The reason a country has three wings of governance – the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary – is so that poll promises will not interfere with the long-term running of the nation. When politicians decide to get involved in the education system, emphasising their ideology at the cost of general knowledge, the results are inimical to an entire generation’s ability to think, which usually serves the politicians in power well.
Between the deletion of crucial chapters from textbooks for high school students and the new National Education Policy, it would be a surprise if the generation which is being educated now even knows that the legislature is not the only wing of government. Perhaps it will be a surprise if that does not eventually become the actual case.
The ruling party’s obsession with Hindi, which has now moderated itself into an obsession with the “mother tongue”, over English could have disastrous effects, and the first National Education Policy in 34 years has proposed sweeping changes with little thought for the career arcs and international competence of a generation of students.
The excuse, as always, is that the “burden” on students must be reduced. The notion that education is a burden, and not a joy, can only be held by three kinds of people – those with no interest in education, those with no foresight, and those with no clue of teaching methodology. Sadly, it appears only those three kinds of people hold key positions in the country’s education system.
Since the inception of India as an independent nation, politicians have had a key role to play in the designing of the syllabus, particularly in the social sciences. This is why, for decades, students have had to learn outdated statistics by rote instead of relevant information and techniques that could help them come up with interesting statistics themselves.
We live in a time when beautiful history books are being written, literature is at its most vibrant, and people of Indian origin head various global economical institutions. And yet, the Union Cabinet on Wednesday approved an education policy that sets us back by about a century.
On paper, as with most policies on paper, it does its best to sound progressive by using phrases like “universalisation of early childhood education” and “coding and vocational studies”. But there is no way to spin the usage of “a child’s mother tongue” as the only medium of instruction until Class 5, and preferably until Class 8 and beyond as anything but regressive. This is to be implemented in both government and private educational institutions.
The focus of education should be on equipping students to transcend geographical boundaries, to shine in whichever field they may choose and wherever they may decide to live. In childhood, when there is little else for a student to do, schools have a fantastic opportunity to teach them as many languages and skills as possible. Instead, people from different parts of India will find themselves incompetent in globally important languages, while struggling even to speak to each other without a common tongue, if the education policy is implemented as it stands.
It will take decades to undo the damage, and perhaps a generation without the education it could have had will not even realise that there is damage to be undone.
This is not simply about the lack of educational qualifications among the top brass in the ruling party. The policy has been proposed by a team that hasn’t had a poor education. Yet, the rants of politicians who have been professors before donning party colours stand testimony to the fact that ideology can trump common sense as well as erudition. And thanks to them, we are creating a generation of fools.
Every year, we speak of the need to make the board examinations easier. Various governments have called for “redesigning” the system, even introducing continuous assessment. And yet, students who ace their board exams fare abysmally in common entrance examinations such as NEET.
Despite education being a concurrent subject, with states having their own school boards, the decisions taken have been unilateral, and consultation with the states has been reserved for later. As has been the tendency with the ruling party, several new bodies such as the National Education Technology Forum, an “independent authority” to regulate private and public schools, and a common higher education regulator have all been proposed, with no clarity on what exactly their roles are, why they are needed, whom they will comprise, and whom they will report to.
Just as thoughtless is the proposal to fix fees for colleges rather than subsidise quality education. Of course, the latter would take away funds from pet projects such as the construction of gigantic statues. The reason the Ivy League universities in the United States have such a hold on the world is that they create the best minds by hiring the best minds to teach, and they are able to do this because they are able to charge a tuition fee that allows them to hire the world’s most interesting innovators and researchers, which in turn attracts capital.
Education is an investment in one’s future. We cannot afford to skimp on it, and we cannot afford to bend it to suit vested interests.
While the Central Board of Secondary Education has maintained that the reduction of the syllabus – cutting out key chapters on nationalism, democracy, diversity, demonetisation, popular struggles, religion and caste, foreign policy, economic development, forest and wildlife – is because the lockdown has cut into teaching time, there is no clarity on whether these chapters will be included from the next academic year. And if this is indeed the reason and not an excuse, it begs the question: Why not exclude these chapters from testing alone rather than from the textbook?
Does the government not consider it important for students to learn about food security? Is it a “burden” for students to learn about farmer suicides or loss of animal habitat?
It is hard to dismiss the idea that there might be a more sinister motive when one reflects that, among the works excluded from literary studies are The Argumentative Indian by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and Broken Images by playwright and activist Girish Karnad, neither of whom has been a favourite with the current regime.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com