Gandhi, Tagore, and India’s coaching culture
On the morning of Gandhi Jayanti, October 2, the whole front page of one of the newspapers that I subscribe to was occupied by an advertisement for a coaching institute. In the following pages of the paper, cut-offs of 100% in seven colleges of Delhi University were reported.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Gandhi would have thought of the coaching culture, which, in my days, would have been called cramming, and of universities refusing to consider any candidate who didn’t get absurdly high marks.
Gandhi certainly did not get 99% in school. Historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee has just written a study of the deep friendship between Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, who didn’t bother with formal education. Tagore said, “I wandered around the outskirts of schools. House tutors were appointed and I played truant. Whatever I managed to get was from the promixity to human beings.”
But both men achieved literary greatness. Tagore won a Nobel Prize for literature. Gandhi founded a philosophy, and maintained that his Nai Talim (system of education) led to the development of the mind, body and soul, while, what he called the ordinary system cared only for the mind.
Tagore founded Visva Bharati in Santiniketan as a meeting ground between Eastern and Western thought. He didn’t agree with Gandhi’s Nai Talim and its national schools, which he felt had “too limited an objective”. Gandhi and Tagore disagreed on several matters, but they discussed their differences and always retained the deepest respect for each other. They were, it might be said, outstanding examples of Amartya Sen’s argumentative Indian.
It is just that open-mindedness, willingness to listen to other points of view, and eagerness to debate can be stifled by the coaching culture because of its emphasis on right answers and exam techniques.
Universities imposing 100% cut-offs are encouraging that culture. The ferocious competition in the education system leads to children and students swotting and working so hard that they have no time for other activities which would broaden their minds — such as the proximity to others from which Tagore learnt so much from. The ubiquity of coaching advertisements, with their claims of success, makes school-children, graduates, and post-graduates believe that they must be coached. Parents, unduly anxious for their children’s academic success, come to believe that coaching is essential.
The government has now announced its new National Education Policy (NEP). In theory, it should radically alter the education system which has led to the coaching culture. The Prime Minister has said that the new policy will “shift the focus from simply memorising to critical thinking”. It will “create job creators rather than job seekers”, and be “big in access to education”. In particular, NEP is designed to reduce the focus on exams, particularly the class 10 and 12 board exams.
NEP can only succeed if there are enough schools and colleges, teachers and lecturers, to provide education. A Unesco report warns that 1.1 million teacher vacancies are unfilled. The situation is particularly dire in rural India. In the villages of Assam, 90% of school teaching posts are unfilled. If NEP is to produce job creators, there needs to be an end to the short-term contract culture. Young people will have to be given reasonable job security, which gives them the stability to develop their skills.
Along with NEP has come the welcome return of the education ministry replacing the human resources ministry. It is to be hoped that this will also mean the return of a management style which treats staff as people, not as resources, like any other resources.
The views expressed are personal