Thursday, October 9, 2008

Rethinking Higher Education in India

Learning from the Global Economic Crisis

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

The bubble economy of speculative finance capital is in a crisis. People are losing jobs and money. The students who borrowed huge sums to finance their education and who are half way through their study programs are anxious whether all the trouble has been worthwhile. Placements have shrunk and, in several favourite courses, stopped altogether. These are some of the grim, ordinary truths of our time. You have only to visit a few institutions offering ‘professional’ and ‘job-oriented’ courses, or speak to your friends in the finance, banking or consumer sectors to find out the actual state of affairs. Or try and find on the pages of your newspaper any images of jubilant young people beckoning the reader to join them in the sunrise sectors of the new economy. Those images have quietly stopped appearing.

The situation offers an historic opportunity to seriously reconsider the course we have taken during the last few years and, more than that an opportunity to do, in the academia, a bit of soul-searching. In a country where very few people can put pen to paper, have the teachers by and large not failed the call of responsibility? As ‘education’ got re-branded as ‘human resource development’ and as a variety of myopic vocational courses began to push out all else that for centuries had been identified with education, did we not act as mute and complicit witnesses to the steady ruin of education? Singing Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, TINA (There Is No Alternative), did we not allow ourselves to be reduced to the paid audiences of serialized song and dance shows on television?

It is time we thought of correcting our course. We need more than mere quality improvement; we need real changes. All said and done, education is not just industry or commerce. We do not make things; we shape people. Those who argue, with reference to Macaulay’s imperial agenda, for the decolonization of education in the interest of the country’s current economic requirements forget that the discourse of decolonization is often merely a disguised plea for the subordination of education to the requirements of neoliberal global (read Western) economy. The argument that the country earns precious foreign exchange through the BPO and the like ignores the right which each BPO worker has to the realization of her or his fullest intellectual potential. Treating some human beings in the country as no more than foreign exchange-producing resources is an insult to their humanity. And it is not patriotism but calculated insanity parading as high wisdom.

The education of a country is too valuable an affair to be abandoned to the vagaries of changing winds. Any education policy that is worthwhile must address itself to at least three questions simultaneously: (1) What kind of human beings do we wish to shape? (2) What kind of country do we want ours to be? (3) What kind of world do we wish to live in? As for the exigencies of the present, the really significant issue is not how to survive opportunistically in the present so as to let the future take care of itself, but how to pursue the triple objective in the context of the constraints and the opportunities that attend the present. Democratic leadership inheres in the capability to lead all people to a better future, not in exhorting the majority of people to adjust to the prevailing circumstances because “there is no alternative”. Is it not perplexing that going back to Mr Narasimha Rao, no reformist Prime Minister has actually accomplished anything substantial to radically reconstruct education? It is bizarre that the political leadership can respond instantly to the fluctuations of the stock market but finds even five years too short a period to do anything when it comes to education.

‘Global competencies’ should not mean, as the phrase has come to mean, the competencies demanded by changing global business trends. These should, rightly, mean the cultivated abilities to think, comprehend, anticipate and deal with various issues with a global vision. And since this implies a situated practice in each specific case, ‘global’ seems to be an inadequate term, if not an outright misnomer. ‘Glocal’ would be an obviously better choice. And it does not come burdened with the deceptive aura which the term ‘global’ has accumulated over the years.

Change in education does not mean mere ‘tinkering’. And it means much more than only ‘improvement’. The notion of ‘improvement’ can be a shield against the sense of guilt that necessarily accompanies the acknowledgement of our previous failures as also an escape from the full recognition of risk and responsibility that the commitment to a new and unfamiliar course of action entails.

Once we recognize the pre-eminence of the triple objective of education mentioned above, the questions of ‘what’ and ‘how’ clarify themselves. For too long now, the question of ‘what’ has ruled to the detriment of other questions. The curricula continue to be designed and tinkered with, without our bothering to ask, with a clear expectation what for these curricula are intended. If we can give precedence to the question of ‘why’ – why should we teach a certain course and not another – the curricula will be compelled to reconfigure themselves. If only we could ask ‘why?’ in various disciplines, the threat of obsolescence which haunts several of these would recede. Indeed the disciplines are asking to be reinvented; only we have become impassive and obsolescent. And if we are not stepping across the disciplinary boundaries, the reason might be that we do not want to come out of our little shells, which we continue to cherish like private kingdoms. Let’s understand that the finest intellectual production is happening today only at the points where boundaries blur and vanish. Technology today leaves us no room to complain that we are not in the universities (if we happen to be in colleges) or not in the world’s best universities (if we happen to be in a not-so-good university). The argument carries no conviction that we can do little more than transfer knowledge picked up from here and there. Everyone with access to information networks has the basic resources and capability to be a producer of knowledge. Everyone can participate in the shaping of the emerging paradigms of critical-reflexive education. We only need to push ourselves. If we do not, those elsewhere in seats of authority will. One should not need to look up to any gods in the Ministry of HRD to send down a charter of accountability and transparency. Each person, every department, all institutions can formulate their own guidelines.

