27, Nov 2017 | V Vasanthi Devi
In the 21st century post-welfare state, education for all is a lost horizon in India. India has constructed an education system that is among the most exclusionary in the world. The ruling ideology of neoliberalism has ensured that an unabashed, unapologetic class education has been put in place. There is a perfect fit between the needs of global capital, of Indian ruling classes and the education system. The market has taken over the schools.
Education for all, by definition, is equal quality of education for all. The renowned educationist J.P. Naik says, “ the elusive triangle of education has its three sides of quantity, quality, equity. If any one of them is neglected, the entire triangle will collapse.” The side of equity in today’s India is not only neglected, the entire rationale and dynamics of education is the opposite of equity; it is exclusion in its worst and most pervasive forms, an exclusion that denies the basic human rights of the vast majority of children. The excluded, inevitably, belong to the historically subjugated castes, tribes and minorities. Nearly 68% ST and 63% of SC children drop out by the time they reach upper primary level and 88% ST and 84% SC children drop out by the time they reach secondary level.
How does the exclusion work anyway? In a hundred different ways; exclusion is woven into each strand of the education fabric.
Education in India is a key instrument in the ongoing process of powerful social engineering that is sustaining and reproducing existing inequities. The role of the schooling system is to act as a filtering process, which picks those already endowed with social and cultural capital, inherited or acquired and pushes out the disadvantaged, condemning them to a life of mere survival at the margins. The politics of education today is subtle and finely choreographed.
We have as many levels in our educational hierarchy as in our caste hierarchy, one type of school for each mini-class, making sure that children of no two levels ever meet. There are no classrooms, playgrounds, parks, where the children of the poor and the better off meet.
In the first few decades of independence, when the ideals of the freedom struggle were still in the air, a public school system, substantially funded by the state, was in place. Schools all over the country largely functioned as neighbourhood schools, with children of the affluent and the ordinary learning together.
The decline of the public school system coincided with, rather was consequential to the growth of the multi-track school system. Fee-charging private schools started coming up from the late 70s, doubled their pace of growth in the 80s and increased many folds in the 90s. They were carefully attuned to different needs, rather to different purses. The upper classes and castes started deserting public schools and flocking to private schools. Soon it turned into an exodus. Public schools drew only the poor and were perceived as of inferior quality, as anything associated with the poor is perceived. In the short span of two decades public schools came tumbling down in public estimation.
The state reneged callously on its basic responsibility to provide good quality education to the vast majority of children. Public schools were starved of resources, infrastructure allowed to crumble, teachers not appointed, with the cumulative consequence of collapse of standards in them. The voiceless poor were unable to arrest the ruinous trend and had to watch helplessly as their children were condemned to poor quality education. This is nothing but a denial of basic human rights and an unpardonable violation of the fundamental rights assured by the Indian constitution.
A hierarchy of schools has been elaborately constructed, the more the fee charged, the greater its reputation for quality education, quality being defined exclusively in terms of marks and ranks obtained in board examinations and the capability of students to make their entry into the most prestigious engineering / medical colleges.
With neoliberalism ruling the country, the education scene is taken over by fierce forces of competition. Children are the site of a dog-eat-dog world of competition. They are programmed from birth to compete, to excel and to win. What Amartya Sen calls “the country’s obsession with first boys” has taken over.
All the world over, in all the developed countries and many developing ones, the only school system known is a common school system with neighbourhood schools, in which children of all classes study together. School space is the equalizing, barrier-breaking space. Such a school system, where the state provides full resources, is the bedrock of development in these countries. India cannot be an exception to the irrefutable historical experience of countries
The Kothari Commission in the mid-1960s recommended the transformation of the Indian public education system as a Common School System. It argued that if “the education system is to become a powerful instrument of national development in general, and social and national integration in particular, we must move towards the goal of a common school system of public education.” And also, “the establishment of such schools will compel rich, privileged and powerful classes to take interest in the system of public education and thereby bring about its early improvement”.
Exclusion works in ways more than by streaming children into different categories of schools. Curriculum, pedagogical and evaluation methods, the language of learning also are engines of exclusion. Curriculum is designed to provide competitive edge to the elite youth in global competition and for world conquest. It is far beyond the reach of the mass of children. The first generation learners from poverty stricken homes desperately struggle to cope with its exorbitant demands. After a few years of desperation, they drop out of school. And these children, inevitably are from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, for ages consigned to the bottom or margins of the caste society. The hidden agenda behind designing a curriculum of an unbearable weight is exclusion of large sections of students and is carried out to perfection.
The curriculum excludes not by weight alone, but by content. It is totally unrelated to the lived reality and cultural cosmos of large mass of rural and working class students. It is rooted in middle class world and privileges its culture, mind set, social mores, beliefs. The strengths, skills and cultural and cognitive capital of the working class children find no place in the curriculum and class room. It denigrates the beauty, creative strength, collective social life of the working class child in a hundred ways. This rejection of the working class child’s universe, the humiliation that she is subjected to, the denial of her self are at the root of the tragedy of today’s Indian education.
All the above mentioned trends have been aggravated and have assumed grotesque proportions under the present dispensation at the centre. The BJP govt has slashed social sector expenditure, particularly for education. The proposal of Niti Ayog to hand over schools with poor enrolment to private sector will spell the death knell for what little hopes the poor have for empowering education. Scholarships for SC/ST students have been cut down. In addition, in an immensely varied and rich cultural cosmos, the regime of majoritarianism imposing one religion, one culture, one language, one curriculum, one system of centralized admissions on schools denies the basic right of the child to its organic development from its roots.
How do we envision and construct an education system that ensures education as human right for all?
In modern societies, education is a fundamental right as well as an important process in self-definition. In India, where the caste system had kept the vast majority in inhuman oppression, humiliation and indignity, education is the only hope for their liberation from wretchedness.
The first priority is to completely reverse the privatization and commercialization that have turned education to its travesty. A common school system with neighbourhood schools, fully state funded, providing completely free and equal quality education to all children should form the structure of school education.
The purpose of all education is to sensitise, to humanize, to take humanity to higher levels of knowledge, awareness, freedom and social responsibility. India has moved to the other extreme of an enslaving, alienating, oppressive, dehumanizing, hierarchical, brazenly commercialized education system.
What we need is a humane educational system that is compassionate, and one in which the child feels free to explore, to create, to interact to understand, to critique and to challenge. A signal failure of the system consists of such an atmosphere being entirely hijacked by a certification process which in turn is governed by the economic aspirations of a middle class that defines education in terms of terminal job opportunity in a globalized system of trading skills.
Education has played a twin role in history. It has been a great liberating force on the one hand; on the other, it has also been a powerful instrument of manipulation and oppression in the hands of the dominant sections. We need to decide which of the two roles we are going to permit education to assume in our troubled times.
(Vasanthi Devi is an educationist, activist for women’s rights and the former Vice Chancellor of the M.S. University of Tamil Nadu)