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Showing posts with label education system. Show all posts
Showing posts with label education system. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

RSS/BJP’s losing ticket

Universities are the swiftest elevators to social standing; they provide students with the academic wherewithal to find a place for themselves in the world. Higher education also unlocks opportunities: in the professions, academy, high councils of society and the state. A college education for the poor and the working class is a release from daily-wage survival; for the middle class, it offers a vaulting opportunity to achievement and accomplishment; for the upper class, it’s an endorsement of wealth and status.

In the West, especially in the United States, universities have long been propagators of knowledge, innovation and progressive ideas on society and culture. They tend to be busy centres of reform movements that often dovetail into larger groups campaigning for civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, environment protection and human rights.

In India, universities have been what a US professor, my graduate guide, once called “elite selection programs” in which bright students quickly learn that performance and conformism can help them vault to choice corporate and civil service jobs or to universities abroad. They have served also as ritualistic ashrams for long-suffering young people shepherded onto the right path by authoritarian family structures. Such graduates become part of middle management in the private sector, university teachers and self-employed agents of business and financial services. Universities also play a somewhat unsavoury role as factories for misfits who become the cannon fodder of political parties, trade unions and lower civil services.

The word university is not easily applied in the Indian context because it’s drawn from the Latin root meaning “whole”. Whatever else they may do, universities here do not provide a holistic experience, fragmented as they are by caste, religion, ideology but mostly by poor teachers, irrelevant coursework and cursory examinations. They do not offer the kind of insights into the humanities or exposure to the sciences as do their counterparts in the West.

Nevertheless, universities in India have changed from enclaves of elites to highly politicised islands in a society that has been in upheaval since the economic reforms of 1991. A growing consciousness of rights and entitlements, coupled with higher incomes and better opportunities, have transformed the landscape outside varsity campuses. With people demanding instant pieces of the pie, an environment of growing lawlessness and crime posed major political challenges which governments found insurmountable. Between 1996-2004 there were six governments.

Ten years of the UPA government (2004-2014) saw unprecedented and sustained economic growth. The size of the national pie increased dramatically and with it, the number of claimants. Bruised by a no-holds-barred battle over the US civil nuclear deal in 2008 with its own Left ally, the UPA government began to let things slip. Though it was re-elected with a bigger majority in 2009, the bond that provided the base strength, the understanding between the government and the Congress party, began to fray.

In the event, the opposition parties succeeded in rabble-rousing their way to power. In May 2014, the first majority government in 30 years took office; the first one backed by the RSS, an unelected and shadowy group that neither participated in the freedom movement nor accepted the Constitution and its symbols including the flag and the national anthem.

Though it describes itself a ‘cultural’ organisation, the RSS has an overtly political agenda. It’s spurring the BJP government to eradicate all traces of the liberal nationalism that won the country freedom from British colonial rule, and replace it with a Hindu majoritarian order. In practice, the plan is to shred the thinning sliver of civility that has won this country much admiration. India is an example of how despite poverty and a hundred socio-economic ills, it has preserved a liberal democracy that cherishes freedom, rule of law and universal adult franchise.

Whatever their faults universities are crucibles of liberal values. True, they tend to be illiberal on a spectrum of economic issues. But on all matters of equity, justice, compassion, they stand out as islands of liberalism. Over the past decade, the RSS’ student wing ABVP has made its presence felt on campuses to take Left student organisations head-on. It is at the forefront of the current controversy. In seeking to further its agenda, the RSS probably feels universities are both strongholds and weakest links.

To win support, the saffron clan seeks to pin tags on universities: bastions of left liberals, covens of anti-national elements, fornicators, beefeaters, what have you. Meanwhile, the BJP government thinks it has stalled all opposition to this by tying it up in legal knots, where the litmus test is: do you approve of anti-national groupings?

