Friday, July 16, 2010

Rethinking Education

Rethinking education July 16th, 2010
Shiv Visvanathan Share Buzz up!Tags: education in India The other day someone asked me what I thought were the three most important ministries. The standard answers expected were defence, home and finance. Some would hyphenate foreign and defence. I must admit these are important ministries, if law and order, security are the most important goals of the state. But in a futuristic sense, as a vision for creativity, the three most important ministries are health, environment and education. These constitute the framework for the future. Today I want to focus on one of them — education.

The reason is we are being outthought. Education in India is creating a mimic man, an imitative society content with being a fourth-rate America, glad if it has Donald Duck or Spiderman on the flag. It is turning us into a third-rate global regime. We are so pleased with our success abroad, from Spelling Bees to a two-inch column in the Times, that we don’t recognise that we are being bypassed intellectually.

Competition is good in its own way but what are we competing about? Our leadership is quite happy to have reached the 19th century of ideas in a society they still treat as 14th century.

Our dynamism is misdirected because our language and theories of education are flawed. Look at how we approach education. It is in the language of productivity and numbers. The way our minister speaks we don’t know whether he is in charge of buildings or education. He sounds more like a minister for housing because building education is a totally different game. The numbers game creates a sense of targets but an obsession with it forecloses the debate on quality, plurality and content. We play the multiplication game with slogans of more IIT, more IIMs, as if we have patented a way of cloning institutions. No one takes a critical look at these institutions beyond an occasional critique of their admissions policy. The IIMs and IIT have research ratings which would embarrass a modest, even provincial, US university. In fact, we have no theory of the modern university.

Ironically, we are still children of Macaulay. His ghost overpowers the Gandhian vision. There is an irony to it because Macaulay made us middle class English speakers. It is our comparative advantage in English that powers our economy. Our model of education is still the tutorial college. More students have grown up reading K.K. Dewett and Ruddar Dutt than the management expert Prahlad and the economist Sen.

What is the tutorial college? It is the ultimate fantasy of reduction and miniaturisation. A society’s inversion of Macaulay’s perverse dream. Macaulay’s arrogance proclaimed that all of Indian civilisation is not worth a shelf of Western books. The irony was that we literally reduced Western civilisation to a shelf of dull functional books. We then bowdlerised it, simplifying it to its crudest elements. The kunji or cogbook was born. We reduced Western civilisation from a text to a textbook and religiously updated it. These books are the publisher’s ultimate fantasy and run up to 40 editions. We turned education into an instrument like a lathi or a screwdriver between the kunji and the tutorial college. The ultimate dream of the tutorial college is entry into IIT and IIT pays back by imitating its pedagogy.

If imitation is a sign of flattery, India is the ultimate mimic civilisation. Mimicry may be a form of temporary survival but it cannot be a substitute for creativity in a democratic society. One has to be more inventive.

More crucially, India can’t create a history where education mimicked the violence of colonialism. Imperialism could, with the aid of homogenising development models, museumise tribe and craft, or condemn them to assimilation. We need plural structures of knowledge and education where craft is reworked as a new kind, as a new hand-brain hyphen and our linguistic wealth, both written and oral, is sustained.

Our university is still the examination machine of the 19th century, meant for turning out clerks and bureaucrats. Our mandarins still emerge from that system and exemplify it. We are masters of the exam system but mediocres in research. We are poor at knowledge creation and it is in the domain of knowledge creation and knowledge strategies that India is losing out.

We need a gradient of knowledge systems from the primary school to the centres of advanced knowledge. We have to realise it is one chain of being, like a food chain, and violence to any part damages the whole. To a theory of integrated knowledge, we have to add a theory of knowledge itself.

We have to keep the varieties of knowledge in our society dynamic. We have to realise that the democratisation of knowledge demands that the tribal, the peasant, the hawker, the nomad be seen as strategists of survival, as men and women of knowledge. Our informal economy is a knowledge system of its own that we are loathe to appreciate. The democratisation of knowledge has to be part of the democratisation of democracy. This demands that we be a knowledge culture first before we are a knowledge economy.
The Knowledge Commission actually did not work. India has no current equivalent of the Kothari or Radhakrishnan Report. We need such an overall statement which links education to new ideas in science, ecology and culture. Europe and the USA are continually rethinking their universities. These changes don’t merely cover budgetary reform but critical changes in economy and the structure of science.

Our paradigms of education are 19th century and our policy is only a collection of add-ons. What we need is a new “Educational Report” which is as ethnographically rich as a colonial gazetteer, which connects to other critical reports like the Sengupta Report and the Sachar Report on Minorities. A theory of the knowledge economy cannot be a nation state document. It has to be simultaneously civilisational and located in community and civil society. A project that links all these into a vision of the future is a project whose time has come. The question is do our politicians have the will to create such a vision and implement it, or is obsolescence and illiteracy the strategy of our populism-seeking elite?

* Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist

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