Education and what it didn’t do for the Indian populous

Think about the purpose and the scope of education in our society and you will agree that it needs to change for the future. The purpose of education in our society has primarily been that of elevating the masses towards human development. To be literate has been reduced to having the basic skills to read, write and count. We were predominantly an agrarian society till few decades ago when the masses migrated to cities for a better and sustained livelihood. Where new skills were required to quench the mechanised industries. They required workers who operated machines in factories, several small scale industries and textiles mills which constituted the blue collar economy. Besides being literate they needed different skillsets. Compared to the generation prior they did better in terms of providing food and basic comforts, and of course had their challenges. But this generation also knew that the only way to push their children out of this kind of life and into white collar jobs was to aspire for them much lucrative – pensioned government jobs.

The state couldn’t provide jobs for all and the only way to select a few was to measure everyone on a single yard stick of educational merit. The certificates were only meant to be the foot in the door, everyone agreed the real learning happened on the job and shop floors. In that regard the current education did very little for us. But to say that it was completely futile would be too harsh. My parents and the extended family is today an example of that. My father, the 8th among the 9 children used to walk 8-9 kilometres a day to go to a school in rural Kerala in the 1950s. After he topped the SSC board, he was busy taming cows and goats, while his elder siblings similarly having completed basic schooling were busy tilling the land. Upon the insistence of his teacher, my father’s widowed mother gave him the permission to travel outside of Kerala (the first person to do so in family) to join the Indian Airforce. After 15 years of service he retired and joined the banking sector, all the while collecting degrees in economics, accountancy, sociology and humanities through correspondence. He knew he would need them to move on in life. Having jumped ahead of the lot, my father found himself morally responsible to mentor the children of his siblings. He would tutor them to appear for government exams and our house became the launching pad for many of my cousins, who would then fly off to greener pastures.

While growing up priorities were made very clear to my brother and I, the only way to progress any further in life was to study hard. So both of us did that, we became engineers and went abroad to further study. We also collected degrees, BE, MS, MBA. Did this make our lives better? Yes it did. With greater knowledge, are we pursuing our passions? I don’t even know what that means. From an agrarian income dependent family in the past two generations we have become a knowledge centric family spread across the globe. We build chateaus on paddy fields now. 3 out of 5 of my cousins belong to either of these professions: teachers, bankers, engineers, doctors, dentists, ayurvedic doctors, pilots, researchers and MBAs, all of which need degrees and certificates. This is not an unheard story but a familiar one. This is debatable of course if all this can be considered as progress. If not completely happy, at least it has given us enough opportunity and financial independence to seek what happiness meant.

I was going through a recent article by the Oxford University and Human Development Index on decreasing poverty levels in different states in India. Though the article talks about the welfare schemes but it is difficult to miss the walloping truth that the literacy rates are comparable to how poor the state is. 40-52% of people in Bihar, MP, UP are below poverty levels which is very comparable to the literacy rates in those states. Malnutrition, child and women health is directly comparable to how literate the women in that area are. All of us know about the much applauded scheme of Nitish Kumar, Bihar CM where the government gave free bicycles to girls so that they can go to school.

The state’s juggernaut task of running close to 13 lakhs of schools with tens of lakhs of teachers could only achieve mere literacy, is a sad state of affair. Plus all of us put together we are not there yet. But if you were to step into the shoes of the State (if it were a human being) what else would you do to empower the masses? Besides running the welfare schemes and creating jobs, the only way to empower will be to make them literate and skills ready. Hence in the due course we have now an over supply of engineers and their employability is totally questionable. Just over a quarter of the engineers in India today are employable, said a much debated Mckinsey research report. AICTE has ordered to shut down close to 200 engineering colleges due to lack of proper facilities and standards. What this necessarily tells me is that we managed to put the foot in the door but completely forgot to take the brain along. We have pushed our children into going to schools but they still can’t put together a sentence. Reports of tenth standard students failing to do simple math is not new. No wonder we are a mediocre society, but a tolerant one who is patient towards failing infrastructure, substandard education and with a dearth of people with professional attitudes. Only because we don’t know as society how better can better be. We haven’t seen the brighter sides yet and our politicians’ and bureaucrats’ myopic visions can’t aspire a better life for us.

I was mulling over what education should mean to my children. I have that leisure today only because my father didn’t end up tilling the land. Having moved up the natural progression towards upward mobility in the current class society of India. Now I can take a pause. And think. 15 years hence what I do not intend to do is push them into the already overflowing pool of half witted professionals. Thankfully survival is not the question here, we have learnt how to do that. The second/third generation educated class have to really define what education means for next generation because they are the ones who will make the choice for them. What education should lead to is an environment where learning really happens, where a child can discover herself/himself and their passions, strive for excellence, fight their battles, survive in this overpopulated world with meagre resources, be sensitive to nature and contribute to society. So it’s about time. This shift and change of mindset needs to happen now. Because the leaders of tomorrow are in kindergarten today.

still writing Part 2….

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