The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 2, 2001
Lead Article

Still a lot to learn about education ---- Photos by Pankaj Sharma, Illustration by Gaurav Sood

While a number of reports of different commissions are gathering dust in musty offices, our educational standards continue to deteriorate. The current educational system does not encourage our students and teachers to strive for excellence. It manages to blunt their creativity that almost miraculously blossoms when the same people migrate to more conducive climes of the West, says Randeep Wadehra.

EDUCATION in India is a hoary tradition from the gurukuls of 200BC, the ancient Buddhist viharas, the medieval maktabs and madarsas, and finally down to the modern education system — a direct result of the British rule. One would have thought that the present mess in our education system should have been impossible to concoct. Theoretically, at least, Indian society should have been fully literate. Alas, the truth is quite contrary! What went wrong, is there a remedy?


When we became independent the literacy rate hovered between 18 per cent and 20 per cent. More than 80 per cent of the population floundering in the darkness of ignorance was quite a soul-sapping spectre. Quantitatively speaking, indeed giant strides have been taken towards making India literate — the current figure is approximately 52 per cent. Considering the odds, this achievement is creditable by any standards. Yet one can’t help wondering whether the picture could not have been much brighter.

While we may well pat ourselves on the back for lifting literacy to above 50 per cent, are these figures really worth gloating over. Enthusiastic government functionaries have unashamedly flaunted even those who have merely learnt to sign their names as literate. All-round growth of one’s personality and converting apparent deadwood into a productive asset of society ought to be the primary aim of any meaningful literacy campaign. Self-realisation and the faculty for balanced judgement require to be developed in an individual.

It is also necessary to develop the capacity to cope with changing circumstances, which is essential to lessen social friction and pre-empt upheavals owing to lack of comprehension of the issues at stake. It is not merely technology that gets obsolete but new ideas in every walk of life develop rapidly in an evolving polity. Presently, economic efficiency is our national mantra. Therefore, literacy should be looked upon as a stepping stone to better things in life like good health, a vibrant and cohesive society.

Despite the hype, female literacy still lags behind. Only those states in India have shown improvement in quality of life where female literacy is comparatively high. For example, female literacy in Kerala is more than 86 per cent. Consequently, the state has the lowest birth rate at 17.3 per cent, death rate is 6 per cent and fertility rate 1.7 per cent. Compare this with Bihar where female literacy is 23 per cent, birth rate 32.5 per cent, death rate 10.4 per cent and fertility rate 4.6 per cent.

The number of primary schools in the country has risen from about two lakh in 1950-51 to more than five lakh and seventy thousand in 1992-93. Operation Blackboard has been launched to improve the schools’ infrastructure in a phased manner. Total literacy campaigns are being gradually extended to more and more districts. Enrolment in schools has increased from 24 million in 1950-51 to 167 million in 1992-93. Educational television too has started making its presence felt. A 24-hour channel is envisaged wherein adult literacy, language, vocational courses and job opportunities shall be dealt with.

A major impediment in the imparting of elementary education is paucity of trained professional teachers. The Delhi University had started a new degree course, "Bachelor in Elementary Education" with a view to providing trained professionals at the primary school level. Unfortunately, our administrators are now not very sure whether elementary schooling constitutes first to fifth or first to eighth grades! Another decision that hangs fire is whether this new breed of teachers should be treated on a par with the Trained Graduate Teachers (TGTs) or not. TGTs are slotted to teach high school students, while in the present dispensation there is no room for them or their equivalents at the primary school level where a NTT course suffices. Seeing the utter confusion in the "formal" sector of education one can easily imagine the treatment that the informal sector viz., the literacy campaign must be getting. The problem of bad planning is so rampant that there is hardly any bureaucratic cart that has not been placed right in front of the pedagogic horse.

The all-pervasive reservations and donations system ensures emaciation of merit-based educational order. Unfortunately, donations are not limited to professional colleges alone but even reputed primary and high schools unabashedly demand fat sums. This effectively bars the way of brilliant but otherwise not well-off scholars. In today’s India, Dr Radhakrishnan could not have been able to get the benefit of even high school education let alone reach the exalted position that he ultimately did.