In the end, without resorting to authoritarian rule, the BJP is on a losing ticket. The world over, in constitutional democracies, universities and students have always come out on top in confrontation with governments. To understand that, though, you have to read history, not forever try to revise it.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://http://www.educationworld.in, March 9, 2016.)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Grim harvest of failed education system

Digital India, Make in India, Clean India, Smart Cities... these are slogans supporters of embattled prime minister Narendra Modi chorus to emphasise the primacy of his “development and growth” agenda. On the other hand, ghar wapsi, love jihad, Hindu rashtra, bans on beef, books and broadcasts… these are slogans supporters of empowered prime minister Narendra Modi raise to assert the primacy of hindutva.

Numerous commentators have remarked on the lack of progress of the modernist charter while lamenting the spread of the primordial agenda. Supporters say the prime minister’s development plans are being held hostage by “fringe elements”. Opponents challenge this, saying the hindutva project is Mr. Modi’s main plank.

And thus the political debate goes on, nightly on television and in the newspapers every morning. What’s indisputable is that India is caught in a bind, with the whole world watching. There are two reasons why the world is watching: one, the prime minister is an avid traveller who basks in the company of the world’s who’s who. He is adept at showcasing his forays in the Indian media and before large and adulatory NRI audiences.

The other reason why all eyes are on India is because of reports that primordial formations are threatening to derail India’s democracy. While Modi’s global tours go unreported in the mainstream world media, the killings, bans, and bigotry are prominently displayed in pixels and print the world over.

Given such alarming reports in global media, who will take the prime minister’s invitation to build modern India seriously? Even as Mr. Modi tries to assure the world of his commitment to diversity and democracy, his partners in the saffron brotherhood blacken faces of dissenters, commit hate crimes against minorities, and talk menacingly about regulating the media.

In Mumbai, the brazen threats of the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP led by Mr. Modi, forced the cricket authorities to withdraw all Pakistani umpires and commentators from the remainder of the India-South Africa series. It’s the same with utterances and speeches of senior saffron sages about the need to regulate the media.

How this stand-off between economic modernisation and the authoritarian and revivalist agenda will be resolved is difficult to say. In a nation with a burgeoning middle class, the tendency would be to favour the former. This assumes that the middle class is the repository of enlightened liberal values and as such a bulwark against what the Indian press used to call “fissiparous tendencies”. I don’t think the assumption can stand scrutiny. Here’s why.

Historically, Indian policymakers have ignored elementary education and vocational training in favour of higher education and professional development. The result is an educated elite listing in the storm-tossed sea of a poorly educated majority. Even within the elite class, the emphasis is on engineering and medicine, management and accountancy. Middle class children, especially male, are encouraged, forced and nudged into the study of these streams to land steady jobs. Liberal arts disciplines such as literature, history, language and philosophy are dismissed as unworthy, okay for girls.

Despite heavily subsidised bias in its favour, the higher education system has failed miserably. It produces a vast pool of middle class graduates, ill-equipped to meet the demands of a modernising economy. Unable to find jobs, they are recruited by political parties to fight nefarious numbers wars that determine political outcomes. Easily manipulated, these youth become the foot soldiers of atavistic campaigns against change. As such, they form the bulk of illiberal forces threatening to take India back to the Stone Age.

On the other hand, the higher education system also produces some world-class scientists, engineers, lawyers and doctors, managers and technocrats. But decades of command-and-control industry policies have impaired the ability of the economy to provide jobs and business opportunities. Caught in the socialist quagmire, shiploads of the best graduates have migrated westward, contributing to India’s ‘brain drain’. True, the best middle-class graduates did well in the US and elsewhere but the disruption took its toll and they became implacably opposed to licence-permit raj and its purveyors.

Therefore, like those they left behind, they too became supporters of illiberal forces. These are the groups that turn out in huge numbers to hear Mr. Modi rant and rave against the previous regime in New York, California, Australia and elsewhere. Thus the top layer of the education system and its vast middling layer have fused into an aggrieved segment, embracing religious and cultural revivalism and chauvinist causes, harbouring vague hopes of seeing India emerge as a “global power”.

This is the whirlwind the country reaped in the 2014 election. With just 31 percent of the national vote in their favour, majoritarian political forces are poised to hack away at the carefully-nurtured edifice of constitutionalism. In the final analysis the education system bears a major share of responsibility for the growing atavism and intolerance spreading across the country.

