This blog is written in response to the turmoil and choices I have faced over the last year and over the last couple of weeks in particular. It serves to analyze the notions and meaning of Education and the sheer difficulty of realizing it in the Indian context. Sometimes, the discussion here may be so generic, simplistic and undeserving of the people I quote that it may seem little thought has gone into shaping the arguments. Yet, in the consciousness of the average Indian, questions of this nature are very rudimentary and the preconceptions very rigid. I have come to believe that the arguments below are essential to how I understand certain things that I increasingly regard to be very important in life. Also, since I have written this piece primarily as an identification of various factors that affect Indian education, I realize that the treatment here is very informal and can do with a great deal of systematic elaboration.
I remember an American movie where there is this dialogue:
The purpose of college is to make one think.I came across this line years ago, and have yet to find any other definition of education so comprehensive as to capture the essential theme of the process of education so succinctly. No matter what form education may take - from the informal brainstorming, workshops, seminars and apprenticeships that go by various names to the formal lecture series, theses and dissertations - the very crux of it all is to impart to the learner the ability to think. There is very little success in education unless all the effort is singularly directed at developing this ability for independent thought. A quote may serve to clarify the difficulty of realizing this ideal in the Indian context: "Education to the Indian middle class is largely a job ticket carried in a wallet, or a designer shirt flaunted at a party. Education is acquired and owned, it does not permeate and transform people."
In much of our educational process, the background or the reasons are often eclipsed by the actual topic of study. There is little realization that the purpose of studying the former may not just be plain curiosity, but also so that we can better anticipate and live through the changes in our times. The result is a highly misplaced emphasis on the statement of facts, without having to deal with the accompanying motivations. For example, a science textbook may talk at great length about a discovery or invention without adequately considering the background of necessity and the reasons that led to the said discovery or invention. Or a history textbook may talk about events like wars, peace treaties, etc. without happening to put forth and analyze any motivations that propelled the events. Or a work of fiction might place great emphasis on the plot and its twists and turns without having much of the turmoil that a character faces or the philosophical musings that characterize and capture for the reader a bygone time and place and that lend it the greatness that story-telling alone cannot. Though the past may seem very obvious to us, its changes were lived as a novelty by the people of those times. History shows how ill-prepared we always are for change, fumbling through our inventions and revolutions. Education that turns its back on the future while satiating its preoccupation with the past does not fulfill its purpose. We cannot view the future through the prism of the past, but it would be foolish to know the history of one's existence without knowing the reasons and the path of our greatness, the mistakes committed and the lessons learned therefrom. Yet this closed-door-closed-mind policy seems to be increasingly a problem with our nations, religions, and 'civilizations'.
Much greater is the problem when even the actual topic of study is not considered as important enough to be discussed as the fame and the aura surrounding it. An example of this inanity can be found here. The common man must rely on the media for understanding the many events that befall our little, crazy world. Unfortunately, the mediapersons are themselves so uninformed and quite often so full of mediocrity and the accompanying arrogance that little light is shed upon the essential aspects and the peripheral (mis)information is all that one can get. So, one could have watched a prominent journalist talk patronizingly to lawyer-minister Mr. Kapil Sibal, without having done his homework on the nuclear liability bill or the foreign universities' legislation or the right to education act. Or you could have seen the failure behind the coverage of the parliament proceedings in consideration of the finance bill (including the communist and other parties staging protests outside the parliament, the destruction of public property, the 'reform' of the Jharkhand government, and the murkiness of CBI waters) without the media taking a moment to put forth what exact change is proposed by the legislation and how is it supposed to make things better or worse for the aam aadmi.
