to let students evaluate their teachers, speaks volumes about the strange mindset of the state’s policy-makers. Although the National Council of Educational Research and Training and the University Grants Commission have suggested time and again that the new form of evaluation be introduced, teachers’ bodies all over India have rejected such proposals with the excuse that the situation is far from ideal for such a radical scheme to be introduced.
While there may be some truth in the statement, there is also a fear about what students might do with their new-found power. A closer analysis of this insecurity yields an interesting parallel with the British who once ruled this country. They had felt the same way on the eve of the transfer of power and had painted a grim picture of anarchy. While the British had a home to escape to, teachers in Bengal are prisoners of a faulty system who have to reap the bitter harvest of the seeds they have sown at the primary level.