India: Reporter Sees Contradictions in Her Native Land

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 21 00:31:12 UTC 2007

Reporter Sees Contradictions in Her Native Land

By Vaishali Honawar

Bombay, India

Bombay is a city of paradoxes. It is a place where wealthy executives
driving expensive sport-utility vehicles plod to work over potholed roads
no faster than the poor and middle-class people crammed into open door
trains that run up and down the length of the city. It is a city where
skyscrapers and slums stand side-by-side; and where a visitor always feels
the past mingling with the present. Returning to the city where I was born
and grew up is always an adventure.  In the nearly nine years I have spent
as a resident of the United States, India has been experiencing historic
changes. Pricey cars on unpaved roads honk impatiently at pedestrians
accustomed to a slower pace of life. The golden arches of McDonald's with
their Maharaja Macs have replaced traditional restaurants run by families
of Persian descent that served cardamom-flavored cakes and hot, buttered
buns for breakfast. And, of course, there are the technology whiz kids and
computer call-center technicians talking on cell phones as they walk the
same streets as 4-year-old children begging for money.

Dreaming of a Better Life: Teenager Looks Beyond Poverty. India's
paradoxes are particularly noticeable in its education system. Ironically,
the country that has been lauded by everyone from Microsoft Chairman Bill
Gates to former President Bill Clinton for producing some of the world's
most impressive minds in science and mathematics also has one of the
world's highest illiteracy rates. According to India's latest census, the
illiteracy rate hovers around 65 percent, and the rate for women is just
below 50 percent. India lacks a strong public education system for its
elementary and secondary grades, and schools run by the state governments
and city municipalities are viewed as so badly run that only the poorest
students attend them. Bathrooms at such schools are unheard of, solid
walls and roofs are considered luxuries, and teacher absenteeism is

At the other extreme, the wealthiest people in India go to elite private
schools nestled in exotic hill stations where they get an education
modeled on British public schools, as top boarding schools such as Eton
and Harrow are called. The Indian schools come complete with the English
grade levels, and their students play rugby and learn Western etiquette.

New Ways of Thinking

That leaves the ubiquitous private schools of India, which educate most of
India's middle class at a price that is just barely affordable. Those
schools receive substantial subsidies from both federal and state
governments. That was the type of school I attended in the 1970s and 80s
in Bombay.  Like most Indian private schools, my school had the primary
and secondary sections under one roof and instruction was primarily in
English, a British legacy that has helped Indias economic growth.

Back when I was in school, rote learning was not just popular, it was
encouraged. Our teachers were predominantly women, usually young or early
middle-aged, and they had no qualms about taking a wooden foot ruler to
our hands. We crammed not just multiplication tables but whole math
equations and scientific formulas into our heads, because you never knew
when the teacher would call on you to solve a complicated problem. If you
didn't know the answer not only were your knuckles beaten raw, but you
were eternally shamed before your class-mates. But Indias growing economic
status has sparked new ways of thinking about how children should be
educated here. Over the next few weeks I will be observing those changes.

For instance, there is a new sense of hope in India as the country moves
quickly on several initiatives to enroll all children, particularly girls,
in school. It is a goal everyone here appears to be taking seriously, even
the driver of the tiny, three-wheeled autorickshaw whose rickety vehicle
was recently plodding through Bombay's rain-drenched streets, in front of
the one I was riding in. Painted on the back of his rickshaw, in Marathi,
were these words: "When a girl learns, she teaches the world."

Editors Note: Education Week staff writer Vaishali Honawar is on
assignment in India to report on the country's education system. During
her visit, she is also filing occasional reports for


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