Education is singularly about recognizing the questions as being equally important as the answers, if not more. When it is reduced to its basic form, instruction, it becomes a one-way street. Slowly, the teacher-student relationship is transformed into a pedagogue-follower one, and the interaction is poisoned with a lack of questions, atleast the 'whys'. At this point, there is very little to be had from further pursuit of such study except familiarity with the subject being studied. It is perhaps the worst form of education one can receive even when it is delivered in a highly refined manner. In India, we seem to be largely familiar with this and only this form, completely disregarding the two other pillars of education viz. research and facilitation/mentorship. The fact that we are saddled with shoddy instructors only makes matters worse. We do not seem to be alarmed at the complete lack in our educational system of the ability to ask essential questions, while we are concerned with exasperating and often unimportant details like saffronization of history textbooks and reservations. And then we wonder why we don't have internationally acclaimed institutions (commensurate with our populace) that produce world-class thinkers and innovators.
Another thing that we never seem to consider is how functional the entire educational system of our country is. We have a great heritage of arts, literature, mathematics, natural and social sciences from which we might claim whole new schools of thought, extremely rich, robust and comparable alternatives to the current lines of thought as existing in the West. Yet, the achievements of our educational institutions lie merely in understanding, replicating and propagating systems of thought and conduct of affairs borrowed from the West, and amongst these only those that have any immediate practical value. I am not in favour of lambasting the West and its educational heritage; my whole education (as that of most Indians who are considered literate/educated) has been in the pedagogic traditions laid down by the British. However, a generally widespread ignorance of the existence of Indian pre-colonial traditions of thought and an unwillingness to develop and incorporate these side by side with the Western legacy of education in the hallowed portals of even the best of our educational institutions is proof of how little we understand of our past. This functional approach to education is crippling and takes away from it many of the ideals that education tries to inculcate. In the essay 'Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination' from 'The Argumentative Indian', Amartya Sen argues:
While it is true that any useful knowledge gives its possessor some power in one form or another, this may not be the most remarkable aspect of that knowledge, nor the primary reason for which this knowledge is sought. Indeed, the process of learning can accommodate considerable motivational variations without becoming a functionalist enterprise of some grosser kind. An epistemic methodology that sees the pursuit of knowledge as entirely congruent with the search for power is a great deal more cunning than wise. It can needlessly undermine the value of knowledge in satisfying curiosity and interest; it significantly weakens one of the profound characteristics of human beings.
Our best institutions have sprung from the need for imparting professional education. So we have the IITs to deal with technology, IIMs to deal with management, and a recently strengthening string of national schools of law to deal with imparting legal education. These institutions lay claim to arguably the best minds in the country as far as 'talent' is concerned, as also the biggest share of state patronage in the form of funds allotted by the government to further the cause of education. Also, due to the tendency of good researchers to cluster at the best institutions, these schools have arguably the best faculty. However, all these institutions mainly impart education in the professional (read functional) spheres! We have yet to see comparable institutions that serve as centers of higher learning in liberal arts, performing arts, music, cinema (yes there is the overarching FTII, but what else), literature, philosophy (Every once in a while, one hears eminent colleges in Bombay shutting down this department due to a lack of students wanting to study philosophy.), political strategy and ethics, change in favour of social equity, etc. There are institutions that serve to understand these causes but they are fragmented islands of thought, often afflicted with dogma, corruption in ideals and practical affairs, and without the ability to connect to other schools of thought around the country and to bring about a constructive change in the society. Quite often, they might simply be 'educating' people with neither the academic rigor nor the inclination to question, change or innovate in their various streams of study, because a 'sharp' mind becomes accustomed in its very impressionable stage to the exclusive idea of the necessity of attending a professional school. Nothing can be sadder than this extremely functional approach to education, leading to the very slow but nevertheless persistent process of decay in many important areas of study and research.
The chemist Hofmann (who taught Perkins, father of the dyestuff industry and inventor of aniline mauve and mordants) in one of his addresses said,
Whenever one of your chemical friends, full of enthusiasm, exhibits and explains to you his newly discovered compound, you will not cool his noble ardour by asking him that most terrible of all questions: 'What is its use? Will your compound bleach or dye? Will it shave? May it be used as a substitute for leather?' Let him quietly go on with his work. The dye, the leather, will make their appearance in due time. Let him, I repeat, perform his task. Let him indulge in the pursuit of truth - of truth pure and simple - of truth not for the sake of Mauve - let him pursue truth for the sake of truth.What Hofmann is speaking against is an overt emphasis on the functionalist approach to education.