(An edited version of this post appeared in Education World, November 2015)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Satya Nadella ascension: misleading triumphalism

The elevation of India-born and schooled Satya Narayana Nadella to chief executive officer at Microsoft Inc, USA — the world’s most well-known IT corporation (annual revenue: $77.85 billion or Rs.484,149 crore) — has been widely reported in the media. All reports were anchored by a streak of pride proclaiming it as an Indian achievement. This puffing of the collective chest is one more indication that the media responds to such stimuli in an overwrought manner, used as they are to what Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul described as “a negative way of perceiving” events and trends.

Elaborating on his construct in India: A Wounded Civilization (1976), Naipaul wrote: “In an active, busy country, full of passion and controversy, it is not an easy thing to grasp, this negative way of perceiving. Yet it is fundamental to an understanding of India’s intellectual second-rateness… (which) may be the most startling and depressing thing about the world’s second most populous country.”

Naipaul’s insightful observation is still valid in the second decade of the new millennium. After a decade of promising growth and unlocking of the nation’s unlimited potential, India’s “second-rateness” seems to have overwhelmed it. Everywhere one turns, the promise seems to be in terminal decline with the media typically blaming government. This is the essence of this “negative way of perceiving” — externalize the problem and bring in fascists or anarchists to save the day. Any option is preferable to deep thinking and introspection.

At the heart of the problems debilitating the nation and Indian society, is a dysfunctional education system. Indeed, it may not be too far off the mark to tag the Nadella ascension as a full-blown indictment of the Indian academy. The higher education system does produce world-class scientists, engineers, managers and doctors but the economy lacks the sophistication to absorb them. Consequently, these heavily-subsidised technical and professional academic institutions produce skilled manpower for more evolved global corporations.

But even as the brightest and best move on to script success stories elsewhere, Indian enterprises struggle to find the engineers, managers and doctors needed to meet the demands of a growing economy. To fill these demands, the education bureaucracy and freewheeling entrepreneurs have devised a system of selection defined by examinations and rote learning. 

The ones with the highest scores are usually recruited by global corporations; the remainder battle for survival or success in local enterprises and joint ventures which struggle to cope with the demand for marketing, supply chain, maintenance, logistics managers and the dead hand of socialism — regulation, labour laws, taxation, finance. This leaves little room for innovating new products, services, processes, and systems.

Nadella’s ascension nevertheless provides a welcome opportunity for assessment of an education system which has become a programme of elite selection rather than public empowerment and enlightenment. National pride is probably the last reaction it ought to evoke, given the fact that Nadella and a whole host of such immigrant success stories are scripted outside of India. In the end, Nadella’s achievement is an American success story, an endorsement of the American dream. It’s also a summary rejection of the Indian milieu in which conformism and mediocrity inevitably triumph over innovation and excellence.

It bears repetition that the elevation of Indian-origin executives to apex positions at Microsoft, Citibank, Pepsi and others is a grim indictment of India’s education system. It is vital not to be misled by triumphal media which adulates the success of Nadella, Vikram Pandit, Indra Nooyi and others as feathers in the nation’s cap. True, these are men and women shaped by India’s higher education system. But they went away, knowing well that opportunities for intellectual growth and pursuit of knowledge lay outside the country.

Things did change as the reforms of 1991 struck root. Admittedly, there are more jobs, larger incomes, and more choice in the market for products, services, and business options. But simultaneously our cities, towns and villages are trapped in the chaos of traffic and pollution, and lack power, water supply and sanitation. Political conflicts have been exacerbated by acrimonious public debate fanned by ignorant and self-serving media. To watch the news on television, or read newspapers and periodicals is to confront doom-and-gloom scenarios purveyed by opinionated apparatchiks of the news business.

Meanwhile, the education system offers little to help young people struggling to understand the mismatch between economic growth and civic responsibility. It’s still mired in the bogs of bureaucracy and robber-baron capital. Yes, there’s been a substantial expansion in the number of universities, colleges and professional institutes. But the end product still remains rote graduates, ill-equipped to do more than pass examinations and unable to handle the demands of a growing economy and changing society.

