Saturday, October 3, 2009


Isn’t is shameful that I, Siddharth Tyebji, son of a Muslim father and a Hindu Bengali mother, neither can speak Urdu nor Bengali?

- Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi

Though it’s hard to define the primary goal of education, the result of education should ideally lead to an enlightenment of the student towards the world outside, to provide him with a better understanding of things within him and without, so that he could use those skills in their betterment in some way or the other.

What shouldn’t it be? Most importantly, education should not solely be a means to livelihood, it should not only be the process one has to undergo to earn a living in this world, it should not only mean the passing of an exam or the stamp of a degree.

Unfortunately, it has become to mean exactly that. The idea of a holistic education meant to broaden the mind is almost non-existent today. We live in an era of ‘specialisation’, and it, by definition, demands a narrowing down of interests, a sort of isolation. Where the proliferation of choice is seen as the biggest positive development, it is not a surprise that the belief has percolated to the field of education as well. Education is the ice-cream parlour, the subjects are the various flavours on display. Take the one you like. No one’s better than the other. The vendor has no suggestions to make.


Take, for example, the schools under the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE). As early as Standard IX, students are required to select their ‘Second Language’ (it is named so as studying English is, of course, mandatory). The options available in my school were Sanskrit, Hindi, French and German.

While Sanskrit might look like a welcome inclusion in this list, anyone who has been at school knows that the picture isn’t so beautiful when it comes to its application. There are a very few students who take Sanskrit out of natural interest. Instead, most of the people who do are the ones who want to have it easy in their 10th Standard Board Exams. The fact that Sanskrit is a ‘scoring’ subject in which not too much hard work is necessary to get you a 95 out of 100 is known to all.

This has perverted the whole intention behind imparting knowledge about one of India’s ancient languages. A historically rich and beautiful form of communication has been reduced to becoming a way of acquiring numbers on a sheet of paper. A subject that can potentially open up one’s mind to a universe of knowledge is being mugged up mechanically by students, just as they had done for the multiplication tables in preparatory school.

On top of that, the options given to them are French and German. Now, for a child who has been familiar with phrases such as ‘the big, mean world’ and the ‘cut-throat competition’ outside, it is fairly easy to guess what language he or she will choose. In the new globalised India, where one might be involved in workforces constantly in interaction with foreign clients, a little knowledge of French or German is seen as an added ‘asset’. For the urban middle class India today, Sanskrit and elements such as that are part of the old India, the India gone by, and empowered by the chance at financial success and a superior quality of life 1991 has provided them, they are firm in their rejection for everything old. As if we there was actually a demarcation like such, where the old died and the new was born. But in their minds, it is clear.

I would like to iterate here that I have nothing against the teaching of foreign languages. The more appropriate way would to give students an option between Hindi and Sanskrit (and the local language of the place, if different from Hindi) and in addition, provide an optional Third Language option which facilitates the leaning of French, German and the like. The obvious argument to this would be that it’ll further increase the already immense workload the average school-goer suffers from. The obvious reply to this would be that perhaps languages are the only definable entity by which we stay connected to our culture, to the past. To subvert the study of the same for the sake of more ‘scientific’ education can be disastrous. In short, the study of history and culture, or in other words, what connects us to the past is of prime importance. The marginalisation of this defeats the very aim of education.

The underlying belief behind the existing state of affairs, though it might not be stated explicitly, is that education’s primary responsibility is to make products out of human beings. The phrase ‘duniya ke liye tayyar karna’ has taken a wholly absolute meaning today. Children have become raw materials, who are then processed with education, after which they are let out into the big, wide world as finished products. The system of examination prevalent today only furthers the extent and impact of the above style of thinking. We rely primarily on memory-based questioning which encourages students to stack up as much as they can within a period of time, just to vomit it all out on the day of the examination. There is very little emphasis given to imaginative or divergent learning, or to anything that falls beyond the scope of the textbooks.

All this is a result of a society which demands only concrete results. What you know and what you feel is immaterial to them. What matters is only the final number on your grade sheet. This is also a society that doesn’t permit failures. The emotional ostracisation that one has to undergo in case of the same is enormous. The numerous cases of suicides by students unsatisfied with their 10th and 12th grades are a big example of that. If that is not a cause of worry for us today, and if it doesn’t lead to radical change, it’s hard to say what will. The recent measures taken by the government to make the 10th board exams optional is a long-awaited step in the right direction.

Note: As I was writing this part of the piece, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal also came up with a proposal making the teaching of Hindi compulsory across all schools in the country. This, however, is ridiculous as imposing Hindi on a Tamilian is as unjust as imposing Tamil on someone from the Hindi belt.


Albeit, it is heartening to see Kapil Sibal eager to implement the suggestions made by the committee headed by the 82-year old Prof. Yash Pal (a full copy of the report can be found here). This report on higher education in India spells out the problems it is suffering from and also suggests policies and concrete steps the government should take to overcome the same.

As Mr. Sibal puts it, higher education today has become ‘compartmentalised’. That is not only to say that streams operate independently of each other, but also that research and education, which need to go hand in hand in order to produce quality teachers, are also seen as separate entities. Quoting the report:

It should be necessary for all research bodies to connect with universities in their vicinity and create teaching opportunities for their researchers and for all universities to be teaching and research universities.

While the report acknowledges the importance of imparting knowledge about a varied set of disciplines at least at the undergraduate level, it adds that there already are some current universities that offer such opportunities. For example, there are some engineering colleges today which offer courses on subjects such as history and philosophy. But even at those centres, they are very rarely taken seriously by the students. The report’s suggestion to counter this shortcoming:

One way of improving the quality of teaching of these additional disciplines and stimulating students’ interest is to allow students for whom a subject is additional to study along with those for whom the same subject is primary. For instance, a mathematics student should study and undergo evaluation in philosophy as an optional subject along with students for whom philosophy constitutes the primary subject.

The whole idea behind the report is to make education more inclusive by way of integration, be it in terms of disciplines such as science and humanities or fields such research and education itself. Should only a part of the suggestions mentioned in the report be implemented, it will lead to a significant positive change in the way education is perceived today.

The currently fashionable idea of ‘specialisation’ has taken a totally different form when it comes to universities. While schools, through electives, deprive the child of essential basic knowledge, universities, which are the last step for a student before starting on a job, work in near complete isolation with each other. The many engineering, management and medical colleges around the country have been lacking in this regard, and this does not exclude the much-aspired-for IITs and IIMs. An student who has taken admission into an engineering college is delivered education pertinent to his field of specialisation only; there are but very few colleges in India which encourage the study of subjects beyond its principal scope, depriving the student of exposure to innumerable possibilities where different fields of study interact and co-produce, leading to over-all, all-inclusive development. Development – this is one aspect of education very conveniently forgotten today. The Constitution is unclear about its regard for education as an agent of transformation or change. This spirit is lost when education starts to be seen as something that only ‘adds value’. The proliferation of private educational institutes offering higher education is a prime example of such change in view. Most of these institutions are nothing but money-minting ventures which take no responsibility for what their duty is towards the society at large. Rather than looking at the multi-national firms which recruit people from such places and the fat pay packages they give as criteria for judgement, universities should be judged by how much they have done to reduce disparities such as gender, class and caste.