More recently, in response to a question on why India is unable to produce a global management school, Jagdish N Sheth associated with the Goizueta Business School opined,
The main issue with Indian institutes is that they only concentrate on teaching and not research. We still have a system of knowledge dissemination and not knowledge creation. Our excellence lies in our admission process...He may as well have been speaking for the educational structure that mars the entire country.
The problem of a functionalist approach is something the West deals with very well, by not merely responding to the need of the industry and by recognizing that the unconditioned consciousness does not recognize the divisions between the various streams of study that we have created for the convenience of organization and specialization. So the universities in the West have schools that study political thought and change, classics (including their mythological heritage in Greek and Latin), socio-economic change and its repercussions, etc. in addition to the professional streams. These schools are highly vibrant and respected centers of learning, have splendid infrastructure and generous funding, and are vied for by students. This competitive excellence in streams of non-professional study must come from a deep recognition of the fact that political philosophy and economic ingenuity play as important a role in the vision of a nation or civilization as technological progress. Indeed, studies that have immediate tangible value cannot be advanced without progress in the underlying 'pure' fields such as physics, economics, linguistics, etc. A healthy stance towards learning in all spheres is important if we are to protect the wholistic nature of education from decay.
Another issue that is related to the functional aspect of Indian education is the positive versus normative divide (terms of perspectives used mainly in economic study). A nation that has left the reins of rule and thought to outsiders for centuries cannot wake up all of a sudden and start asking stirring questions. So, as far as it concerns positive studies, the study of true and false, we are good at it. This might perhaps be the reason why Indians do so well in the sphere of sciences and why the IITs (despite their lack of extravagant infrastructure) are recognized the world over for their contribution in sciences and technology. However, when it comes to the normative questions, the questions of good versus bad and right versus wrong, we seem to get uncomfortable and squeamish and prefer to keep it beneath veneers. In a land which not only has rampant corruption, prejudice, and a general lack of awareness or questioning about ethics but also recognizes these as a part of life to be given no greater attention than the very act of breathing, it can be very difficult for a common next-door conditioned mind to comprehend the fallacy of acts such as propagating venality, not being passionate about one's work, paying "donations for a seat in an educational institute", prejudice against sexual minorities, etc. Such an attitude transforms itself into an educational failure in social sciences which rely heavily on the normative line of thought, because prejudice cripples the mind of any ability for independent, constructive thought.
The question of divisions between the various streams of study brings us to another important issue that is hardly ever considered in the Indian milieu. I have become aware of this flaw after having read of it in an unlikely but appropriate place, and have become increasingly observant to it cropping up in everyday questions pertinent to my education and of those around me. While it focuses much on literature, it is equally applicable to understanding the pitfalls of education in general. In the preface to The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing says:
It starts when the child is as young as five or six, when he arrives at school. It starts with marks, rewards, 'places', 'streams', stars - and still in many places, stripes. This horse-race mentality, the victor and loser way of thinking, leads to 'Writer X is, is not, a few paces ahead of Writer Y. Writer Y has fallen behind. In his last book, Writer Z has shown himself as better then Writer A.' From the very beginning, the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure. It is a weeding-out system: the weaker get discouraged and fall out; a system designed to produce a few winners who are always in competition with each other. It is my belief - though this is not the place to develop this - that the talents every child has, regardless of his official 'IQ', could stay with him through life, to enrich him and everybody else, if these talents were not regarded as commodities with a value in the success-stakes.
The other thing taught from the start is to distrust one's own judgement. Children are taught submission to authority, how to search for other people's opinions and decisions, and how to quote and comply.
