Sunday, January 30, 2011

Education in India

Every year India produces 350,000 engineers, as opposed to the 70,000 produced in the United States of America (which includes Indian students who study in American universities). The British National Health Service, according to Dr. T. Scarlett Epstein, O.B.E, would collapse if all the Indian doctors were to leave Britain. Yet everyday, farmers commit suicide when their crops fail and the revolts of the rural poor are regularly quelled with minimum publicity, as their resources are annexed by the state. Surely something is amiss in this, the largest democracy in the world.

Undoubtedly the causes for this state of affairs are diverse and too deeply intertwined to be easily understood. There are historical causes, cultural causes, political causes, economic causes and a whole host of nameless others. However there is one factor that can, over time level the chasm between the privileged and the not-so-privileged. Education.

Education can open up opportunities to the masses in our country. It can provide awareness, thus aiding the exploited in their fight against exploitation. It can lead to a more balanced growth in all sectors of the country, narrowing the gap between privileged and under-privileged. A well structured, practical education system can help fight all the maladies that affect our society. To this end, the Indian constitution has included the right to education as fundamental right. As of 1st April 2010, our education minister, Kapil Sibal has ensured the passing of the Right to Education Act which makes provisions for universal primary education for all citizens of this country… Unfortunately, the Indian education system is not exactly well structured or practical.

The education system in India has grown out of the education system established here by the British during the colonial era. This system, structured by Lord Macaulay was designed to provide our colonial rulers with literate, obedient clerks. And today, despite many amendments and changes, our primary education system continues to churn out young people who can read, write and speak English and do not question authority as far as possible.

Our curriculum is highly theoretical making even subjects of high practical relevance to us (eg: Environmental Science) a drudgery of memorizing. We are taught Shakespeare and Dickens. If we do not follow the same steps as the teacher in solving a mathematical problem, we are penalized for it. Our examination system awards verbatim memorization of poorly- written textbooks. We are taught not to ask questions.

Both public and private schools, today face a shortage of teachers, capable or otherwise. Somehow, very few young people are inspired to become teachers, seeing it as a low prestige job. While the comparatively low salaries are definitely a factor, even the recent hikes in teacher’s salaries have not been able to boost the number of prospective teachers sufficiently.

Teachers in government schools, though highly paid (compared to teachers in private schools) are not motivated, often due to the lack of interest their students display… these students often come from low economic backgrounds and attend schools to avail of facilities such as the free lunch provided. In a vicious cycle, teachers fail to motivate such students to learn, often absenting themselves from work for long periods of time. In states like Bihar, there is an average of 71% absence among teachers in government schools. This is due, in part, to the level of job security for government employees.

Dr. Scarlett Epstein, in a recent lecture at the University of Hyderabad, spoke of the low prestige accorded to all jobs other than those of civil servants, doctors and engineers. Of the 167 young people she spoke to in the village of Mangala near Mysore, only 3 wanted to follow their parents’ footsteps and become farmers. All the others wanted to be civil servants, doctors or engineers. This alarming and highly detrimental trend is visible all over our country.

Young people, irrespective of rural or urban background flock to medicine, engineering as well as management colleges and civil service coaching centres. Those who have other aspirations are presumed not to have been able to secure a seat in these high prestige courses… and disturbingly enough, this is not merely the perception society. Many students enrolled in non-professional courses, admit that they only entered Arts and Science colleges because they could not manage to get in to medicine or engineering courses. The students who do take up other courses out of interest are few and far between and usually belong to an (at least ideologically) elite section of society.

Among those who fail to join medicine and engineering colleges (for whatever reasons), there exists another hierarchy. As Dr. Yehuda Elkana said, in a recent talk, our education system is remarkably stratified. We have managed to separate the ’thinking’ from the ‘doing’… and somehow ‘thinking’ has been accorded higher status. Universities are places for thinkers and polytechnics, places for doers. Science is considered higher than Humanities or Social Science… And yet, common sense would imply that thinking and doing; Science, Humanities and Social Science are all required for a holistic education!

