After fifty years of teaching, I am sometimes asked to join public discussions on education. Curiously, I am often the only teacher among the speakers. The others are officials, industrialists, lawyers, bankers, actors, sportspersons — at best, a retired bureaucrat or company director now heading a private university. I feel as puzzled as privileged to be in such distinguished company.
Of course, education concerns everybody: we are all stakeholders. But the logic is not applied to other fields. I have a bank account, but would I figure in an expert panel on banking? I could provide valuable inputs about the sluggish teller in bank X, or the poor perforation of bank Y’s cheque books. One may object that these are absurdly trivial matters. Almost as trivial are many educational issues raised by stalwarts in other fields.
I once shared a platform with a leading banker. For this eminent financier, educational funding was simply a matter of scholarships or loans to the handful of indigent students ranking high in board exams. How does one explain to such persons the frightening resource gap in infrastructure and, above all, the shortage of teachers across India’s 15,00,000 schools — and hence, inevitably, the mounting dropout rates and effective fall in basic literacy and numeracy? Handouts to a few disadvantaged students who have beaten these odds are a self-deceiving palliative. A productive education system for India cannot be bought so cheaply.
Such interplanetary dialogues extend to casual conversation. The real and illusory ills of the education system are a favourite topic for party chatterati. People who would not dream of washing their professional linen in public think nothing of quizzing a fellow guest, say a professor of physics in Calcutta, about the alleged shortcomings of their grandchild’s kindergarten in Mumbai.
Casual complaints about education fall into three categories. The first comes from loving parents and family concerned solely with their scions. Such inputs are anecdotal at best, rarely significant, and made from a purely personal perspective.
The second level is also anecdotal but more serious. Why, runs the inquisition, is my driver’s son or my cook’s daughter unable to draft a letter even after passing the board exam? This genuine educational failure has many causes: poor and negligent teaching in many janata schools, certainly, alongside countless systemic problems that frustrate the most dedicated teacher.
The third level is truly important: when an employer reports that job applicants are consistently found wanting. Such feedback calls for a constructive response. But there are two caveats to make.
First, schools and colleges provide general broad-based instruction, not in-house training for a specific outfit. Such employers should contract with the institutions to run short-term customized courses. That would be a win-win situation for both parties.
My second point is more complex. We hear constantly about market-oriented education. Yet one major ‘market’ is the education system itself: by providing not only teachers’ jobs but also an ecosystem of research, especially fundamental research, often with little or no money-making potential. The United States of America, the seat of industrial capitalism, also has the world’s largest research infrastructure. In India, by a grotesque trivialization, ‘knowledge economy’ has come to imply providing instruction for gain, the so-called ‘education industry’. Nor does it mean a preponderance of industries requiring a high knowledge input, like pharmaceuticals or information technology.
In a true knowledge economy, knowledge is primarily developed without thought of practical application. The applications follow, sometimes very lucrative ones; but to generate that lucrative knowledge, researchers must be free to explore the field without thought of economic purpose. The gainful discovery is the tip of an iceberg of inquiry, mostly in ‘unprofitable’ fields.
This is the most compelling reason why academics should have the final say in educational planning. As things stand, they have virtually no say at all. In 2000, the Prime Minister’s Council on Trade and Industry published the so-called ‘Ambani-Birla report’. It concerned neither trade nor industry but ‘reforms in education’, proposing to commercialize all higher education. The Knowledge Commission of 2005 was headed by an IT professional. Happily, there were seven scientists and academics among the nine persons drafting the current National Education Policy; but the final report, curiously, does not name its authors. The national text-book committee has at least three stellar members in fields totally unrelated to education.
This last dilution is to a different end that we cannot but call political. With due deference to the illustrious members, their presence might be exploited to pass unsound material, all opposition blunted by their star status. After all, this is the curricular climate upturning history, confounding mythology with fact, marginalizing the theory of evolution and the periodic table.
With this go the increasing restrictions on free speech by academics and the drastic curtailment of their control over their own institutions. Forget such small fry as vice-chancellors and research directors; the governing boards of the Indian Institutes of Management can now be dissolved for not complying with government directives. The teacher in the classroom features nowhere on the scene: after all, she can be replaced by massive open online courses (MOOCs).
Our education system has triumphed almost totally in its agenda of disempowering the teacher. Let me add a personal coda. I have been exceptionally fortunate in my work milieu throughout my career. Yet I have persistently felt that any small success my colleagues or I have managed was by fighting the system: I don’t mean minor hurdles on campus but the entire systemic framework at both national and state levels.
As a fourth-generation teacher, I know more about the ills of the teaching community than most of its fiercest critics. I also know of its deep inherent strengths, the commitment and potential of its largest section, which are never allowed free play. The university system is being dismantled since the turn of the century. The state school system never had a chance.
If twenty years down the line, India’s demographic dividend is nullified owing to the workforce’s lack of education, don’t blame the teachers. They might not even be around to blame.
Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University