Friday, June 14, 2024

What has Education done: A Response


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By Prof SK Mishra

In her article “What has education done!” (ST Nov. 18, 2011), Ms Patricia Mukhim has aptly summarized the presentation of a senior scholar/professor of Economics from NEHU in the two-day seminar on “Impact of Education on Socio-cultural Development of Meghalaya” organized by Raid Laban College, Shillong. The points made by Ms. Mukhim are, piece-wise, more or less true with regard to the said presentation, but overall they do not present the intent of the presentation. It conveys something that was not intended. To put the matter in the right perspective, one must bring out what the scholar said, what he meant and how his statements can be differently interpreted.

The scholar did indeed say that any one in NEHU could not produce a single book on the economics of North East India. It is implied that by NEHU, in the present context, he meant the Department of economics (though he might not have mentioned it explicitly) because one cannot normally expect some other department to produce a book on the economics of North East India (NEI). Now, the interpretation depends on the conceptualization as to ‘what is a book’. If a ‘book’ means a collage made up of numerous un-integrated and porous articles in the style of the parable of ‘the blind men and an elephant’, such books on the economics of North East India are many on count. But, to the scholar, a book on the economics of NEI would first present the anatomy and physiology of the northeastern region. Then chapter-wise, it would present the different systems (such as the production system, the distributive system, etc) that keep up the organism (the economy) and highlight the interdependence among them. Having done that, the book would identify the malaise in the system(s), if any, and investigate into its reasons. The book would suggest the remedial measures. The scholar reasserts that such a book has not been written, individually or collectively. Perhaps this is the reason why there are not many who would take interest in teaching the economics of NEI and why it does not make a prominent part of the syllabi. If one takes this critique positively, a book of the right sort will appear in the near future.

The scholar did say that he has been ‘teaching utterly useless things for 27 years’. The scholar sincerely believes that the neo-classical ‘establishment economics’ and its offshoots that make up over 90 percent of the syllabi at the PG (Economics) level is not the right type of economics. This establishment economics is nothing more than an apologia of a particular type of socio-economic system and, therefore, grossly unsuitable to understand the Indian economic system, the economics of NEI in particular. However, the scholar has failed in his efforts to transplant what he considers the right type of economics. As a result he feels that he has been teaching utterly useless things for 27 years. To add, the scholar also thinks that subjects like mathematical economics, econometrics, etc are nothing more than ‘chasing the wind’, if not misguiding. Subjects like political economy, institutional economics, evolutionary economics, etc are much more useful, but they are ignored.

There is an apprehension among some of us that loading the syllabus (PG Economics) with the economics of NEI would cost heavily in terms of dropping many other things in the economic theory. The scholar does not think so. Almost entire body of relevant economic theory can be taught on the canvass of the economics of NEI. And if a part of the economic theory cannot be taught on the said canvass, it is evidently irrelevant. Yet, if anyone thinks that one is teaching the right type of economics that cannot be substantiated with empirical reality observed in the NEI, one is free to do so. The scholar claims no monopoly on the subject.

The scholar did say that he has guided research scholars but even the research is not original discovery but all cut and paste jobs. To appreciate this statement, it may be useful to inform that, first of all, the scholar never wanted to supervise any doctoral research that rests on the establishment economics and thus kept away from such an indulgence for quite many years. However, circumstances compelled him to engage in supervision of research. The scholar sincerely feels that lack of training in the alternative economic theories and the willy-nilly preoccupation with working on the economics of NEI together leave no scope for original discovery in the doctoral research. The thesis has to be written, anyway. Then, nothing is left except indulging in ‘cut and paste’ either in the vulgar sense (verbatim copying with or without cosmetic alterations) or in the sophisticated sense (paraphrasing, collage-making or filling in the blocks with the statistical results obtained from running a software for its own sake). Research begins with an idea and ends with an idea. Research is meant for filling in a gap in the knowledge of an organic whole, but one must know as to what is that gap, and to know that it is a prerequisite to have a comprehension of the organic whole. However, as it has been mentioned earlier, the present education in economics, in the opinion of the scholar, does not impart any comprehension of the said organic whole.

The ‘rental economy’ is an economy in which a substantial part of turnover is accountable to ‘rent’ obtained as a realization of the ‘rent-seeking’ behavior of the agents. Rent, in economics, is an earning that accrues not due to productivity but due to differential positioning whether in political, economic, social, cultural, official, bureaucratic or any such sphere. Economists such as Gordon Tullock, Mancur Olson, etc have contributed substantially to the theory of rent-seeking behavior and the ‘rental economy’. Adapting the theory to the economics of NEI, the scholar has formed his expressed opinion. It is well established in the concerned literature that such economies are wasteful of resources, lagging in research, development, enterprise and enhancement of productivity because the dominance of rent-seekers limit the scope of enterprise. The scholar also feels that this is an important area of research in economics.

As far as the idea of democracy is concerned, the scholar feels that we are in a state of what John Galbraith termed as the ‘going concern’. Galbraith said that organizations have no objective or destination but the dominant agents working in the organizations have diverse interests and objectives and they strive for meeting them. What is the need of a change if things can go along and mere survival of the organization could meet the interests of the dominant agents? Thus, the change is resisted. Democracy of ours short protects the going concern.

Regarding the evaluation of the scholar and the impact of his pessimistic inclination on his students, the past students are the best people to judge him. And optimism or pessimism is a result of expectations vis-à-vis their fulfillment and in part that of the predisposition of a person. One need not make it value-loaded. Nor should one be apologetic about being either of the two. In spite of being merely a small cog in a large machine, possibly, the scholar expected more than what he desired or deserved.

(The author is Professor of Economics, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). He is the senior scholar referred to in the article written by Ms. Patricia Mukhim)


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