Thursday, March 29, 2012

At Harvard

This is an edited and somewhat expanded version of my comments in the education panel of Harvard India Conference 2012. The topic of discussion was "Education in India - Opportunities and Challenges in the Next Decade".

We are considering what challenges and opportunities in education await us in India over the next decade. I would like to share with you three lenses I look at the question through — from the perspectives of the individual, the community and technology.

For me, the highest purpose of education for the individual is simply this: to cultivate attention, the state of being where one can engage with the question at hand with clarity, care and affection, bringing all one’s resources, physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual, to bear. Only then does the individual begin to approach that holy grail of education, being a self-learner, who can allow the scaffolds of school, teacher, books and accumulated wisdom to fall away without undermining their importance in bringing him where he is.

How do education, and educators, meet that challenge? It seems clear that as long as indoctrination, as opposed to creative inquiry, remains the goal of organised education, we have a task at hand. That task is both discovering how that higher purpose is to be approached, and how to engage with the sensibilities that do not lay the same emphasis on it. We are not very good at it, having pursued rather vigorously the other kind of education for several centuries, first in the service of a colonial master and then in the cause of nation-building. To move away will require a patient but persistent dialogue with various parts of the society as well as actual demonstrations of what such an education can mean for the individual.

One interesting example of this problem, though by no means the only one, is the increasing vocationalisation of education. It is hard to find anyone at all, at even the highest policy-making levels in India, who does not act as if the only goal of education is to produce a well-adjusted work-force for the industry. That is a worthy goal, but scarcely enough by itself for any of us to flourish.

My dialogues in villages and towns with parents and other community members often involve people discovering that they want their sons and daughters not only to become good doctors or engineers, but also good husbands and friends and neighbours; they want them to be not just good workers, but good co-workers. They do want them to be people who have an eye for beauty, a capacity to engage with the unknown, a sense of their connection with the larger world. But it needs drawing out, simply because we have for too long believed that education needn’t concern itself with those aspects.

At the level of the society, two key issues occupy my mind. India has seen dramatic changes in the way the society is organised over the last few decades. Nuclear families in India today account for over 70% of all families, compared to just over a half just a generation ago. This is a seismic change, which has imposed extraordinary stresses on the way the community educates its young. The family support systems are less in evidence, the parents are less able to spend time with their children, and a huge loss of institutional and cultural memory is occurring every day.

This is problematic from the educator’s point of view, but it is especially troublesome for the less affluent, the less privileged and the less well-connected. That, unfortunately, is about 70%-80% of the children in the country. As a result, the education system has turned into a giant engine for what Anthony Carnvale of Georgetown University calls, in the US context, the intergenerational reproduction of privilege, scholar-speak for “the mighty get mightier, the poor poorer.” It is even truer for India, where the application of both public and private resources is highly skewed in favour of the more privileged.

The inequality does not only create social stresses and potential violence, issues that should rightly concern any educator. They also impose a large cost in terms of the society’s creativity, productivity and its capacity for joy. While perfect equality is dysfunctional utopia, gross inequality is an invitation for a community to disintegrate.

The other challenge that concerns me is the lack of involvement of communities in the education of their children As we stand today, organised education, whether public or private, pays practically no attention to contextualising education, respecting local traditions or inviting the community into the classroom. For a country with the diversity of India, this is extremely problematic.

The Right to Education Act of 2010, with all the noble intentions which marked its conception, is a huge step backward on the path of empowering communities to become a part of the education of the young. It implicitly vests, in the state, all authority and wisdom about what is worth learning, how and where it should be learnt and who should teach it. As a result, a large number of innovative education practices that have flourished in quiet nooks and under village trees are threatened with closure.

The challenge for educators here is to discover ways in which feedback from communities about what is valued and relevant to them gets incorporated into the curriculum as well as the teacher-student relationship. This involves the educators acknowledging both the limitations of the models under which they operate, and the value of the wisdom of the community. The makers of the constitution, mindful of this, made education a state, rather than a union, subject but even that is not enough. In my work, we come across cases daily where a state capital-mandated educational practice is grossly inadequate for, even unfair to, the children being subjected to it.

