No one doubts that India needs a major change in its system of education but opinions differ rather sharply about the nature of the change required. One currently popular view is that the system should be redirected towards skills. Another buzzword is ‘knowledge society’.
People who use terms such as skills and knowledge, either separately or together, have one thing in common: They want education to make India globally competitive. You often hear them saying, ‘Let us take full advantage of our demographic dividend’. This sounds great, but a bit out of sync with the harsh reality that indicates right now, we are not even in the reckoning for a global contest in any aspect of education or knowledge. Coaching has encircled the best of our institutes of technology. Other areas of professional education, such as medicine, are mired in corruption. And our public universities are starved of funds and good administration.
So, how do we suddenly tie our shoelaces and start dashing--to the global top ten, one hundred or even three hundred rankings? Less-excited people say that we should maintain our old focus on exporting educated human resource overseas, to earn more remittances and boost our foreign reserves. This last view demands no change, just more confidence to hold on to the role that our colonial masters put us in. This last view has one good point: It allows us to recognise what exactly needs to change. In nutshell, we need a system that addresses the needs of our society, rather than others’ needs. In an inequitable and diverse country such as ours, social needs differ from region to region. By aggregating ourselves as a nation, we lose both sight and grip of the problem our system of education faces; namely, its indifference to the milieu. At every level we notice how educating is geared to export of talent: From village to towns, from provincial towns to the metro cities, and from the metros to overseas.
Learning has little meaning if it does not create a sense of engagement with one’s milieu. And engagement demands curiosity and the skills of inquiry. Education that does not arouse interest and the capacity to inquire will encourage indifference and a lack of purpose. It also undermines self-confidence. Ultimately, it creates the desire to escape and pushes people out of their milieu. Thus, it serves as a means of depletion--of motivation and talent. This is tragic; yet, there are people who support this tendency in the system by invoking the good old concept of mobility. They argue that if schooling compels migration from village to city and so on, it will accelerate economic growth. This view is deceptive because it describes an already entrenched process as change. Looked at more deeply, it endorses the mirage that colonial rule had created by establishing a system whereby human resource could be sucked away. What is left behind is chronic inadequacy and volatility in every region. The turmoil we witness in so many regions today is a consequence of this historical process.
It is one thing to maintain rigour in teaching and examination, quite another to inspire students to apply their knowledge and thereby invent new ideas and approaches. Application of knowledge calls for responsiveness to one’s context. Even the best of our institutions fail to cultivate this quality. A major reason for this failure is that teaching remains indifferent to problems available in the physical and social reality where the institution is located. Our colleges and universities behave as if they have nothing to do with the world that lies outside their gates. The same is true of most of our institutes of technology and management.
To make learning experiential and dynamic, teachers need professional freedom and dignity. Our system of education must heal the wounds it has inflicted on teachers over the recent past. They can inspire the young and make the curriculum come alive provided they are given the space and respect for doing their best. At present, they are a disgruntled lot, barring the senior faculty that benefitted from raise in salaries even as the young faculty sank into frustration and anger with changed service rules and permanent vulnerability. Any change in education will depend on how fast India redresses these wrongs.
At the school level too, teachers’ working conditions, training and treatment at the hands of administration will need drastic reforms. Recognition of early childhood as a crucial stage for further advancement is yet another step towards systemic change. Nursery teachers need to be pulled out of their underclass status and brought into the mainstream of the teaching profession.
Finally, we need to introduce structural dynamism in the system. Responsive interaction between its own parts will release new energies. At present, elementary, secondary and higher education are isolated from each other.
Theoretically, higher education is where new knowledge is produced through research and the raw material for curriculum renewal and teacher preparation is generated. Currently, our universities take no interest in elementary or secondary schools, except to bemoan their quality. Similarly, elementary level teachers don’t feel responsible to equip children with the capacity to cope with the secondary level. The same is true of secondary level personnel in relation to the college level. Such internal interactivity will make the system resourceful and autonomous, hence more capable of protecting itself from bureaucratic control and political interference.
The author is a professor of education at University of Delhi and former chairman of NCERT