As in the political sphere, the child is always taught that he is free, a democrat, with a free will and a free mind, lives in a free country, makes his own decisions. At the same time, he is a prisoner of the assumptions and dogmas of his time, which he does not question, because he has never been told they exist. By the time a young person has reached the age when he has to choose (we still take for granted that a choice is inevitable) between the arts and science, he often chooses the arts because he feels that here is humanity, freedom, choice. He does not know that he is already moulded by a system: he does not know that the choice itself is the result of a false dichotomy rooted in the heart of our culture. Those who do sense this, and who don't wish to subject themselves to further moulding by a system, tend to leave, in a half unconscious, instinctive attempt to find work where they won't be divided against themselves. With all our institutions, from the police force to academia, from medicine to politics, we give little attention to people who leave - that process of elimination that goes on all the time and which excludes, very early, those likely to be original and reforming, leaving those attracted to a thing because that is what they are already like. A young policeman leaves the Force saying he doesn't like what he has to do. A young teacher leaves teaching, her idealism snubbed. This social mechanism goes almost unnoticed - yet it is as powerful as any in keeping our institution rigid and oppressive.
These children who have spent years inside the training system become critics and reviewers, and cannot give what the author, the artist, so foolishly asks for - imaginative and original judgement. What they can do, and what they do very well, is to tell the writer how the book or play accords with current patterns of feeling and thinking - the climate of opinion. They are like litmus paper. They are wind guages - invaluable. They are the most sensitive of barometers of public opinion. You can see changes of mood and opinion here sooner than anywhere except in the political field - it is because these are people whose whole education has been just that - to look outside themselves for their opinions, to adapt themselves to authority figures, to 'received opinion' - a marvelously revealing phrase.
It may be that there is no other way of educating people. Possibly, but I don't believe that. In the meantime, it would be a help at least to describe things properly, to call things by their right names. Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: 'You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of doctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show you how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself - educating your own judgement. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.'
Lessing talks about the imaginary division between arts and science. In India, we seem to have kept the division but altered its banks. We have an unwritten but nevertheless quite rigid and oppressive hierarchy: science, commerce, arts. Mental ability (often construed as talent) dictates what one pursues, often with little or no justification in terms of talent, temperament, or inclination. However, most Indians concerned with science have some liking for the Arts and do dabble (sometimes quite successfully) in artistic activities they like. The same cannot be said for the people in arts dabbling in the Sciences, not because of lack of inclination or ability but because it is difficult to succeed in science without sustained training inputs. The bottomline is that the divisions between arts and science have been a lot more fuzzy than the ones between unseemly commerce and science/arts. Indeed, arts and sciences share topics such as logic and certain esoteric parts of philosophy; and attitudes are often found on the wrong sides of the divide - it is not uncommon to find scientists and technologists having a highly emotional, attached attitude to work, something identified easily in artists; likewise, it is not hard to find people associated with literature and philosophy utilize scientific methods and detached attitudes in analyzing the connections and repercussions of work in their domain. On the other hand, commerce is considered to be separate from science/arts. It is rare to find a person with a good degree of knowledge in both commerce and science/arts, unless the person belongs or has belonged to both sides.
In order to clearly understand the nature of graduate studies in CSE and management and the sort of career to be expected later, I recently met a few of my friends who have already handled such studies before. I was surprised (though I shouldn't have been) to learn that people invariably thought a dichotomy was staring me in the face, that a choice was inevitable. Now, quite a few areas of study in economics and finance can be understood easily by engineers who are usually trained in optimization; broadly speaking, economics and finance are essentially studies in optimization themselves. Surprisingly, a huge share of the managers you find in Indian B-schools are engineers who don't want to be engineers anymore, and seem to see management as a kind of escape route and not as an applicatory augmentation of their already acquired analytical skills. It surprised me to find that even people with a CSE background who had chosen to study management were consciously clueless that a lot of topics studied in management intersected with CSE, viz. financial engineering, decision sciences, operations and logistics, etc. Indeed, they believed that they had made a complete 'switch'. Also, there is very little inclination in an MBA student to do academic research, though I must blame this on the utilitarian nature of the curricula followed. On the other hand, the people who were pursuing graduate degrees in CSE and were involved in heavy-duty research seemed to think of the MBA as a completely different way of life (which it is) and were again clueless that any academic research happened in the sphere of management. I believe that CSE is perhaps the only engineering stream that generally intersects almost all other spheres of scientific study, and that it shares more than just a few subjects of interest with management. And yet, graduates of this stream with immense possibility, whether they pursued CSE or management, came to believe that they had made a choice between the two which Lessing calls "the result of a false dichotomy rooted in the heart of our culture."
