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Showing posts with label schools. Show all posts
Showing posts with label schools. Show all posts

Thursday, July 14, 2011

English: An Indian Language

So here we go again. Language chauvinists in Goa have launched disruptive protests against the state government’s proposal that will allow primary and secondary schools to offer English as a medium of instruction. This is in addition to Marathi and Konkani.

A bunch of rabble, associated with the Hindutva forces, stopped traffic in Panjim and threatened to hold the state hostage to their misbegotten worldview. It’s not just about Goa, it’s all over India. Same people who protested against the screening of the film Slumdog Millionaire; same people who assaulted women coming out of a bar in Mangalore; same people who renamed the airport and the railway terminus in Bombay; same people who renamed Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

English, both the language and our cultural heritage, is a convenient horse to flog. Increasingly, though, the burgeoning middle class is embracing it as the key to success in a modernizing country. Thus, while politicians go on renaming sprees, “Indianizing” names of city streets and entire cities, real estate developers across the country sell their projects with Western-sounding names such as “Provence,” “Belvedere” and what have you. In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, I have actually seen commercial and residential properties called “Manhattan” or “White House.”

Coming back to the Goa language disturbances, even the normally rational Manohar Parrikar, opposition leader and erstwhile chief minister, backed the obscurantist protest. He said if children are educated in English, they look down on their parents who don’t speak the language. He is right.

The problem with the English language is it subversive. To accept it is to accept the cultural and philosophical worldview of the Enlightenment. For example: reason, courtesy, egalitarianism and dissent. In the Hindutva worldview, these are not values that are accepted. Instead the focus is on superstition, indulgence, exclusivity and conformism. Children schooled in the English language do not easily buy into backwardness.

If you look around today, journeyman classes that offer students English-language proficiency are burgeoning everywhere. Parents and their children know that to make their way in the world, English is essential. They have no time for chauvinist arguments against the language. They just want their children to get ahead and like all solid middle class Indians place their faith in education.

This is why the Goa government’s bold move is admirable. Clearly, the state government understands that people want the choice to choose English as a medium of instruction. Given the state’s high level of literacy and per capita income, the pro-English segment is sizable and has rallied behind the government.

English has always been an Indian language. In recent years, the number of people who use English as the lingua franca has increased exponentially. A new form of the language has taken shape that incorporates Indian idioms. We are like this only. And it is increasingly accepted. R K Narayan is an early example; Salman Rushdie thrived on it.

Today global literary salons celebrate Indian writers in English bringing Indian cultural flavours to the world. I can name at least a dozen and their number is probably in the hundreds. So it is bit of madness for people in India to dismiss English as a foreign language. Supreme Court judgments are in English as are government policies. They may be translated into various languages but in the first draft they are written in English.

Vernacular chauvinists, who disparage the use of English in India, are products of a feudal mindset that portrays India as a long-suffering victim of colonial oppression. They draw inspiration from the jingoist ranting of M S Golwalkar in his aptly titled book, “Bunch of Thoughts” and amazingly enough also from the Luddite fulminations of Mohandas Gandhi in “Hind Swaraj.” Their India is a closed and diffident victim of unchaste foreigners. Today, such postures appear ridiculous and out of touch with the new, resurgent India.

Protests like the one in Goa flare up now and again, led by fringe groups that are communal and chauvinist. But they fly in the face of what citizens want. The protestors assume that the vast majority of the Indian population has no use for English. They are right; only a small section of the population use English in their lives. However, English is the language of aspirations. Even a semi-literate family in the rural areas knows that for their children to get out of the rut, the passport is proficiency in English.

Unlike yesteryear, when the language of Milton and Shakespeare was a mark of elite status, in the new India, English is the language of upward mobility. As such, it has captured the imagination of a new dynamic and youthful generation that values merit and effort as determinants of success. Its importance is gauged not from numbers but from its grip on the imagination of the burgeoning middle class.

English was introduced as a medium of instruction nearly two centuries ago by British liberals, hoping to “instruct” generations of Indian youth so they could become adequate civil servants in service of the Crown. Many young people from traditional upper caste families eagerly embraced English and parlayed it into a comfortable livelihood with steady incomes and various privileges.

As India enters a new phase, going from a uniquely-won independence to global recognition, English is again the agent of aspiration and change. And it gives me pause to think about just how prescient Thomas Babington Macaulay was when he said in his “Minute on Education:”

Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.”

Curiously, today’s chauvinists who protest the use of English reserve their worst for those who celebrate it as a dynamic Indian language. They call us the children of Macaulay; one of several “M’s” they hate including Marx, Modernity and Muslims.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, July 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On the Need for Citizenship Education

When our older daughter began to attend elementary school in the United States, I was struck by two things: first, 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. Second, on the very first day, the teacher taught them “the golden rules:” think before you speak and treat others the same way in which you would expect them to treat you.

Thus, the first lesson learned in the school was a civic one: respect for the constitution and a rule-based way of dealing with fellow citizens of the republic. In fact, the American community-led public education system started out as a citizenship training program; the idea 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 laws, is the best guarantor of liberty and justice.

Some years later, I was dropping my daughters off at one of Delhi’s better schools to which they had been admitted after we moved from the US. The picture couldn’t have been more radically different. First, it was a school for girls only; students wore a hideous uniform and the ambience was chaotic, with girls running around, pushing and shoving, unmindful of the safety or convenience of others. Later, we discovered that it was a tyrannical place, subject to the Victorian whims of the nuns who ran it.

