Time to wage a war on rote learning, but it will need courage and perseverance
India is plagued by the problem of the ‘educated unemployable’. According to some studies, only one of four graduates coming out of engineering and professional colleges are suitable for jobs.columns Updated: Jul 17, 2017 08:50 IST
It is that time of the year when most undergraduate colleges in India are nearing the end of the admission process. Hundreds of thousands of exam-weary high-school students, with many a harassed and anxious parent in tow, will have learnt of their fates. There will be winners, having gained the colleges and the courses of their choice, alongside those compelled to make do with plan B. A good chunk, however, will also find themselves left out in the cold. Others will explore greener and costlier education pastures overseas, while there will also be many herded into for want of a better term — degree granting shops.
The transition from high school to college in India, as we have begun to realise, is at bursting point -- not merely in the sense of not having enough quality institutions for the demographic youth bulge, but mostly over the rising despair about the kind of students being produced by our schools. If one goes by the percentage of marks, then it appears that a good number have barely made an error over the course of a punishing three-hour exam. This includes, surprisingly and especially for my generation on the wrong side of the 40s, in subjects such as literature, history and the range in the social sciences. One remains in wonderment over how ‘objective’ such subjects can possibly be? And how remarkable can the grading be that it seems to discover only the infallible, year after year.
And yet, India is also plagued by the growing problem of the ‘educated unemployable’. According to some studies, only one out of four graduates coming out of engineering and professional colleges in India are found suitable for employment. That number drops to one out 10 when it comes to general education. Many of our engineers and those freshly minted out of the vast network of universities have poor abilities to frame problems, suffer from grim language skills and suffer from the most basic crisis of comprehension. Inadequacies and failings that can all be unambiguously traced to poor education, something that may be worse than having no education at all.
Among policy makers and corporate honchos these days, there is a lot of talk about the urgent need to harness employability among Indian graduates through curriculum changes, adoption of global best practices, deepening industry-university links, soft skill training and so on. But none of these would address the problem that lies at the core of the Indian education system – rote learning.
The education system we have built over the years rewards anything but knowledge acquired over the years spent in a school or a college. From the time a child enters the school, he/she is taught to believe the result of an examination is more important than how it is achieved. A 17-year-old budding historian is tested on his ability to recall and remember events rather than evaluate and analyse the social, political or economic implications of the same. What good will memorising mathematical and scientific formulae do if an aspiring scientist or engineer fails to apply them to the world around her? That is why even the best of schools in India fare worse compared to the average-rated schools in the OECD countries. That is why no one any longer speaks of India’s youth bulge as a demographic dividend. It is, as we speak, fast turning out to be a liability of monstrous consequences in the time to come.
It is time we launched an all-out war on rote learning. It is not going to be easy, for undoing our reliance on rote learning would mean outcomes that will be financially overbearing and politically unpopular. It would require courage and perseverance of the kind we demonstrated when we made universal basic education a fundamental right. Now is the time to redefine the ambitions of the Right to Education Act, which must mean right to quality education.
(The author is the Chief Content Officer, Hindustan Times. He tweets as @RajeshMahapatra)