In our time, education is once again facing the need for a complete metamorphosis. Often, the sea change so rapidly taking place in the idea of education is placed alongside the question of knowledge. Thus, French Canadian philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s analysis of the postmodern condition proposed a wide scattering and utter fragmentation of knowledge in the twenty-first century into ‘knowledges’ pegged not on analogy but on what he called ‘paralogy’. Throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, a large array of theory delved into the archaeology of knowledge in order to highlight the epistemic shift in human knowledge being witnessed.
Two major factors – at least those that are most visible and the easiest to grasp, as well as those with an unusual power to hurt or to please – made their presence felt precisely at the same time as the established idea of knowledge started facing a series of epistemic shocks. One, the post-Cold War Western economies started unleashing an unprecedented disinvestment tendency in the field of education, and two, developments in the field of artificial intelligence and chip-based memory started questioning the content in established educational practices. Thus, governments that were keen on cutting public costs on education, and institutions that were keen on pruning some of the more traditional fields of knowledge from the gamut of institutional education became the order of the day. While this was happening in the West, and surely as a fallout in the countries that had accepted the idea of universal knowledge and, therefore, a ‘universal idea of education’, some United Nations agencies had been voicing serious alarm on the plummeting development index in the global South.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, in countries like China and India, there appeared a mixed and fairly confused situation in the field of education. On the one hand, the number of universities multiplied as never before in history; on the other, governments actively promoted the idea of education as a kind of industry that cannot be developed without private enterprise. As a consequence, in India, if one had been talking of 130 universities at the beginning of the decade, by the end of the decade the number was in four digits. We have today several categories of universities: national universities, central universities, state universities, deemed universities, open universities, private universities and foreign universities operating through franchise arrangements, some of these as enviably large as industrial empires and others as tiny as cyber cafes. Add to these nearly 60,000 institutes of tertiary technical education. Normally, this should be a welcome development, except that the phase of this explosion of institutions has coincided with the state’s accentuated withdrawal from the field. The United Progressive Alliance governments trod this path and the present Bharatiya Janata Party government is treading it too. The torrential invasion of information and communications technology and the drying up of state patronage provided to all fields and disciplines of knowledge have, together, created new rapids, new pitfalls, new puzzles and new unfilled spaces in the field of education in India. Here is a random and merely symptomatic snapshot of the ‘news’ in the field.
The country has watched on television and read in newspapers about the gruesome and blood-curdling Vyapam scam involving tens of thousands of young persons whose education was not equal to the requirement of intellectual competence expected of them. So they went out seeking relief through impersonation, bribery, cheating and simply falling prey to greed and murderous crime. If this shameful and horrifying scam took place in a short calendar space, the intellectual and moral rot atop which it stands has been around for quite a while. Saying this is not intended to be a defence of the caste system – vicious as they are – but a necessary comment on the larger scale tragedy and deception of which the young in India are hapless victims. Add to this sordid tale of mockery of knowledge the mediocrity and greed witnessed on the campus of practically every university and research institution. Add also the neglect of several key fields of knowledge and academic disciplines that makes knowledge generation hugely lopsided and heavily laden with the idea of ‘knowledge for profit’. Modern education in India has not been just a public institutional system set up only or primarily by the state. It is also a cultural product for creation of which a very large number of selfless individuals have given their all. Therefore, their vision and creation cannot be seen as a government undertaking ready for disinvestment when such a move suits the economy.
Unfortunately, after Independence, none of the greater visions of education suitable for sustaining the innate strengths of Indian society were organically integrated with education, particularly higher education in India. The idea of producing engineers and doctors as manpower for economic development gained ground, and all secondary school education got bogged down under its crushing pressure. English alone was seen as the language of knowledge; and the easier prospects of employment for those who had access to the English language drove the entire primary school education inexorably to the learning of English. Though there is nothing wrong with the idea of schooling through the English language per se, it is a scientifically established fact that education in one’s mother tongue gives young learners a far greater ability to grasp complex abstract concepts. So, all in all, we now have millions of children who simply drop out because there is nothing in school that can retain them. Those who continue have to study in a manner such that their ability to think originally is systemically curtailed at an early age. When they cross the school age and move to higher education, the institutional rot there leaves little space for them to acquire any genuine intellectual interest, let alone research skills. The college level institution too defines ‘success’ in terms of ‘placements for jobs’ and how much the graduates can draw as their first salary. What about knowledge, thinking, questioning, reasoning, quest, research and pursuit of truth? Well, they are the marginalised beings in the arena of human resource development. The sociologist, Shiv Visvanathan, comments in an editorial:
The playful power of these intellectual efforts still recharges many a new imagination. Both teachers and students inevitably know such a community of understanding cannot be created by mercenaries… Because one does not understand the ecology for exemplars, one fetishes management theories which commodotise education, turning the teacher-student relationship into one of an arid clientelism, a paisa vasool model, good for bargaining in second-hand shops but a misfit for a world of values.
If knowledge is the core of education and if education lays the very foundation of a nation, the nation needs to reflect on the plight to which these have been reduced.
Excerpted, with permission, from G.N. Devy’s The Crisis Within: On Knowledge and Education in India (Aleph, 2017).