Of Angry Young Students and Education in India – A Response to Thane Richard: Aritra Chatterjee
This is a guest post by ARITRA CHATTERJEE: In his response to the article by some students of St. Stephen’s College, Thane Richard has raised a set of questions about the college, about the students participating in the present movement, about education in India and students’ voice in shaping education. He is critical about what he calls the lack of quality education, of a system where education is primarily about rote learning and conformity to structures of authority; in such a situation the promise of a good liberal arts education remains a mere promise and students migrate to the West in search of it. He also rues the lack of students’ voice in the education system, rhetorically asking, “Do students have any right?” He welcomes the students’ fight against the oppressive regime at St. Stephen’s College but views it as a movement that is too little too late and even that in “the wrong direction”. I shall respond to his views at two levels – at the level of education in the country as a whole, and that of the present movement at St. Stephen’s College. Not being a student of the college for some years now my access to information is limited to the articles that have been published in various newspapers and on facebook.
Thane has cautioned the readers about the pitfalls of a ‘nationalist’ reading of his views for it may lead us to be blind to our own problems. I too would caution the readers against interpreting my views as a nationalist defense of our system. I shall propose here a way of reading that would take our – Thane’s and mine – different socio-cultural locations into account but not reduce our views to them, i.e. a contextual but not determinist reading. Thane has compared his experience of the US education system, as witnessed in Brown University with that of St. Stephen’s College. I am writing in the light of my experience as a student of my school in the Jharkhand town of Giridih, at St. Stephen’s College, and at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and as a political activist exposed to different struggles in the field of education today. Educational experiences aside, we both belong to specific race/color/caste/class/gender locations which may also influence our views. So while Thane may find my view nationalistic, a Dalit may find both our views equally elitist and upper-caste like. Drawing upon Malay Firoz’s response to Thane, I would say that an American citizen of a non-English-speaking immigrant family may find the absence of any talk in his article about the English-speaking white uniformity of Brown University disturbing. I would insist then that we take the complex enabling and disabling conditions of different socio-cultural locations into account, and through the articles put two different locations in dialogue with each other. It is imperative that we do so, for the meaning of education, of quality, is location-specific. Any attempt of a careless imposition of uniformity has violence embedded in it.
Let me begin with Thane’s major concern – that of rote learning and perpetuation of authority in our education system. I accept that rote learning continues to be a major problem in our system. It has a complex root in the encounter between colonial education and pre-colonial forms of memorized learning. In the postcolonial period, though major changes were brought about in the curriculum, the methodology of teaching and examination was not drastically altered in many of the educational institutions – schools, colleges and universities. In school education, it is with the coming of the National Curriculum Framework in 2005 that there was a significant move away from rote learning. The move, though initiated, has a long way to go before it bears fruit.
Despite the persistence of this problem, education has created the space for critical thinking – the standout example being the Dalit movement’s relationship to modern education. Modern education has enabled acquisition of skills that have brought Dalits out of traditional employment, while the social space of the educational institutions, alongside the intellectual space, have enabled the churning out of critiques of caste, class and gender that have had a seminal influence on Indian society. Many books have been written on this process, and I would advise Thane to read some of them before writing another article like the one he has written. It would be a grave mistake to see India’s education system as merely an institution of rote learning, not capable of generating new ideas.
One may ask the question – if critical thinking has indeed been allowed in our education system, then why has rote learning not been seriously questioned earlier? I am not sure if I have the answer. However, the politics of education cannot be reduced to a single issue – that of rote learning. I shall again take the example of Dalit movement and the powerful mobilization of students around the question of reservations. The issue in this case has not been teaching methods, but inclusion in education. The question of inclusion seems to overpower other issues precisely because of its value as an enabler of upward social and economic mobility, as I have pointed out earlier. Over the last two decades the increasing presence of Dalits and OBCs in the education system has also had an influence on the nature of knowledge that has been produced – the struggle against Brahminism within the process of knowledge production is an ongoing one. One can talk of a similar process of changes that are occurring within education under the pressure of feminist politics. Therefore it is important to have a nuanced view of the politics of education and not reduce it to a single issue. Inclusion in education has been an important issue in itself in the Civil Rights Movement in the USA too. Is Thane aware of the multi-dimensional meaning of education in the USA?
In India, the struggles of lower castes articulated the demand for affirmative action in education. What was the response of the opponents of the demand? It would compromise ‘merit’ and in turn compromise the ‘quality’ of academic output. The responses to that has been sharp and clear from the supporters of affirmative action – you cannot talk of ‘quality’ education unless it is an education that brings about social justice – not only for lower castes, but also for tribals, women and the lower classes of the country. Thus although the question of teaching practices has not been raised sharply enough, the meaning of quality education has been contested in various other ways in India. This redefinition is not hegemonic but it is a powerful idea in society today. Students and teachers involve themselves in the struggle for social justice in and through education on an everyday basis in India – for many it is not an option but a compulsion. Thane’s blanket dismissal of the students’ voice in Indian education is based on his ignorance of such debates.
