Can India have a future without critical thinkers?

  • Sushil Aaron, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 26, 2016 10:57 IST
As the MHRD considers a new education policy it must recognise that the degree of conformity it expects of students is unlikely to produce the thinkers that India needs to be a great power. (Imagesbazaar)

The committee advising on a new education policy offers a frank diagnosis and comes up with a big wish list. But it pays little attention to the humanities and social sciences and reinforces the anti-intellectualism of this government

With 65 per cent of its population under the age of 35 and 290 million students (in schools and universities), no issue is arguably more critical for India’s future than education. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) established a committee in October to come up with ideas for a new education policy which the NDA intends to announce. The committee was led by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian, three other retired civil servants Shailaja Chandra, Seva Ram Sharma, Sudhir Mankad, and physics professor and educationist JS Rajput.

The committee submitted its report last month; Subramanian has asked the MHRD to make it public but minister Smriti Irani has said that that would only happen after state governments provide their feedback. The report is circulating nonetheless and the contents point to the political battles on education that we are likely to see if its recommendations translate into policy.

Needed candour

To begin with, the committee does get several things right. It is brutally honest in its diagnosis of the problem. To summarise: There are serious concerns about the quality of education in India at all levels. The system of higher education is in crisis. There is a sore lack of competent teachers in government schools. There is widespread corruption relating to teacher appointments. Political interference is endemic in the sector; “most vice-chancellors are political appointees”. “Large segments of the education sector…face a serious crisis of credibility in terms of the quality of education which they provide, as well as the worth of the degrees which they confer on students”.

(It is no wonder then that the Indian elite has largely given up on India as a place to educate their children. Around 300,000 Indian students head abroad every year to study, spending $10 billion.)

Read: Universities deserved more from the new education policy

To address this, the committee has come with an expansive wish list, featuring big spending plans and ideas to entirely rework the way education is governed (see box). It sees IT as a big part of the solution, it wants every student and teacher (in schools and universities) to have a unique identity with real time monitoring of their progress and their institutions. With an impressive grasp of the institutional architecture, there is scarcely an area in the sector the committee has not offered policy advice on: From transparency in teacher recruitment to establishing preschool facilities in government schools to examination reform. It wants a dedicated civil service for education, a new think tank for MHRD and a new higher education act to sort out regulatory thickets.

As it stands the report, however, poses problems for the government and one can see why the MHRD is reluctant to publicise it. For one, to release it is to officially acknowledge that India experiencing a profound crisis in education, contrary to the positive spin the government puts out. Two, it is not easy dealing with reports that have breathless wish lists since governments do not have enough money to allocate to all the envisaged projects. Three, the institutional overhaul and the legal changes that the report has in mind will set off a set of political battles that will involve debates about the expanding role of the State, Centre-State relations, privacy and so on. There will also be discussions on the report’s emphasis on “value orientation” in education when it is applied as policy by the BJP.

Limiting Thought

What is more worrying from the future’s standpoint is that the report barely mentions let alone emphasises the importance of the humanities and the social sciences for developing “critical thought”. (The phrase “social sciences” occurs thrice in the 217-page document, and “humanities” once, but not in prescriptive terms.)

The committee states that “education should foster, peace, tolerance, secularism and national integration” but how it should be done is not clarified. It is worth restating that literature, the arts and subjects like history, sociology, psychology, economics and anthropology are literally “disciplines” that help students to think more rigorously about their own experience and the lives of others. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum notes, the humanities enable the ability to “think well about a wide range of cultures, groups and nations”. They help develop empathy, to imagine the experience of another and come to terms with an interdependent, diverse world. And so if one is serious about fostering values that are vital for citizenship there needs to be an explicit push for engagement with the humanities and social sciences. These streams are also imperative for understanding one’s own country better and for the cultural recovery the BJP is keen on.

Read: Education policy: Panel wants RTE Act amended, area-specific guidelines

As noted, the committee is mindful of teacher training and learning outcomes for students but offers no plan for cultivating independent thought. It instead expresses a preference to block avenues that develop critical thinking by taking a dim view of student politics at universities. In a section titled “need to restrict political and other distractions in university and college campuses” it points to “agitations, disturbances…and movements” in higher education institutions. While recognising freedom of association, it refers disapprovingly to political parties that have chapters on campuses, caste and community-based groupings, and unions of students and teachers. The report suggests that students must have self-imposed restrictions on political activity “to ensure the primary work of the university should be conducted without hindrance”.

We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable and what it is about those ideas that they object to."
Prof. Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford

One immediately deduces that an ideal student from the committee’s vantage is perhaps a science student who imbibes “values” from teachers and mechanistically picks up job-related skills in a university without disturbing anyone or asking tough questions about society.

There are unfortunately several problems with the way the committee understands student politics. First, the scale of disturbances in universities across the country is not quantified by the committee, which merely says that “one frequently hears” of agitations. Second, by discouraging political activity it wants students not to intensely engage with ideas at university, not to develop moral commitments, stand up for the weak and marginalised and speak out against injustice. In representing student politics this way, the report devalues the role that universities play in producing informed citizens, who are aware of the mechanics of power, privilege and inequality. Universities where students are discouraged from developing moral commitments will become conservative spaces that limit individual thought and national possibilities.

The committee appears to have assimilated the BJP’s concerns about JNU and has underplayed the importance of the humanities and social sciences in education. It is a line of thinking that endorses the anti-intellectualism of this government and will leave India poorer if enforced. As the MHRD considers a new education policy it must recognise that the degree of conformity it expects of students is unlikely to produce the creative, original thinkers that India needs to be a great power. It should also know that critical thought will not automatically ensue when rural students and teachers get access to broadband. It is a disposition that has to be consciously nurtured. And liberals, by the way — both historically and now — play a very important part in that national project.

Read more: An exclusive interview with TSR Subramanian, the man behind the controversial report

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