Lesser that is said about the state of Indian education more comforting it is, as none of us want to embroil ourselves in endless thought processes without a way out. Human Resource Development minister Smriti Irani is no different. Since becoming minister she has made it her mission to organize photography and painting competitions to enthuse students about government projects and innumerable policies. She is albeit using the public school system to further government propaganda. She should keep in mind that school and university students should not be under the diktats of any ruling dispensation. Ms Irani and her ministry are responsible for educating the children and youth of our country, not to mention the dire need of adult education and training with literacy rate stagnated at 71.2 per cent. Have Ms Irani and her colleagues, that is when she is free from pressures of electioneering, given thought to the kind of education the young in India deserve or need to live in a democratic polity with a market economy? HRD ministry functions through departments of school education and literacy, and higher education. In relation to higher education more prominence should be given to what have euphemistically come to be called as STEM fields Rs science, technology, engineering and medicine. Research and teaching ought to go together in these fields. A university cannot be fully useful if it is only a teaching institution leaving the staff under-utilized. Every teaching institution should have opportunities for research. And Ms Irani being a BJP minister ought to be serious about our ancient past. If she is, she must establish specialised research centres to promote research and scholarship in Indian languages, ancient and modern; and classical literature. And once they are established, she should give them autonomy and therefore freedom from government control so that they can do what they were intended for. Ms Irani should work to diminish/lower our educational systems’ emphasis on rote learning. Be it an engineering institute or a humanities college, all are equally culpable in this practice. If the students do not learn to think about facts and concepts what is the use of memorizing them? (It is unsurprising that the most talked about book amongst students of engineering colleges in India is Mein Kampf.) Ms Irani and her ministry ought to work on making our education liberal. At present it is agonizingly repressive and after graduation produces nothing more than intellectual fatigue amongst students. Political parties would be well advised to stay away from the educational campus; let the ambitious within the student body learn to serve the interests of their constituency, that is students, through student governments. They are not to be used as grounds to learn the art of politicking. Some argue that Indian colleges and universities should be given recognition as institutions of national importance, grades like A, B, C etc. What is the relevance of labels when their excellence and importance do not go beyond the classroom and campus walls? And with change in the government, the ranking methodology alters. Most of our universities are so similar in their conduct that they play little or no role in explaining new ideas to the educated public or in rejuvenating the local economy and dealing with its problems. Universities in India ought to envision themselves as more than just centres of mass education. They must learn to function as living organisms dealing with ideas, problems and challenges. A sign of a mature institution is its keenness to deal with problems. Indian cities are forever plagued with problems of traffic snarls, littering at public places, and sewagerelated issues. Indian universities would serve an urgent public purpose if they showed social concern and scientific interest in solving these problems. Attendance at a government sponsored workshop gives a sense of confusion with regard to education. And most of the time goes in enumerating what the leading functionary thinks about the role of education. Instead policymakers and politicians should worry more about administrative issues, managerial competencies, building infrastructure and effective teacher training. If our education was doing half that it was meant to, corporate India would not find more than three-fourths of Indian graduates unemployable. This is not to take away credit from hard working students and faculty in the best Indian colleges and universities. Although it must be pointed out that most of the students in these colleges and universities come from urban centres and privileged social backgrounds. So much so far for the infamous ‘merit’. Without a strong school education, merit in higher education cannot become a reality. Primary importance should be on enhancing reading and mathematical abilities in school education supported with good nutrition. These basic measures will promote social justice and eventually make the competition fairer when it comes to higher education. Ms Irani would do well to reflect on what can make our young discerning thinkers and citizens of modern India and the world. Her colleagues should also begin to think on what makes our young the way they are. Is it human nature? Or is our society answerable? What separates the developed from the developing usually lies in the domain of education; the developed in every way possible have made education humane and inclusive, two qualities we in India can learn a lot from. Ethnic and regional chauvinism is something that afflicts many in India. And our educational system is so ineffective that it does not make us aware of these prejudices even after spending years trying to gain light of knowledge. And once the students graduate very few amongst them are interested to learn new thoughts and ways of seeing. Prejudices and chauvinism are manifest in daily life and work without consideration for others. India is a secular republic and therefore has no place for prejudices and chauvinism. One important aim of education is to save man from debilitating conformity. Education is not a means to satisfy our grotesque needs, but ought to be developed as a personal method for temperamental refinement, professional growth and sophistication in understanding the world we live in and the people we live with. Politicians and policymakers working on education should begin to think on what Gandhiji wanted India to be. Today&’s India may seem distant from Gandhiji&’s vision, but in truth it is not that far. Education should take us towards his India.
The writer, a journalist, has a Masters in Social Policy from LSE.