Our daughters were traumatized; on the academic front as well the school was a zero. The curriculum as dictated by the Central Board of Secondary Education and the National Council of Education Research and Training was lame. The faculty did very little but 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; 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 their students to take board examinations in which only very high scores can ensure admission to 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 at examinations. We pulled them out of the twisted system and enrolled them in an international school, where they blossomed.

In the current debates over education policy, the focus has centered on reforms at every level: elementary schools, institutes of higher education, vocational training. Issues of private ownership versus government control, entry of global education providers, certification and accreditation are among others that have been raised. What seems to have been missed completely is the civic aspects of education. Respect for your neighborhood, your city, your state, your country needs to be instilled at a very early age without crossing the line to become 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 is still a chip on the shoulder that 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 succeed if the education system instills a sense of civic values in the populace, beginning right from primary school.

The proposition is not that difficult to grasp. Civic authorites cannot prevent people from urinating, defecating or spitting paan on the streets; they cannot keep people from driving like lunatics, blowing their horns or jumping a line or being smelly because they have never heard about deodorants. But they 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; new flyovers, expressways and underpasses, even parks and landscaped streets and slick new bus stops. In the next decade, a whole generation will grow up used to these public goods. What schools need to teach them is how to use these and not be vandals.

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 world through the Internet, television, and mobile phones, that the default position in India need not be a poverty, filth and disease. That in fact India with its new and shiny economy could be an example of a new 21st century civic culture in which an egalitarian and efficient ethic prevails.

Instead of moaning on about its ancient culture or the glaring disparities in its society, India should showcase itself as the new shining country that can in the words of the 1960s anthem: “change the world, rearrange the world.” That dream of the sixties that was held out tantalizingly in the West can come true in the world’s largest democracy and its second fastest growing economy.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, November 2010.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bureaucratic Subversion

The Bane of New India

When the government steered the Right to Education bill through Parliament, those of us who had fought for it through two decades were pleased. The important thing, however, is how the act would be notified. The language of the bill leaves a lot of gray areas. And well it might because bureaucrats wrote it and they will fully exploit the obfuscation. For example, they will come down heavily on private schools that cater to the poor in urban slums and rural areas and impose impossible conditions that such enterprises simply cannot fulfill.

There are too many vested interests: the government school system; the high-end private schools that have bribed their way into existence and above all, the alternative NGO schools that survive on government subsidies. With such firepower arraigned against it, the RTE bill will go the way of every well-meaning initiative of the government such the NREGA or the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. The net outcome will be zero. And so everything will come to naught.

If this sounds cynical, then you should listen to my story about a small community on the outskirts of Delhi. This is an upscale community of successful professionals that includes about 30 houses. It is an oasis in the chaos of Delhi, with trees and birdsong. It’s a wonderful community where neighbors meet frequently to have a drink or dinner and to discuss issues of India’s development. The people who live there are respected professionals whose interests span public health, wildlife conservation, media, law and what have you.

The community came into being in the early 1990s. Because it was part of rural Delhi, it was offered no municipal services like water, sanitation or roads, never mind street lighting. Like pioneers, residents made their own arrangements: people built septic tanks, drilled bore wells and got their own garbage collection. Power was an issue until distribution was privatized, when the resident association petitioned the distribution company. Realizing these were high-end customers, the company quickly ensured that power cuts and fluctuations were minimized.

On the roads issue, the resident association petitioned the Delhi government arguing from a taxpayer viewpoint; so the road was built: badly but still motorable. It took several years including the fact that the first allotment of several crores was swallowed by the pirates of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Now this community faces water a problem because the bore wells have dried up. This is precious real estate but more important it represents the single major investment for most of the residents. Without water, their homes are worth nothing.

The association applied to the Delhi government for permission to drill a community bore well. It seemed a logical and eco-friendly thing to do. But between the local water authority, the local police and several residents who had bribed their way into deepening their bore wells, the application has been kicked around from pillar to post.

So here you have this huge Indian-style standoff: members of the community paid bribes to the water authority and the police to deepen their wells. As a result, other residents found their bore wells running dry. When the association sought to build a community well, some residents and recipients of their bribes in the water authority and the local police struck a dissonant note.

Between corrupt citizens, bureaucrats, police officials and local politicians, this pleasant community is caught in a cleft. It needs the rule of law to be enforced but the local government: the municipality and the police, are locked in various corrupt projects. Residents of the community are not without influence but stand divided because several members, who own houses there, are compromised because the deals they did to buy their houses don’t stand up to scrutiny.

This is a small localized community problem, to be sure. But its implications have a larger footprint. Even though the union government has introduced various enlightened policies, local governance is caught in a medieval time warp. In the matter of schools as well: a sweeping and enlightened law stands to be subverted on the rocks of bad governance. In notifying the RTE act, many activists fear the education bureaucracy will not let private schools for the poor flourish.

Then there is the issue of the RTE-mandated 25 percent quota for poor children in private schools. The vast majority of private schools, however, cater to the poor. So how will the quota be enforced? Clearly, framers of the bill were thinking of the elite private schools with no acknowledgment of the private schools for the poor.

Whether it is the private schools for the poor or the community bore well for the upscale Delhi community, governance is still held hostage to the ideology of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lords it over the poor and is prejudiced against the affluent (not rich). In the event, private schools for the poor will be held hostage to the bureaucracy’s prejudice against education as commerce; likewise the South Delhi community must suffer because the bureaucrats of the water authority dismiss it as an “affluent colony” that deserves nothing from the government.

In the end, the admirable RTE bill stands to be subverted by bureaucrats, who oppose all change. Residents of the affluent community will have to fight for their water against the very forces in charge of governance.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, June 2010.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010