And finally, I want to talk about two challenges of incorporating technology into education. The first is comparatively straightforward. Most technology initiatives, at least at the school level, at the moment seem to be a set of recipes, either as delivery mechanisms for existing content or for new tech-related content. We see little anchoring of it in genuine enquiry, or a framework of meaning-making. Without an embedded organising principle, it is hard to see such technology making more of learners than technicians.

And yet, technology has an enormous potential for enhancing the skills of enquiry and deeper reflection. It can dramatically reduce the repetitive drudgery in a number of tasks and free the mind to focus on the creative tasks. The challenge for the educators is to use technology so that it harnesses this creative energy.
The other challenge is somewhat subtler. Technology has been hailed as the educator’s panacea, helping solve the problems of access for the poor, uneven teacher quality, and lack of interesting learning materials in the classrooms. In reality, available data suggests that we must be very mindful of the inequality enhancing effects of technology.

By its nature, technology serves to improve the output-input ratio of existing production processes. The wheel made it possible to haul a larger load over larger distances using the same effort. A networked computer gives the one who knows it access to a much larger volume of information compared to one who doesn’t.

This, of course, enhances the overall welfare of the community using the technology. However, as it does so, it inherently also amplifies the existing processes for manufacturing inequality in a society. We don’t know if there was a name for some people not having access to the wheel. We do have one for uneven access to the computer network. It is called digital divide and it is something that rightly concerns educators and leaders around the world.

We can point to a lot of cases where use of technology seems to have evened out existing inequalities. However, we discover, mostly, that new technology has simply created a new set of winners who are now on the way to becoming more than equal. The identity of those who are unequal changes, the fact of inequality doesn’t.

This is not to say, at all, that technology should, therefore, be shunned. The challenge for us is to be aware of the many ways in which use of technology might exacerbate inequalities and, as a society, take steps to mitigate it.

Challenges, as the Chinese say, are opportunities. The ones we see around us today are, potentially, a ladder upwards.


  1. Wonderful piece, Chittaranjan, I so agree with much of it. The way education is geared to turning out mindless 'literates' is scary for our society. I am also interested to see that communities discover, in dialogue, that they want more than just this for their children. This dialogue too needs to go on, so that parents become aware that the crumbs the government is throwing their way are not enough.
    I am wary though of the 'under a tree' type of education unless it also incorporates 'not under a tree' aspects too, both literally and figuratively.

    1. Mini. If education is to enable and to cause flowering of the human being, I can't imagine it happening without the community, both immediate and distant, being deeply involved in its design, implementation and evaluation. After all, it is what provides the context to whatever the human being learns and uses the learning for. When it does feel involved in that manner, then the "under the tree" and "not under the tree" locations will not matter so much, because the essence of education is in its content, not in the infrastructure.

  2. Fully agree with u Chittaranjan and am sure that most policy makers are also aware of these challenges ! Unfortunately, the committment and focus of our leadership at all levels including parents, to work on a war footing on this front is lacking. Everyone is unhappy with what is going on but only a few hv the will to do something concrete abt it..... Hv been working in a small way on the challenge of Vocationalising education for past 2 yrs and hope to see some fundamental changes in the system within this decade - am encouraged by the recent policy pronouncements by the Govt and launch of a few pvt sector initiatives. Am sure that God will bless us with visible success on this front soon.

  3. So true Chit. Specially the part about the obsession with the vocational lens. As if education is not life but the how to of earning a living. As if the purpose of life and indeed of the evolutionary process is not learning but some lower order need fulfillment...