This article appeared in Education World magazine,  March 2014.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Citizenship education lacuna

When our older daughter began to attend elementary school in the United States, I was struck by the fact that the school day for all students began, hand over heart, with the Pledge of Allegiance, which was effectively a solemn declaration of loyalty to the republic. Secondly, on the very first day, the teacher taught them ‘the golden rules’: think before you speak, and treat others the same way as you would expect them to treat you.
Thus, the first lesson learned in school was a civic one: respect for the Constitution and a rule-based way of transacting with fellow citizens of the republic. In fact, the American community-led public education system started out as a citizenship training programme. The objective was to enable and empower citizens in the discharge of their civic obligations and in their quest for economic opportunity. It was a simple idea that drove elementary public education in America: an informed citizenry, compliant with the law is the best guarantor of liberty and justice.
Some years later, I was dropping my daughters off at one of Delhi’s better schools into which they had been adm-itted after we moved from the US. The picture couldn’t have been more radically different. First, it was an all-girls school. Students wore a hideous uniform and the ambience was chaotic, with girls running around, push-ing and shoving, unmindful of the safety or convenience of others. Later, we discov-ered that it was a tyrannical institution, subject to the whims of Victorian nuns who ran it.
Our daughters were traumatised because on the academic front as well, the school was a zero. The curriculum prescribed by the Central Board of Secondary Education and the National Council of Educational Research and Training was lame. The faculty did very little except race through a rote method of teaching; it was clear our daughters were not learning much and that added to their misery. We withdrew them from the school to the disbelief of many, as the school was among the most sought-after in the city.
Far from teaching students the virtues of citizenship, all that the school did was to prepare them to write board examinations to attain high scores, which ensured admission into an even more dysfunctional university system. The psychological costs that students have to pay are never addressed — simply dismissed by teachers and parents alike as collateral damage in the race to succeed in examinations. We pulled them out of this twisted system and enroled them in an international school, where they blossomed.
In the current debates over education policy, the focus has centred on reform at every level: elementary schools, institutes of higher education, vocational training. Issues of private ownership versus govern-ment control, entry of global education providers, certification and accreditation are routinely raised. What seems to have been missed completely is the civic aspects of education. Respect for the neighbourhood, city, state and country needs to be instilled at a very early age without crossing the line into chauvinism.
Sadly, most political parties, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party, have fallen into the trap of jingoism. The Congress, for its part, has a version; let’s call it patriotism in which there’s still a chip on the shoulder which prevents a realistic assessment of the Indian situation. Chest thumping or moaning and groaning about “inclusive growth” is hardly the way to instill civic values in the citizenry. The so-called ‘youth dividend’ can only be banked if the education system instills a sense of civic conscious-ness in the populace, beginning right from primary school.
The proposition is not so difficult to grasp. Civic authorities cannot prevent people from urinating, or spitting paan in the streets; from driving like lunatics, blowing car horns or jumping queues or being malodorous because they have never heard of deodorants. But schools can teach their children to respect public spaces. In Delhi, for example, the Metro is a big hit as are the new low-floor sleek buses, flyovers, expressways and underpasses, parks and landscaped streets. In the next decade, a whole generation will grow up using these public goods. What schools need to teach students is how to use these facilities respectfully.
Amazingly, none of this is part of the academic agenda. On the right, people talk about India shining with its economic growth. On the left, people talk about hunger, poverty and disease. Smack dab in the middle, we need to teach young people, increasingly more exposed to the wider world through the internet, television, and mobile phones, that the default position in India need not be poverty, filth and disease. That in fact India with its red-hot economy, could become a byword for a progressive civic culture in which egalitarianism and efficiency prevail.
Instead of going on about our ancient culture or the glaring disparities in society, India should showcase itself as the proud new country that can in the words of the 1960s anthem: “change the world, rearrange the world”. That dream of the 60s that was held out tantalisingly in the West can come true in the world’s largest democracy and second fastest growing economy.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://www.educationworld.in, November 6, 2010.)