By Avner Pariat
There has been a lot of talk over the years about making a change to the educational scenario of the country, mainly arising out of the fact that the current system in India is regarded as being outdated and “useless”. This common source of concern is echoed by all political fronts: from the very Right – who seem to believe the only thing wrong with it is that it is too “Mughal” – to the extreme Left – who are convinced that it is only ever a tool for indoctrination (as though they themselves are beyond such things). There has always been a lot of debate around this topic. Even from the earliest days when the old folks first started thinking about education as a concept, there was always this tussle around the “purpose of education”.
Currently the latest budget offered by Nirmala Sitharaman promised a renewed and sustained emphasis on a “useful” education in line with what Corporates and other employers require. There will be more bridge-courses, more vocational internships across the length and breadth of the country. Sitharaman expects the technical institutions to take the lead in a paradigm shift in our nation’s educational scenario.
This drive towards “useful” vocational employment-oriented education is good for the economy but is it good for the soul? As Science, Tech, Engineering and Math (STEM) are pushed across campuses and incentivised heavily by the governments of the land, what will happen to “useless” knowledge? You know, subjects like English Literature, Philosophy and Classics. Subjects which gave us deeper insights into the nature of reality than what was immediately exhibited before us. Subjects which helped make sense of the world and comforted us with an inner hope. These subjects by themselves do not make you employable, in fact many would argue that they have the exact opposite effect on prospective employers! But the rulers know this all-too-well. It is no surprise that there is no talk about bridge-courses between the Arts and the Sciences or Commerce. Instead the proposed special bridge-courses will be “for nurses, para-medical staff and care-givers to enhance their employability in the healthcare sector”. The authorities know the truth. That a good Liberal Arts Education is essentially subversive. Why would they want that to be spread around? It is much more desirable to have obedient workers who are myopic and selfish, who maybe entrusted to be narrow-minded and thus easily divided, subsequently dominated by the powerful elites.
By extension, the budget offered by Finance Minister, Sitharaman is also a budget that privileges Private Sector control over Education. She has made it very clear that there will be more Private engineering schools, more Private medical institutions and so on. Perhaps in a country as diverse and big as India this is surely not a bad thing however regulations on the sector also look set to be steadily and purposefully undone and that will probably lead to a big problem down the line. Especially if Education continues to be seen as a for-profit Corporate venture.
It is a fact that schools which charge more from students can give more attention and better instruction than schools where the fee structure is lower. Charging more money means that a school can afford more infrastructure and equipment for its wards’ development. The flip-side of this is that only the wealthy and powerful will be able to afford such an education. This invariably leads to a hegemony whereby the children of the rich and powerful will immediately be in a position to retain power and position within their families indefinitely. ‘Where you go to school’ and not your ‘schooling’ would then matter inordinately in one’s life. It is for this reason that schools like my own alma mater, St Edmunds, continue to supply the professional, ruling class for society. The more you pay, the higher your chances of success in life.
This is the logic that drives the construction of numerous “international” schools all over the country today. It is the reason why massive structures are being built now professing to cater to every whim desired by the next generation of nation-builders. After all, if older schools like St Edmunds or St Xavier’s can charge a hefty fee from students and produce important people then shouldn’t it follow that an even heftier fee will produce even more important people? Education is like food, it is vital. Corporate-minded people know that parents will drive themselves into veritable bankruptcy to secure their children’s future. But should we destroy one aspect of our children’s future to feed another? Should our children only mingle with members of their own class? There is a wonderful proverb sourced from different African cultures which says: “it takes a village to raise a child”. This means that an entire community of people across the income spectrum must interact with children for those children to experience and grow up in a safe, healthy and intellectually stimulating environment. But increasingly, parents are leaving all schooling to the hands of schools and that might be the real tragedy of the story. Schools might not always know what’s best for children.
I might sound a bit harsh towards my alma mater in the preceding paragraphs. It is not my intent. Obviously if I had to choose between an institution like St Edmund’s and a corporate-style “international” school, I would pick St Edmund’s any day. Though Privately-held, such “religious” schools are also Public in a way because they must answer to a tithe-paying congregation. However, increasingly, we are seeing that Government assistance towards its own institutions is becoming increasingly scarce and Private schools are benefiting a lot from this. The present MDA government has taken the rather audacious decision to shut down hundreds of schools within the state. This will have a grave impact on the education scenario. I suspect that the money they save from these austerity measures will go to enrich the coffers of various Private schools all over the state.
The success of schools like Pine Mount is almost never talked about. The institution might be going through some crisis as was seen in the news last year and I can personally testify that it needs a severe professional overhaul and a shake-up of its management. However it would be unfair to neglect the fact that it has been able to consistently produce intelligent, capable, professional women for decades in spite of being an entirely government-owned school. When Lahkmen Rymbui, our own Betsy Devos, proposed the shutdown of the government schools did he offer plans to set up Pine Mount-style schools in every district? What is the new investment plan for Education that goes beyond “skilling” that his government envisions? We don’t need more zombies and drones; our education must be relevant and it must inform our decisions as rational, independent-thinking citizens.