The Role of Education: Three Challenges in India

There is some kind of consensus that education has a social role: Even those who subscribe to Margaret Thatcher's view 'there is no such thing as society' believe that education creates productive workers which help businesses and lift GDP. So, what role education should play in a society is not left-wing indulgence, but rather a pertinent discussion which everyone should join in.

This is particularly relevant in India for several reasons. Those who are in love with GDP growth, that is most people in India, frame the discussion in predictable terms: 10 million new workers are joining Indian workforce every year and the country has to equip them to be productive. In this straightforward formation, if India does this, all other social challenges will go away. Even any casual observer will appreciate the limitations of this view: Indian businesses and institutions have greater challenges to scale than hospitality workers speaking poor English. And, in that broader perspective, Education's role in the society must be framed.

There is no dearth of rhetoric, though, about Education's social agenda. In fact, the new government has a specific social goal, to 'Indianise' education, and this goes beyond mere economic productivity. This puts on education a great expectation of changing minds and puts a certain view of Indian culture at the centre stage. And, this is no mere rhetoric: The government has an activist approach to education, stepping into various matters curtailing institutional autonomy (in Delhi University and IITs), planning widespread changes in the school curriculum and even committing a significant part of Prime Minister's time to a televised programme on the Teachers' Day (September 5th). Education's social role is now in the forefront and the debate has earnestly began.

There are many positions in this arc of oscillation between education as an economic instrument and education to shape one's values and promote a certain kind of loyalty. Ever since Macaulay's famous minutes, the state support of education was primarily directed at creating a social elite, a class of administrators who would run the Raj - in the first instance - and then a vast public sector led economy - after the independence. This is in a way the original Indian position, against which the two views as above are pitted. It is somewhat the middle point of the arc, which balances the economic goals and nation building aspirations, albeit a secular one. All our debates about education's social role are an attempt to escape the geriatric inertia of this original aspiration, for which the Indian society seemed to be eternally settled - a coveted clerkship for life!

That the oscillation must begin has been necessitated by globalisation, and the need to economically competitive and socially secure are the two opposing forces driving our debate. But in the face of globalisation of the kind we are experiencing, this is a false dialectic: This reflects more the positions of the past than that of the future. So, the central argument of this post is thus: We must revisit the question of education's social role to move beyond the lure of government jobs, and in a way to achieve economic prosperity and social confidence. 

To take up this challenge of achieving economic prosperity and social confidence, and to go beyond the mere black-and-white top-down agendas of skills development and Hindu revivalism, serious educators may have to reimagine the whole education debate. In this, mere revisionism may not be enough - neither 'Hindutva-lite' nor 'Indianisation of skills' are viable strategies to lead to an education that will meet the challenges of a profoundly changing society. In fact, these starting propositions, historical legacies, may actually limit the imagination rather than enabling it. I shall therefore argue that we abandon these absolute agendas - and define this in the context of the challenges, economic and social, that India faces.

However, such an assertion is not about putting this discussion back in the familiar but rather pessimistic context of the interminable list of grave challenges a poor country such as India has. These issues are indeed relevant, but solely stating how grave India's various problems are will not help shape the scope for discussion about an appropriate education. Rather, the social challenges in context of this discussion should be stated in terms of ideas, what intellectual frame of reference do we need to understand and eventually address our challenges, and optimistically, that we possess the capacity to overcome these. This will allow a mature and constructive debate, rather than the infantile nihilism of positions such as 'what's the point of discussing higher education when there is no safe drinking water'; and besides, one non-negotiable starting premise for any discussion about education must be one of hope.

If one is to accept this framework of discussion, then, I shall contend, three principal idea challenges that we have to deal with in India (and I invite the readers to add to this list):

Open Mind :    Kishore Mahbubani somewhat nails it when he contrasts China and India stating that China is a closed society with an open mind - as it is willing to learn and to experiment - but India is an open society with a closed mind - where experimentation is frowned upon. With profound changes in economic and social structures as well as technology, economic prosperity and social stability both demand a commitment to experimentation, innovation and change. Entrepreneurial progress, as seen in United States and eagerly pursued in all societies including India, does not only depend on bright students and risk-taking investors, the supply-side of an enterprise society, but also 'venturesome consumers', as Amar Bhide will argue, the demand side of an enterprise society. This is not just about setting up incubation centres and venture capital networks to make India more economically competitive. The more fundamental steps must be taken inside classrooms to open up the debate and encourage the students to engage with, rather than reject, new ideas, of life, consumption and relationships. A generally open approach, such as one education can provide, goes beyond the dichotomy of material progress and intellectual excellence, but promote the value of openness that encompass both. 

Expertise : India has a long tradition of valuing titles and hierarchy, and such values, due to its peculiar colonial development, are deep entrenched in the Indian education system. Established hierarchies are antithetical to expertise, and titles undermine the need for professional pride. Consequently, India has come to admire Jugaad, a culture of making-do, rather than of patient development of expertise. The salaries and prestige in Indian workplaces are attached to positions, managers get paid more, than expertise: A good programmer is a fool if she wants to be a great programmer because becoming a manager is far more rewarding. This pervades everything and therefore, people buy degrees and jobs, doctors overprescribe, public servants treat bribes as usual, educators revel at their positions but not anticipate their responsibility. Good work isn't valued and it shows up in the everyday shoddiness,  incompleteness and indifference. Malcolm Gladwell's point that we should seek to create social conditions for expertise to flourish - not defer to the experts blindly but not sink into crude amatuerism in every social function - is extremely pertinent in India: In fact, India is a case study of the dangers he points to. Here, educators have a crucial role: Progress demands a departure from the blinding deference to authority that they teach and an alternative culture of celebration of excellence. 

Ethics : The education for making Babus promotes an individualism with a disdain for the communal. In one way, the revivalist attempts of the current government is an attempt to push back against the selfishness-run-amok. While this is music to the ears of those economics-first thinkers of education, the chaos of Indian roads should be enough to instruct someone about the limitation of such an approach. When Indian education looks beyond the mere aim of producing public workers, and if it has to take its twin goal of economic and social progress seriously, it needs to examine closely the interface between the individual and the others, the community, that it long neglected. Call it social ethic, or community values, India is a case of civic nationalism gone too far: In fact, the nationalism, once the country was liberated, dropped off rather spectacularly and the community degenerated into family islands of various shapes and sizes. India, being a poor country which is still building its institutions, need an ethic and a commitment to social engagement from its constituents, something that squarely lands in the area of educators' responsiblity.

Seen this way, the educators' challenge in India is thus: How to create open-mind, committed and engaged citizens? Every serious educator should attempt to answer this, and perhaps add to the list even further.  


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