The Lessing identified division between arts and science has been transformed in the Indian context into a commerce versus arts/science divide. And both are equally convenient, imaginary and ridiculous. For example, consider a painting, obviously a work of art. Yet its valuation and its tenability as an investment option is a question in commerce and its trends. Likewise, its preservation is a question that chemical scientists and practitioners must answer. Also, with a flower, you may write a poem about it, dissect it for its various morphological parts, or go sell it in the market. The various streams simply serve as perspectives to look at a single thing. In everyday life, it is extremely easy to observe, if one is aware and alert, as to how these seemingly different principal streams of study run into each other, feed off each other, and are dependent on each other. And how a perspective allows us to think of a thing without creating conflict, and is best used for this purpose alone and not to limit the horizons of thought. In my belief, a truly educated mind can change perspectives, can wear various hats, and in this must never be constrained by its wish or its dexterity in accommodating these perspectives, although ability may be a straitjacket, easily gotten rid of with some effort.
Since this is just a blogpost and not a formal essay, here's more from the highly interesting and educative preface to The Golden Notebook:
Meanwhile there is a country where...
Thirty or forty years ago, a critic made a private list of writers and poets which he, personally, considered made up what was invaluable in literature, dismissing all others. This list he defended lengthily in print, for The List instantly became a subject of much debate. Millions of words were written for and against - schools and sects, for and against, came into being. The argument, all these years later, still continues... no one finds this state of affairs sad or ridiculous...
Where there are critical books of immense complexity and learning, dealing, but often at second or third hand, with original work - novels, plays, stories. The people who write these books form a stratum in universities across the world - they are an international phenomenon, the top layer of literary academia. Their lives are spent in criticizing, and in criticizing each other's criticism. They at least regard this activity as more important than the original work. It is possible for literary students to spend more time reading criticism and criticism of criticism than they spend reading poetry, novels, biography, stories. A great many people regard this state of affairs as quite normal, and not sad and ridiculous...
When I recently read an essay about Antony and Cleopatra by a boy shortly to take A levels. It was full of originality and excitement about the play, the feeling that any real teaching about literature aims to produce. The essay was returned by the teacher like this: I cannot mark this essay, you haven't quoted from the authorities. Few teachers would regard this as sad and ridiculous...
Where people who consider themselves educated, and indeed as superior to and more refined than ordinary non-reading people, will come up to a writer and congratulate him or her on getting a good review somewhere - but will not consider it necessary to read the book in question, or ever to think that what they are interested in is success...
Where when a book comes out on a certain subject, let's say star-gazing, instantly a dozen colleges, societies, television programmes write to the author asking him to come and speak about star-gazing. The last thing it occurs to them to do is to read the book. This behaviour is considered quite normal, and not ridiculous at all...
Where a young man or woman, reviewer or critic, who has not read more of a writer's work than the book in front of him, will write patronizingly, or as if rather bored with the whole business, or as if considering how many marks to give an essay, about the writer in question - who might have written fifteen books, and have been writing for twenty or thirty years - giving the said writer instruction on what to write next, and how. No one thinks this is absurd, certainly not the young person, critic or reviewer, who has been taught to patronize and itemize everyone for years, from Shakespeare downwards.
Where a Professor of Archaeology can write of a South American tribe which has advanced knowledge of plants, and of medicine and of psychological methods: 'The astonishing thing is that these people have no written language...' And no one thinks him absurd.
Where, on the occasion of a centenary of Shelley, in the same week and in three different literary periodicals, three young men, of identical education, from our identical universities, can write critical pieces about Shelley, damning him with the faintest possible praise, and in identically the same tone, as if they were doing Shelley a great favour to mention him at all - and no one seems to think that such a thing can indicate that there is something seriously wrong with our literary system.