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Quest for Learning

The Indian system of education is overloaded with too many objectives.

AK Ghosh | New Delhi |


It is a popular misconception that the beneficiaries of education are the students. A little reflection will show that in most cases, things are different. A country like ours which asks for no university degree for its prime ministers or chief ministers, for its chiefs in different sectors, can get all the clerks it needs without waiting for them to graduate from a university.

It was all very well to claim, as Acharya Ramamurthy did while releasing his committee’s Perspective Paper on Education nearly three decades ago that “we will now say goodbye to the Macaulay tradition of education for good”. But could that be done? Not really.

Originally intended to encourage the spread of English education among Indians and produce qualified natives to man subordinate posts in public administration, the Macaulay system has become institutionalised; it is integral to the entire educational system as well as the country’s political and economic structure. The English-educated middle class formed the ruling class and governing elite ever since Independence. This class has been the greatest beneficiary of planned economic development and state socialism. The junking of the “Macaulay tradition of education” would mean the removal of the present elite from its position of power and privilege.

In the wake of independence, a huge political, economic and social infrastructure was put in place to establish an eclectic model of society in which education was to play a vital role in restructuring societal relationships, indeed to provide the base of national development. Our education system was expected to be an instrument of social equality, a mechanism to narrow down the hiatus that divided a small class of educated few from the vast mass of the population mired in illiteracy and backwardness. But today there is growing scepticism in the country, particularly among the younger generation, about the rationale and efficacy of a system which has failed to justify itself as an agent of social change and mobility.

The Indian system of education is overloaded with too many objectives and every objective is considered equally important. We have had the Radhakrishnan Report (1948), the Kothari Commission (1964-66 )and the 1988 New Education Policy with no serious priorities. Perhaps this the reason why it has not been feasible to find or establish an optimum or normative relationship between education and any other social or economic variables. Though education has expanded as an instrument of upward mobility, there was always something wrong with it. The general refrain was that of stagnation and the gap between educational expansion and the needs of society, the economy and polity. The result was that whoever produced any document or policy statement on education injected his own half-baked ideas and prejudices into the corpus of motley views that already existed. The theoretical content of education was overloaded with the result that both the young and the old are totally bewildered about the real purpose of education.

We have been told that the real purpose of education is to impart reading and writing skills, and to train the analytical faculties of a child; to equip him mentally so that he can make independent judgments about problems and issues; to imbibe those values which the education systems of the world think are worth pursuing.

In 1947, there were two major streams of thought and policy framework that could have influenced education. The first was Gandhian in which the dismantling of colonial education was of paramount importance. During the independence struggle, Gandhi not merely denounced the education system introduced by the British; for the purpose of the national struggle he started a parallel system. He was aware of the cultural colonisation remaining after the British had left. Since higher education was the pinnacle of the new cultural system and the creator of the new elite, it was natural that a dependent pinnacle would produce a dependent elite with an international horizon that served the capitalist neocolonial or Communist imperialist elite.

The other was Nehru’s imitation model. The first Prime Minister considered it best to retain the colonial system and use it for the new modernization. But he made Maulana Azad the education minister, who was, of course, conscious of the damage done to Indian society by the colonial system of education, but whose words and ideas never added up to a new model, a new perspective or a new thrust for national education. Both Nehru and Azad did differ on vital issues, and it was the former who prevailed.

However, Nehru could not succeed in generating a movement for mass education through which he could have undermined the colonial elite’s domination over education. The entire burden of change fell on higher education which it could hardly bear as the system produced imitators rather than producers of knowledge.

Yet it has been admitted that Nehru had a vision of higher education that had a convergence with his overall goal of making India into a powerful economy with a strong manufacturing and industrial base. In fact, he sought to imbue the educational institutions with the needs of a new republic. Later,however, during the Indira Gandhi regime, S Nurul Hasan did establish research institutes in the sciences and social sciences. The idea of socialism was propagated. Manmohan Singh, in his endeavour, believing that the quality of education could be enhanced, set up more IITs. It was assumed that an increase in quantity would by itself lead to an improvement in quality; and hence more IITs and IIMs. There is a total lack of vision and a sense of serious priorities. Those who produced the phenomenal document, “The Challenge of Education”, on which the new education policy has been drafted, avoided listing the critical priorities.

The lopsided mismatch between what the economy demands and what the education system provides costs the country dear in various ways. We notice a large number of young men waste several precious years in studying what is irrelevant. Like Eliza Doolittle who was transformed from an efficient self-supporting flower girl into a useless society lady, these youngsters usually become less selfreliant and less useful as a result of their years of wasteful study. In addition to the waste of time and atrophy of self-reliance, their positive quality of enthusiasm actually becomes negative, even destructive. In fact, the unwarranted expansion of unwanted education bestows a false sense of righteousness on the political, bureaucratic and educational leadership, protecting their ego from the responsibility of discharging their duty.

It is a popular misconception that the beneficiaries of education are the students. A little reflection will show that in most cases, things are different.A country like ours which asks for no university degree for its prime ministers or chief ministers, for its chiefs in different sectors, can get all the clerks it needs without waiting for them to graduate from a university. With most students, whatever employment they are able to get, whatever career they are able to carve out for themselves, they can manage without any artifice or skill that any institution can provide.

In fact, higher education , more often than not, only delays their days of fruitful endeavour, reduces their period of productive service and does not compensate for this reduction in quantity by any increase in quality. Thus a few students obtain any real economic benefit from the present education system; in fact, all that they get for the years of study is but a bruised ego.

The basic problem, as the Government’s Policy Perspective notes,is: “In the present milieu accountability can’t be enforced since starting a state sponsored institution represents an irreversible process. No institution or a course can be closed down once it is started.” In other words,the quantum of higher education depends more on employees’ demand than on students’ needs. The country cannot afford to provide higher education to one and all who demand it. Considering that there is so little available for elementary education, it is not fair to demand subsidised higher education even when there is no economic or professional need for it.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Dept of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata.)