While a number of reports of different commissions are gathering dust in musty offices our educational standards continue to deteriorate. The current educational system does not encourage our students and teachers to strive for excellence. It manages to blunt their creativity that almost miraculously blossoms when the same people migrate to more conducive climes of the West. How else does one explain the fact that while Indians abroad frequently climb new peaks of academic glory and achievements, they seldom do so in India?

To restore our institutions to some sort of dignity the following are the bare minimum prerequisites: l More say for teachers in the formulation and implementation of policies. l A foolproof feedback system to evaluate the functioning of educational institutions; corrective steps should be both prompt and free of extraneous considerations. l Latest teaching techniques. l A fair say to students regarding issues affecting them.

Universalisation of elementary education, eradication of illiteracy in the age group of 15-35 and making vocational education relevant to the emerging needs in rural and urban settings have been major thrust areas of the Eighth Plan. Towards this end formal, non-formal and open channels or learning have been utilised. However too much is being laid in store by the effectiveness of NGOs and amateur volunteers. Long-term perspective and professional approach are missing. For far too long the affairs have remained in the hands of those who neither have the skill nor inclination to make India truly literate.

The National Policy on Education — adopted in 1986 and reviewed in 1992 — is once again under scrutiny of the present government. The programme for elementary education strives to meet the constitutional directive of free and compulsory education for all children up to 14 years of age. The Operation Blackboard aims at providing and improving physical facilities in primary schools all over the country. During the Eighth Plan, it has aimed at continuation of the ongoing scheme to cover all the remaining schools identified in the Seventh Plan; expanding the scheme’s scope to provide three rooms and three teachers in primary schools; and extending the scope of the scheme to upper primary schools.

The non-formal education programme that caters to dropouts, the working children etc. has fallen victim to the perennial resource crunch. In 1979-80 this programme was begun to promote universalisation of elementary education. For this purpose 10 educationally backward states were selected: A.P., Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, J&K, M.P., Orissa, Rajasthan, U.P. and W.Bengal. The focus has shifted from mere enrolment to retention and achievement. Micro-planning and quality of education need greater emphasis, if this program is to become even a modest success.

The 10+2 structure, first recommended by the Calcutta University Commission in 1917-19, has been receiving erratic attention by various states and educational bodies. One has lost count of the number of times the 10+2 system has been adopted and discarded for no apparent rhyme or reason. Vocationalisation is the mantra to make the 10+2 click, but sadly the ground-level realities tell another story. The mind-set is the same — cover the syllabus, mug up the printed word and spew it on the examination table. Where is the professional attitude and attempt at originality among the teacher and the taught?

School managements collect huge sums from their parents on the pretext of purchasing computers for the pupils. In most cases, machines simply do not arrive. Wherever they have actually been purchased, the students are not allowed to even go near them. There are no trained instructors to acquaint them with even the basics of computer operations. The classic Indian mentality of putting the cart before the horse, and selling off the latter’s fodder, is very much alive and kicking. Thank you.

The National Open School has more than two lakh students on its rolls. A majority of them are from socially disadvantaged sections. However, despite its potential, it suffers from serious drawbacks. Study notes do not reach students on time. Corrected assignments are seldom returned. One has to run from pillar to post to get an admit card to the examination hall. The roll numbers too do not reach in time. The indifference of the officials is to be experienced to be believed. In the more than 300 Navodaya Vidyalayas, there are about one lakh students. Started with much fanfare as havens of quality education for rural areas, they are fast degenerating in the manner of government schools. Unless urgent corrective steps are taken, another rosy dream is going to dissipate into nothingness.

Discarding the socialist path, we have now hit the free market trail. Therefore our education system needs overhauling with ‘experience’ as the new watchword. It is time to allow our private sector to enter the realm of literacy promotion. Already, big companies are running schools for their employees’ children. The government can rope in industrial giants to make India literate. Their superior management skills might well prove to be the much-needed catalyst.