  4. Nice attempt at bringing out the various aspects relating to the challenges in education in India. Though I would agree on a few points, I would like to different on a lot of points raised here. First, a very elitist definition of education, laden with adjectives has been chosen here. It is good to read but difficult to appreciate considering the fact that a majority of Indians lack even basic education. First, achieving a high standard of education, that would go with the definition shared here, is not that easy. The crying need of India today is not an education that would help 0.0001% of its people get to the corridors of Ivy League schools but 90% of its people win their bread. I don't see correlating skills attained from education with the imminent needs of the job market as wrong at all. As Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman, put it, it doesn't make sense to talk about skill enhancement when you cannot match it up with job opportunities. When, even the U.S. President talks about job training for its people, what is wrong if a resource stricken country like India tries to model its education system in a way that would make its people readily employable? Second. Coming to community involvement, how many upper class convent educated Indians can dare to stand up and say that they would have achieved the same level they have attained today, had they been put in a God forsaken school in a remote corner of this country? And, how many would be willing to put their kids in a community school in India, the way they do when they go to U.S.? Top down approach to education has worked reasonably well in China and I don't see a reason why we will have to cry foul even before the kick-off when it comes to India. Third. The talk about technology. When, even the top schools of the World continue to list out a healthy student-to-teacher ratio and the consequent individual attention that students receive as a major contributor to successor; it is absurd to talk about technology being capable of working out wonders in a poor country whose schools that suffer from lack of even the most basic physical infrastructure; teachers who do not even bother to show up; and cooks who are more busy making money out of ingredients shared for providing mid day meals to children. To me there are two fundamental problems plaguing this country. On the one side, we have elitists who are out of touch with reality and keep prescribing lobotomy to others while keeping the tablets to themselves when it comes to tackling a headache. On the other side, our policy makers are more concerned about satisfying the vote bank and continue to allow the status quo to continue even though they realize that it is taking us all away from the ideal of excellence. The solution to our problem is visionary leadership as provided by the likes of Sardar Patel and Pt. Nehru. We need leaders who can say, "There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?", the way Kennedy did.

    1. Vijay. Of course, an education that does not equip the learner with the skills to earn a livelihood is deficient. After all, a primary responsibility of adulthood is to provide for the physical needs of oneself and one's family. What we are asking is whether that should be the sole aim of education. A human being needs not only livelihood but also well-developed intellectual, social and emotional skills to be effective in his life. For the privileged, many of these inputs are made available through various sources other than the education system. The less privileged do not have such access. Therefore, an impoverished education system affects the less well-off disproportionately.

      The question we must ask is: shall we settle for a second-rate education for our children, thinking that nothing better is possible, or vigorously advocate for a complete education that gives our children the opportunities that they deserve. TO address the growing inequalities of our society requires nothing less.

  5. Hi. I just happened to stumble across your blog. Hence my comment is of course necessarily restricted as a reaction to only this single post. I've come across numerous literature laying down these ideas. They're around in plenty. Kenneth Anderson, Frank Herbert, several others have constantly and very succinctly laid out the problem. I'm however yet to see any specific solution to any of these. Your literature appears to me as just another one of many vague, generic and scattered comments on the education sector. What are your solutions? What do you conceive doing about it? Or as you'd put it, to enable them to "to cultivate attention, the state of being where one can engage with the question at hand with clarity, care and affection, bringing all one’s resources, physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual, to bear."?

    1. Sounak. Actually, the means to cultivating attention are not vague or obscure. They are grounded in an understanding of the children's learning processes and include such simple things as (though by no means restricted to) activating the various physical senses in classroom engagements, working on projects that require integrating mental concepts with actual use of the body, working in teams and groups that requires paying attention to relationships, etc. Many teachers practice these ideas in their classrooms, though it is true that they are not mainstream.

      More advanced ideas include quiet times in classroom, dialogues about children's experiences and concerns and practice of mindfulness. These are high-impact practices, but not widespread. They require some level of skill on part of the teacher to implement effectively.

      Our challenge is not to identify ways that might help children access the highest benefits of education, but to believe that it is necessary and possible for us to have such an education. When we require of our education that it deliver well-formed human beings, we will have taken an important step towards abolishing the helplessness that we feel about improving it.


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