It is precisely that note of social justice that the students of St. Stephen’s College have struck in their article. They have refused to accept a definition of academic excellence that carries blatant gender discrimination on campus as its underside. Let me quote a few lines from their article to reinforce the point.
“We believe that academics, and debates about ideas and theories cannot happen in abstraction from the society-at-large. Our classroom discussions, of patriarchy, equality, and democracy, stand in clear contradiction with the views expressed by the Principals and his supporters in the college administration.”
These lines come across to me as the carriers of the spirit of questioning that Thane would love to see among students in India. The above lines question what is taught within the classroom in the light of social currents outside those four walls; they reflect the spirit of non-conformity to that within the educational institution which is out of touch with contemporary progressive ideas. The past few months have witnessed intense debates in society around questions of gender equality following an unfortunate incident on 16th December 2012. The attitude of the students must be seen in the light of those developments. If this does not qualify as questioning of paradigms then what does? What is the “wrong direction” that Thane finds in this attitude of the students? It is “too little”, Thane claims. Which social change in world history has been made possible without a million “too little” incidents in course of it?
What I find most disturbing in Thane’s article is his valorization of St. Stephen’s College. He writes,
“The opposite side of this same coin, though, is the upside St. Stephen’s students could reap. St. Stephen’s students also have the most to gain from change. Because St. Stephen’s College is such a great school, it can attract great names and create a great curriculum.”
While critiquing the fact that even lower caste students coming into St. Stephen’s through affirmative action become part of the elite, Thane is reinforcing that very elitism in the above statement. Why should students of St Stephen’s College, in raising any issue regarding education, think of benefits that they may get out of it? The reassuring feature of that article by the students is that they are thinking beyond their own college. They are thinking of gender justice and the meaning of academic excellence in society at large – in their own college but not only there.
Even when Thane appreciates the efforts of the students, he is dissatisfied with their plan of action as he feels they are only “awaiting a rescue”. The article written by the students did not come across to me as one that pleads the government, parents or the characters in Rang de Basanti to be their rescuers. That phrase was a mere play on language. Thane has so little respect for student activists here that he could not think that the phrase could be a rhetorical call that the students were making to themselves, and to others to stand in solidarity and not act as rescuers.
Let me return to the issue with which I began– that of rote learning. I have already stated that I agree with Thane that this is a problem. I am worried however by the veiled upholding of Brown University, or the other US universities that he rightly says many Indians love to migrate to, as a parameter. It is precisely this attitude among many Indians that is leading to some dangerous changes in higher education policy in India today. Of course the best teaching practices have to be learned from different parts of the globe to improve our education system, but what is happening right now is a blind mimicry of the First World. I shall end this my article with a brief discussion of this dangerous move.
The recent higher education policy of the Government of India has outlined the up-gradation of Indian education to global standards as one of the goals. Advocates for education reforms across the globe, from the World Bank statements on education to the Bologna process, have been pushing hard for greater standardization of syllabi, teaching and evaluation methods across countries and continents. A key emphasis has been on generating methods of evaluation that can allow comparison of qualifications across national and regional boundaries. This has resulted in making education more oriented towards achieving these set common minimum standards in an environment of cut-throat competition rather than allowing space to students, institutions or disciplines to attain their maximum creative potential in connection with the society to which they are organically linked. No wonder that there is reservation of seats for socially marginalized groups in many of the private colleges and institutions.
This process of standardization in fixing a common minimum for all (on the basis of market requirement/demand) in fact restricts the multi dimensional process of learning to gaining of some easily marketable skills. They spell ever-decreasing control of students and teachers over the process of education, making faring well in these evaluations the ultimate objective of receiving an education. These globally standardized parameters are not free from the skewed balance of power among different countries. A compilation of the Academic Ranking of World Universities reflects this very clearly with 280 of the top 500 universities in the world in the fields of science, life science, medicine, language and social sciences housed in the US. While one might make an argument for the greater access to resources in a country like the US, such systems of ranking also put in place norms defined by the position of power a country holds globally, forcing all other institutions to adopt the defined standard if they want to remain competitive in the global education industry.
I am quite concerned that the kind of comparison between US and India that Thane makes opens up the possibility of a move towards blind mimicry of the First World. I have not seen enough in Thane’s piece to assure me that he is aware of the multi-dimensional context-specific meaning of education, which can make a healthy give and take between teaching/learning practices in different countries possible. While we struggle for such a give and take, we must appreciate the efforts of students like those of St. Stephen’s to put education to the test of the world outside it. It is through such linkage between the classroom and its outside that the organic connection between educational institutions and the society in which they are located can be enriched.
(The author thanks Jiten, Behenji, Jonaki, Shriya and Prat for their comments on the article)
Aritra Chatterjee is a former student of St. Stephen’s College and Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is currently a full-time political activist with Haryana Lok Shiksha Manch.