Educational excellence implies proficiency in academics as well as in the application of knowledge acquired in classrooms. To facilitate this, several structural changes need to be ushered in. Ample funds need to be provided to educational institutions and the compensation package should be irresistible to the best brains in teaching profession so that migration to the West becomes an unattractive proposition. This would certainly pay dividends in the long run when better-equipped youngsters enter the job market.

Research and scientific temper are the hallmarks of modern civilisation and India too has kept abreast with developments. Our progress has been despite, and not because of the system. It is more the individual brilliance and toil that helps us gain respectability among the comity of nations rather than the existence of an efficient system. It is time we put an educational super-structure in place to cope with the demands of the new millennium.

There is no point in ignoring our history or belittling our heritage. It is indeed the right time to overhaul our school syllabus. The number of subjects needs to be drastically reduced. Books as appetisers while practical experience, observation and experimentation as entree could make education a wholesome input for the development of human resources. Rabindra Nath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi’s innovative techniques were much ahead of their times, but they can be fruitfully employed today with certain modifications.

It would be interesting to see how vocationalisation succeeds once the students realise they don’t have to wrestle with subjects they have no interest in. Instead of the main streams of humanities, commerce and science, students could have a choice of vocations they would like to specialise in. This does appear to have the potential of providing them with a far better scope for becoming productive members of society. The present system of selecting teachers is outmoded. There is no way to know in the present order whether the person selected has any aptitude for or inclination to teach. Worse, the B.Ed. degree, or its equivalent actually has no real significance as far as the quality of teaching is concerned.

If one treats the educational structure as a pyramid in which primary education forms the base, then much of the effort and money should go into strengthening the base. A system of selecting ideal teachers at the primary school level must be enforced; both their concerns and credentials ought to be minutely scrutinised before giving them the vital task of shaping the future citizens of India. The potential of high schools as vocational training centers in collaboration with industrial houses for the majority of students may be gainfully tapped. Colleges and universities should form the pyramid’s peak and only the best brains among the teacher and the taught should be able to gain entry. Compromise with standards should be ruthlessly discouraged and scholarship without fear or favour should be encouraged.

Once the pyramid is established, a suitable method of sustaining upward mobility of scholars from all walks of life can be evolved. It is a truism that scholarship is not the monopoly of any particular class or denomination, but has been found in unlikely environs. To inculcate the culture of excellence in our academic institutions, it would be necessary to have a combination of awards and inducements. Severe testing of scholastic capabilities and rich rewards for those who succeed through honest toil is bound to uplift our academic standards.

Specialisation ought to be the key word of our future education system. Engineers, doctors, scientists, economists, thinkers, philosophers, writers, poets and artists etc. all have a role to play in nation-building. Students may be selected according to their aptitude and inclinations to the various professional streams. Teaching courses as well as material might be constantly updated to remain in tune with the latest developments in related fields of knowledge.

Our school libraries need to be well provided with the latest books and other publications. There is also an urgent need for having good libraries at the micro levels viz., towns, villages and their equivalents — like colonies, societies, sectors etc. — in bigger cities.

Environment consciousness among even our educated classes is meagre, as shown by the civic behaviour of our society’s better off sections. There is hardly any organised resistance to the wanton pollution of our air, water and soil. Whatever little is being done is more a result of some individual actions rather than the end product of an enlightened society’s efforts. Environment has been perfunctorily included in the school curriculum. A detailed study is essential to make the subject relevant to our immediate problems and long term needs. Students ought to be enabled to develop a vision of an Eco-friendly lifestyle that would be handed down to the succeeding generations in the best Indian tradition.

In this millennium while technology shall have an all-pervading influence, human inputs will remain indispensable in the formation of an enlightened society. It is time to look upon literacy campaigns not as politico-bureaucratic exercises but as a concerted national effort to evolve a citizen who is well-informed, confident and capable; and who would be an asset to the society.

Having seen the utter confusion in the "formal" sector of education one can easily imagine the treatment that the informal sector viz., the literacy campaign must be getting. The problem of bad planning is so rampant that there is hardly any bureaucratic cart that has not been placed right in front of the pedagogic horse.

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