Unified Theory in Education Policy for India

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Mar 10 15:11:26 UTC 2007

Unified Theory in Education Policy for India

March 09, 2007


If there is any country or geographic area in the world that has a rich
tradition of learning, it is India. For centuries, the Guru Sishya
Parampara (teacher-taught tradition) has been kept alive in spite of
genocides and famines that wiped out huge tracts of the population. Given
that, we are shocked at the abysmal literacy levels that are currently in
vogue in this great nation. The educated few who bother to put down the
reasons why it is so have an impressive list. The policy makers who need
to implement this great task of making education accessible to all and
sundry have their justifications why it was not viable. Bottom line- there
are still people out there who are still illiterate, who don't know how to
read and write.

Traditionally, India has been a land of oral traditions as well as
specialization. The idea of "learning" or transfer of knowledge was mainly
from parent to child with the added feature of an apprenticeship depending
on the trade learned. Father to son, mother to daughter; arts, crafts,
language, skills, were taught and learned until the grand concept of
Western "choice" came into the picture. The British for all their
"goodwill" could never understand how to handle a country so widely
diverse. They needed to make it monotonous to understand and harness it
better. New research and findings have proven how they enforced the
cultivation of cash crops as opposed to the traditional gamut of crops
that were not only food crops but also drought resistant and ensured the
feeding of the nation - but locally. How can we substantiate this- we know
what the average Punjabi eats is quite different from what an average
Tamilian would eat.

Next, they needed a huge work force be it administration, commerce or
militia and who better than to get all the locals who were already
literate, but unfortunately in tongues that served no purpose to the
Queen. Enter Lord Macaulay and the rest, as we all know, is History. It is
interesting to note that until then, the quality of workmanship in India
was unparalleled. Every tradesman, artisan, farmer, knew his/her job
thoroughly and created fabled products for the marketplace. As for the
quotidian stuff like pots and pans there was a wonderful market economy in
place where things wore out or broke so that they would need replacement
and kept the economy moving. The system of buying new clothes after the
harvest and whitewashing of homes can attest to this fact. Money coming in
and getting spent on quotidian stuff kept the economy humming.

When I shared the Education Leadership Workshop with several teachers
across India in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, I discovered
some common issues, the main one being that even today, after 58 years of
Independence, a teacher considers herself semi-literate if she doesn't
speak or know English! Now where does this psyche arise from? (No prizes
for guessing!) It took them 2 hours into the workshop to realize that
leadership in Education was NOT about speaking or writing English, rather
about the thought process going on within that needed to be manifested
without in an understandable and creative way. These women and men who
actually teach the "illiterate" put to shame even the most enthusiastic of
social workers. Most of them know their community and sometimes have to
leave their classes to fetch the absent child etc.  The nurturing of the
community and the camaraderie amongst its citizenry is quite enviable.

In this scenario, the validity of writing papers a la research model makes
no sense. Are these children capable of enjoying their time together? Have
they clarified their thought process? Can they describe their immediate
environment and measure the measurable and experience the immeasurable?
When I was going up the trail of Kedarnath on a mule (I was 17), the mule
boy wanted me to describe the ocean to him (after I told him that I was
from near the ocean). He was 13 years old and wondered if the sea was
indeed as vast as it seemed in a film he had seen. I had to evoke some
idea of "flatness" (when in the mountain) which was very alien to him.
However I did ensure him that the sound of the Mandakini roaring down her
gorge was very similar to the roar of the waves. He couldn't accept that
seawater was salty. This child may have even written an essay on the sea
without once experiencing it. However had he written an essay on the mule
trail to Kedar, he may have written a book!

Likewise a child from the semi arid areas of Rajasthan finds it
intellectually challenging to experience the snow of the Himalayas. I
remember myself being thrilled to see snow for the 1st time when we went
to Badrinath. Until then it was just a word in our text book. We made our
taxi stop and rushed out and made a tiny snowman! While at it, we
discovered the similarities and major differences with the sands at the
Marina. Yet how many children in our own land have experienced their
immediate environment let alone the environs of lands far away? As RK
Narayan mentions in one of his books, none of them had a clue as to how
apple pie tasted let alone how it looked! Just as I wondered along with my
brother what scones tasted like after reading all those Enid Blytons (that
was finally answered when in the Lake District).

Where were the books with kids eating samosas and chaats and solving
mysteries? Why were they wearing sweaters when they should have run around
in a banian as it was too hot? Where were the brown eyes and black hair -
all we got to read was Anne with her blue eyes and blond hair. In a recent
blog where there was a request for people to suggest book titles for
street children in Kolkota, the suggested list was full of English writers
writing about blue-eyed, blond haired kids. Very few had the cultural
sensitivity to even suggest Indian authors (where we have a paucity of
them for children's literature).

I remember my mother asking artists around in Chennai (1981) to draw a
picture of some Daffodils as she had to teach that poem by Wordsworth.
None of the local artists knew how it looked to draw it! Finally, she came
across a picture in a cross stitch pattern book and took it to the artist
and neither one of them had a clue as to how big in reality these flowers
were! But millions of Indian kids have learnt this poem through decades
and even got good grades! And do we have a poem on the Gulmohar or the
Hibiscus that practically every child in India can identify with? Or for
that matter the mango or the banana? Oh no! We need to learn about oranges
and lemons, both of which do not grow in our country. The santra (loose
jacket mandarins) and the mausambi (sweet lime) with the lime would be
better off being taught along with the omnipresent banana.

Given these above "constraints" in the content of the curriculum, how can
we expect more people to be literate? No wonder they wish to run from
school. I was fortunate in having parents who kept that curiosity alive.
Otherwise my enthusiasm would have died a natural death by the 5th grade!
If not for the compulsory study of a regional language, the experience of
the immediate environment would have been nullified. Now, even that is
being avoided by certain groups of parents who have enrolled their
children in these new fangled International schools that do away with all
Indian languages! Rather they teach French and Spanish! That would be the
perfect distancing from the immediate environment the child would find
himself in.

Then these schizophrenic individuals with an expensive education will end
up as future policy makers who would expect their curriculum models and
structures to be learnt by the peasantry who have absolutely no clue about
the neighboring state let alone outer space, just as we see our American
educated Finance Minister modeling the Indian Economy based on American



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