This hierarchy of courses and professions is deeply entrenched in the Indian psyche and is a very dangerous prospect for our nation. Students who may be inclined to other professions force themselves into medicine and engineering courses and become mediocre doctors and engineers, letting their own potential to excel in other spheres lie fallow. Not only do these individuals suffer, but the country as a whole loses out on expertise in other fields. As we produce more and more doctors and engineers, the need for such professionals decreases and the new graduates swell the ranks of the unemployed. Since other professions are seen as inferior, the new graduates cannot bring themselves to work as, say electricians and plumbers (and indeed they do not have the training to do so). Manual labour is looked down upon and underpaid, thus we have fewer and fewer farmers, electricians and plumbers. The need for these service professionals increases, but even those who are trained for such jobs do so without a sense of pride. Thus they perform their tasks unwillingly and without interest, and therefore, badly. (This is, of course, a generalisation and as with any generalisation there are exceptions.)

Agricultural lands are seized by industrial tycoons, and food production decreases as food prices sky rocket. Civil servants in their prestigious seats are content to see the growing ‘development’ (read: industrialization) displaying an alarming lack of foresight (but are we really surprised? Remember Macaulay’s education system?). Poor farmers starve to send their children to school in the hopes that one day they will be doctors and engineers and not have to toil in demeaning physical labour.

In our cities, well educated urban citizens spit and litter the roads as they wend in and out of traffic with scant regard for ‘rules’, causing enormous snarls and pile ups. Surely education is supposed to teach not only Shakespeare and Newton, but also basics such as civic duties?

All this occurs despite much effort on the part of policy makers. State sponsored universities provide excellent facilities for Arts and Science colleges. Teachers’ and Professors’ salaries have recently been reviewed and raised. Schools teach Civics and Environmental Science… Where then, lies the flaw?

Lest I sound too critical, let me hasten to add that I do not intend to point fingers or blame anyone. My criticism comes from my school years- which I have spent in eight different schools all over the country (in Ludhiana, Manamadurai, Salur, Vishakhapatnam, Chennai and Kolkata) as well as my time spent in college (Chennai and presently Hyderabad). I have received a very good education and enjoyed much of it... however, I have also observed many of the flaws in the system not only with regard to myself but more importantly to others. I fared very well because I am fluent in English, attended (for the most part) what are known as 'good' schools and have learnt to negotiate the system without realising it, but most others are not so fortunate. Several of my observations are also based on the experiences of my mother, who is an English teacher and my sister (currently studying in school) whose approach to learning refuses to be restricted to the text book and exam oriented system leading to much tension in her life. I do not seek merely to criticize the system, but genuinely want to participate in the process of its restructuring.

It appears to me that the Indian education system is based on the assumption that the student needs to be provided with all the knowledge available before being asked to apply it… however, we must keep in mind that much learning is accomplished as part of a problem solving process. A fact learned practically will never be forgotten, as opposed to one that is presented in a text book which will be forgotten immediately after (and quite often before) an exam!

Thus our approach to education is flawed. The system is too rigid and standardised. Students are required to fit into an inflexible mould. Learning is extremely text-book based and alternative channels are not considered.

In Israel, for example, all school students are provided a small tract of land and required to cultivate a crop of their choice on it. They are graded on this and take great pride in their patch of garden. Thus, in Israel manual labour is not looked down upon and farming is prestigious.

Perhaps a similar, more project based approach, might improve matters, here. Environmental Science and Civics, if not tested through exams and instead through practical projects will definitely have a much more lasting effect. A project based approach might spark interest in other subjects, thus leading to students choosing subjects according to interest and aptitude instead of because of the prestige accorded them by society. Over time, we may yet produce interested individuals who use their potential in all fields. Teachers who encourage participation and are more involved in the process of learning will definitely command more respect, which may even lead to a rise in prestige of the teaching profession.

The restructuring of an entire system on this scale is naturally not an easy prospect. It will take enormous amounts of time and money. Teachers will have to be retrained, new infrastructure will be required… but in the end, I firmly believe it will be worth all that effort.


ukvvvw said...

This is wonderfully written! Perhaps, another dimension to this would be the number of students with each successive generation waiting to be educated and the wide polarity in affluence and the availability of educational resources in the country. Though the need for a radical change in the system in unquestionable, I am often left wondering how far and how fast it will percolate in India - and that can make a huge difference.

Daughter of the Night said...


And the more I learn about education, the more I am left wondering whether it is necessary (at least in the form it exists) at all. More traditional education methods seem to me more practical, and less likely to manufacture a predominantly Western world-view. (Not that I have an issue with such a world view, just that it's impractical to superimpose it on other cultures, like ours.)