Monday, May 27, 2013

Indian education for Indian students

 Even as the energies of Delhi University’s (DU) faculty and administration are absorbed in battling over the four year program, few are questioning the raison d’etre of higher education more broadly.  The real questions today are not how long a degree should be, but the extent to which universities enable their students to think critically and analytically, and the way in which university education builds upon the much larger stock of knowledge available in the world. In particular, the major challenge is how to perform the difficult balancing task of being both disinterested – seeking knowledge for its own sake; and engaged with the issues of society. 

While DU’s Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh is justifiably concerned only about his own university, the real fault lies with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). Rather than enabling a few elite students to merge seamlessly into the US higher education system, the grounds on which Minister of State, Shashi Tharoor, justified DU’s four year program, the Ministry should think of ways to improve what passes by the name of higher education in this country as a whole. A little travel by cattle class to rural degree colleges might help.  In some places, leave alone students, even their teachers are hard put to name a single book they have read in the last year. In others, committed college teachers face considerable odds, including long hours of teaching at low remuneration which leaves them with little time for research, mindboggling commutes, no library facilities and first generation learners for whom there are no vernacular textbooks. A four year program under these conditions would make no sense at all, and for one university, even one as large and prestigious as DU, to function out of sync with the rest also makes little sense.

More importantly, however, higher education cannot be taken out of the context of education as a whole. It should not fall on a university, as it currently does, to make good the basic skills a child should have learnt in school, including reading and writing. The government’s failure to implement the Right to Education (RTE) in schools says much about its commitment to higher education as well.

Not only do students graduating from most of our colleges get no decent education, they often lose the native wisdom they came with. Whereas earlier, ordinary people used home treatments for many illnesses, under the weight of commodification, many skills and kinds of knowledge are being lost, as people purchase most of what they need from the market. The National Knowledge Commission’s list of some of the traditional knowledge available in India includes over 40,000 plant-based drug formulations, and over 4502 agricultural practices. Of course, not all traditional practices are good, and many have inbuilt gender, caste and class biases.

Yet, few of India’s graduates are able to relate to this immense body of knowledge, either to build on the good or reject the bad.  We are constantly told by the government and corporates alike that people must leave their farms and migrate to cities, thus leaving their knowledge behind; artisanal, pastoral, fishing and forest communities are made to feel their occupations are inferior. The only job considered desirable is a white collar urban job, and the only question that appears to excite the minds of our educational authorities is how best to fill the existing jobs with suitable personnel. 

Of course graduates need employment, but an education policy that confines itself to the less than 10% of employment that the formal sector constitutes, is bound to shortchange the remaining 90%. To quote the national Knowledge Commission again, “(p)rincipled commercialization of our cultural, creative and legacy practices has the potential of generating employment for at least 100 million people and an annual revenue of at least Rs.600,000 crores per year.’
One might argue that DU’s four year foundation courses with their stress on hands on projects are precisely an attempt to open students up to their wider surroundings. But university research must be different from school summer homework. Suggested project work like “Choose any one community other than your own to study how it has changed” or “Measure the impact of University on the economic life of the neighboring areas” (sic), has to be accompanied with the basic tools to understand what concepts like “change”, “impact”, or “economic life” mean. Such seemingly simple concepts may be quite complicated when one begins to really study them. For instance, to measure change, one must have a baseline, identify certain criteria along which one can assess change, explore causality and so on. All this requires some theory of how social transformation takes place. A university must liase with the wider world, but not at the risk of losing its own character and the value addition that serious scholarship offers.

As they stand, many of the foundation courses are wholly illiterate; quite apart from the grammatical mistakes, even the formatting of the syllabus available online at the DU website suggests a hurried cut and paste job.  Imagine the absurdity of teaching students about unrelated topics like “Media, Cinema, sports, economic challenges and potentialities, access to education; collaboration in natural resources governance” all in one week (Session 14 of the course in geographic and socio-economic diversity). As far as I know, India has only one Constitution, but the same course will teach us about the “Constitutions of India, Values, symbols” (Session 13). The readings are entirely unconnected to the syllabus; and just as the history faculty was not consulted in the making of the course on history, the sociologists were not deemed fit to comment on geographic and socio-economic diversity. 

The four year program may do many things – but providing higher education is not one of them. The Ministry for Human Resource Development may have several concerns – but sadly, what Indian education should mean for Indian students is not one of them. 

A slightly different version appeared in the Times of India, May 26 2013