Everyone knows there are people who work only on incentives. When the last incentive has past, they altogether cease working. Imagine ‘professors’ who continue to ‘profess’ much but no longer study or teach anything nor even supervise any research. ‘Why should we, when there is no incentive?’ if you are here for incentives only, you are in the wrong place; you should be a marketing executive. When we can press for the right to recall our elected representatives in the event of their not performing according to our expectations, there is no reason we should not press also for the right to recall a professor who has become intellectually unproductive and sterile.

Equally grave is the malaise of ethical sterility that flourishes in the soil of elitist exclusivism. All sections and strata of society need to get a place in positions of teaching and research. The inescapable agenda of social justice can be kept in the foreground only if higher education at all levels becomes universally accessible. We cannot afford to have (as we are unfortunately doomed to have if we do not wake up) a socially divisive system in higher education, the kind we have already got in place in the elementary and secondary education. The diverse issues of the society in their entirety cannot be properly addressed unless the academy is a sufficient microcosm of the society. Notwithstanding our most liberal impulses, the economically better-off cannot be presumed to be capable of spontaneously grasping the issues of hunger, illness and homelessness with the required urgency. The enabling and disabling influences of a teacher-researcher’s life-world cannot be simply passed over. For instance, a teacher-researcher who has been intellectually groomed in an elite climate in a metropolitan space may not be the best bet when it comes to dealing with problems that afflict the lives of rural masses. In most cases, he/she would even require considerable reorientation to advance halfway to meet students who come from brutally impoverished communities.

This leads us back to the point that cannot be overemphasized: that we need to keep the human being and her/his world in the center for any initiative in education to make sense. As such, we need to put together at the present juncture a core program of studies in higher education also that is sufficiently flexible and situation-specific. It should keep the focus firmly set on the cultivation of faculties of thinking, comprehending, analyzing and anticipating in complex global contexts. The conventional boundaries which divide and seal off the disciplines would not exist in this core. Specialization would still flourish but in wider contexts and in more innovatory locations. The students would have more freedom to choose, and change, vocations.

An important question that we as teachers would need to address is how to proceed with change. Shall we expect or petition the authorities up there to frame new policy initiatives and so wait for something to come? To do this and no more would be to succumb to the convenience and lure of authoritarian and centralized models. To forswear such initiatives altogether would mean falling into the dark embrace of anarchism. Why not, then, envisage our activities, undertaken singly or collectively as pockets of experimental pedagogies that may evolve and spread gradually? Or expire, if they cannot? If we honestly try to know what we are doing, and if we understand that our best efforts are circumscribed by history, we shall have no regrets. For we shall have done what lies in our power. And, who knows, even more?



Rama Rao said...

Dear Rajesh:

I've just completed reading your very important article after performing Saraswatipuja with my children and grandchildren.

We have forgotten Cardinal Newman's Liberal Education. Years ago I put forward an impassioned plea that all aspring to become vice-chancellors should take a course on Newman and secure cent percent to be considered for that 'sublime' position.

It may be enough for aspiring education minsters to score above 80%. The CMs should score a passing percentage of 60%.

But is there anyone prepared to read what they don't want to understand? We live in age of decadence. The bubble burst: money is shaky, shakier than human happiness. God save this country from illogical, mad, Mammon worship.

All the best.

Rama Rao

Sudhir said...

Very true.

Also look how things, built over the decades, are falling apart without even a warning.

They said :
If you get into IIT, your life is made!
After IIT, you will go to USA and your life is fantastic!
If you start earning well there, you will never have to look back!

And see what the well-placed engineer did there. He shot his family and himself, without even looking back!

This is what the world gave him and his family, the world that is only Violent !

its better that we listen to these signs and take a grip on our lives and its values - there is still time to save life and move ahead in a positive direction.

Thanks for the timely warning to your readers.


Deep Inder said...

Salaamalekam (may peace be upon you). Sorry 'bout writing on ur personal id but after losing about 500 words on Gurbhagat, trying to write directly on kriti, don't want to take any chances.

You are very right in what you say; however, my argument is similar (though the situations greatly differ)to the one when I left the teachers' union. You might remember, I requested our esteemed leaders of the union to think about the people in general and fight for a social security system in India and not just for our own pension. The reply: "Pehle aapna te kum karaa layyie perfassar saahb," (let us get our own work done, first). I don't think it was Dr. Tiwari but it was someone pretty senior - the tone and the words 'rankle', the face forgotten.

I personally feel it is the whole world education system that has failed (for it has brought neither happiness nor justice), not just the Indian (our mess seems greater as we tried to replace the old, outdated Brit. system with the failing American one) and, unless we take the world along with us, we are bound to fail. Thinking it to be too great a task, fearing failure, we cannot succeed. Conditions worldwide may differ but human values remain the same and education must stress those. A daunting task but then we have all the time in the world and numerous future generations, it need not end with us......... (Amen)

With love,