Monday, 30th October 2017

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THE CULTURE SHOCK - How the meltdown has changed what children might learn

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By Ashok Mitra
  • Published 30.03.09

Parlous times, unless well-versed in the culture built around ‘quiz’ programmes, one would hardly be considered civilized. In one such programme, participants are grilled on their knowledge of the exact length of La Manche, otherwise known as the English Channel: is it 563 or 564 or 565 kilometres? Another ‘quiz’ wants participants to pick the number of children Queen Victoria bore: six, eleven, or whatever. Yet another demands to know whether the Gettysburg Address was delivered on March 25, 1865 or on February 28, 1860 or on November 1, 1863.

Not just in India, but over the entire subcontinent too, a child’s intellectual prowess is being judged by the criterion of his or her ability to cope with frivolities of this nature. How does it matter to the realities of living for children in these former colonial countries if the length of the English Channel is a kilometre more or a kilometre less, or whether the Gettysburg Address was delivered on this particular date in the 1860s? To be well-informed on the number of children that prim woman, Queen Victoria, gave birth to is surely not a matter of life and death, either, for South Asian children circa the first decade of the 21st century. It could not, but it is being made out that it is. A great colonial haze hovers over the post-colonial sky. Why get het up, some may interject, every society has the freedom to indulge in quirks and foibles that are, while silly, basically harmless; if an afterglow persists in former colonial territories of the paradise the colonies supposedly were, why not let it be, such slides into nostalgia, after all, do not interfere with the life and living of others.

Do they not really? A child’s mind can absorb only so much of information; if junk fills that space, acquisition of knowledge that is of overwhelmingly far greater significance is bound to be crowded out. Little point pretending otherwise, the quiz programmes are targeted for the younger generation of our creamy layer currently enjoying a cushy existence thanks to economic liberalization. This class has come to easy money, for which it feels beholden to the Western world. Its members have reasons to take madly to Western ways. But easy money also encourages superciliousness and fosters an inability to distinguish between the worthwhile and the worthless. Therein lies the problem. In the given social framework, the vacuity of mind amongst the rich influences the roster of daily existence of children belonging to lower echelons. Once, within their circle, it is a matter of pride for sons and daughters of affluent households to know the precise length of La Manche, it becomes essential for children from financially far worse off families too to be equipped with the same load of junk; otherwise they will not be able to survive the competition. Like it or not, the ideas of the ruling classes are the ruling ideas: perhaps it is safe to have a stockpile of silly facts tucked away in the memory cells; who knows, during a job interview, those presiding over the interviewing board, usually coming from the same shallow stratum of the wealthy class, might ask for the name of Thomas Jefferson’s mistress.

There is a material base for the passion for Western flippancy. It took the nation’s leaders a long half-century to discover the bliss of comprador existence. The discovery was linked to the exploration of an export sector that laid the golden egg. Fabulous earnings started to flow in from two main sources: earnings of the information technology sector and remittances from overseas, including those from the burgeoning army of H1-B visa-holders. Thanks mostly to American outsourcing, India’s software exports began to gallop at the annual rate of 30 to 40 per cent, thereby contributing to an annual gross domestic product growth of eight to 10 per cent. The country’s elite could not quite believe their luck. The initial shock of delight soon transformed itself into a cockiness: they are shining, therefore the whole of India must be shining. The datum that they constitute a minority of the nation’s population was of no consideration. They could afford such hauteur, for, given their asset holdings, they controlled the polity, which in turn meant control of the system. It also meant being arbiters of the mores of education and culture.

The colonial era made a thumping comeback. Even as money from outsourced contracts gushed in, the number of H-1B visas swelled, swelling in turn the size of the Indian diaspora. Despite their location away from home, the NRIs, so-called, have consequently come to fill an increasingly larger space in the domestic political arena. The diaspora did overseas lobbying for the domestic elite. They also learnt to subsidize, without particular discrimination, domestic political parties. The grand coalition of the creamy layer at home and the diaspora emerged as determinants of Indian culture and civilization. It is terribly important in the context of this nascent, but assertive, cultural milieu that the members of the new generation do not mess up the dates of earthshaking events in the United States of America and Europe.

The beastly recession now threatens to cause disarray in everything. The Americans, how unkind, have decided to cut down on the number of H-1B visas. Much worse, American firms are under official instruction to accord preference to American boys and girls over holders of H-1B visas when making job offers. Should this decision be enforced retrospectively, thousands of Indians would be thrown out of work in the United States of America; the expatriate community would shrink and the jobless would return home to join the huge army of the unemployed.

More ominous is the other fast-gathering cloud. Outsourcing is amenable to the interpretation that it denies employment at home in order to create employment abroad. American labour does not approve of the practice, nor does the American electorate. Barack Obama can make nice liberal speeches soothing to Asian ears, but he has to abide by the wishes of those who voted him to power. He is disbursing hand-outs of extra-generous proportions, including tax subsidies, to corporate bodies afflicted by the hard times, even where these bodies might have themselves contributed substantially to the onset of the hard times. There is a catch though: firms which outsource work will be cut out from the tax benefits. This executive order is going to hurt badly India’s IT sector; its annual rate of growth may plummet from 30 per cent to even less than 10 per cent. And once that happens, it would be gloomtime all around, including for the domestic affluent set. That might bring in its train a cultural shock. Indian children have been exhorted in recent decades to learn all that is learnable about La Manche and the Grand Canyon, they have however been kept away from knowing basic facts concerning their own land, people and environment, such that the good life they are enjoying is a gift of foreigners which could be suddenly taken away, or that, despite the splendour of urban flyovers and shopping malls, ours is a horribly poor country.

Is the argument going to be that children at their tender age ought not be burdened with these unsavoury facts? But, then, children from poor and deprived families cannot be stopped from learning from the school of life. And if quiz programmes are a must, why not ask our youngsters whether they know the exact date of the Dandi March or what the Chittagong armoury raid was or — was the story Godaan authored by Rabindranath Tagore or Munshi Premchand or Sumitranandan Pant?