Do we care too much about university education? You might think that is a ridiculous question in view of the generally accepted doctrine that what India needs most is more education and health care. But the controversy about the prime minister’s degree seems to me symptomatic of an unhealthy obsession with university education.
I am not entering into the controversy about whether Narendra Modi has a degree. What concerns me is the assumption underlying this controversy, the assumption that he would in some way be a lesser man and less qualified to be prime minister if he didn’t have a degree. The history of India since 1947 demonstrates that you don’t need a degree to be prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi never tried to hide the fact that he “ploughed” at university or, as I remember used to be said, was “plucked”. In Britain Winston Churchill performed poorly at school and did not go to university, nor in France did General de Gaulle. Rabindranath Tagore thought so little of university education that he founded Shantiniketan to be different from traditional universities.
This obsession with university education leads to job-seekers being assessed by the number of their degrees. Take the MA, for example. A British university professor recently told me the MA was merely a money-making device. That was literally true when I was young. I was awarded my MA simply by paying a comparatively small sum of money to Cambridge University. Many Indian students who flock to foreign universities to get their MA will be spending large sums of money just because the possession of an MA, and specially a foreign one, is so highly rated, by potential employers.
The concentration on formal education tends to make students forget that there are many different ways to learn. That education should not finish when you leave the university. That, as Shri Aurobindo taught, the whole of life should be a learning experience — life-long learning.
The most pernicious effect of this emphasis on the importance of degrees is the tendency to look down on those who don’t have one. That is all too often coupled with disrespecting those who work with their hands. This concerned Mahatma Gandhi, who was a great upholder of the dignity of labour of all sorts but particularly of what he called bread labour, working with the hands, which he felt we should all honour by doing ourselves. He once said: “Let me not be misunderstood. I do not discount the value of intellectual labour but no amount of it is any compensation for bodily labour which everyone of us is bound to give for the common good of all.”
The same danger of over-rating the importance of educational qualifications and consequently looking down on those who don’t have them have reappeared in a form which undermines a crucial principle of the Constitution — the principle that every citizen should have a vote irrespective of their sex, their economic status and their education. The governments of Rajasthan and Haryana have passed laws stipulating the educational standards candidates in local elections must have. This is a breach of the universal suffrage, which has enabled Indians to say with pride “we have achieved in a few years what it took our former colonial masters hundreds of years to achieve and at the time the constitution was written America had still not achieved”. But one-Indian-one-vote is of far greater importance than mere boasting. The literacy rate was only 12% at Independence, so imposing an educational qualification on voting would have excluded 88% of the population. Politicians, whose main concern is always votes, would have ignored them.
Babasaheb Ambedkar had this to say about those who insisted on literacy as a qualification for voting, “Their first mistake consists in the belief that an illiterate person is necessarily an unintelligent person. Their second mistake lies in supposing that literacy necessarily imparts a higher level of intelligence or knowledge than what the illiterate possesses.” The controversy over the Modi degree shows that far too many people think having a degree is a mark of superior intelligence and knowledge.
The views expressed are personal