To Tackle the Problems of Education in India, We Must First Change the Discourse

How does learning happen? How can we make it happen? These are the questions we need to resolve, instead of looking at the child and the child's family as the problem.

The new child labour law allows children's involvement in 'family-run enterprises'. It is worth asking how strongly the HRD ministry expressed its discomfort with this. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Representational image. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The failure of education in our country today is as much about the failure of the discourse on education as it is about the failure of the school curriculum. We are confronting today what I call a double or dual discourse on education. On the one hand, we claim that education can transform anyone; on the other, we believe some people are incapable of undergoing that transformation. We believe that even as all children need to be educated, some among them are intrinsically incapable of learning. Education is indeed a source of power. But the ‘essence’ or nature of some children, we seem to believe, resists this power of education. These two ideas together are creating an impasse in our educational culture.

As a country treading a complicated road to modernity, we cannot afford the risk of such an impasse. How do we look after the millions of children who lack requisite educational skills? There is what is called an army of restless young people who seek to build their lives. But they are not armed with requisite skills. We have failed to appropriately guide and train them. Our default understanding seems to be one of indifference, sometimes pity and, occasionally annoyance – ‘Those people. They can never learn.’

Technology and alchemy of education

The technology of schooling extends from teaching phrasing of examination answers to creating “a new person”. The world, in this version, is divided between the educated and the uneducated. The educated know English to some extent, besides being familiar with their mother tongue. The uneducated are conversant only in their mother tongue. The crucial question is how does one move from the second status to the first. What happens when ‘uneducated’ parents want to ‘educate’ their children? The response to this question is contradictory: To want education is wonderful. You can achieve anything if you have the will. Children of uneducated parents will surely succeed if their parents want them to be educated.

“This is impossible, for everyone to want to be educated. Because uneducated parents will simply not have the know-how to help the child with his books, his homework, his assignments. They cannot guide him or set an example. If the child runs away from the work, they will not be able to control him. There is a solution however. They can keep a tutor to help the child with the homework.” In this context, it is perfectly valid to ask: What about school? Why can’t the school properly teach the child – regardless of the background of her parents? The answer: But indeed the school does. The school gives homework.

Over a long – 150 year – period of time, school work has become progressively circumscribed. Equating education with change though still a powerful slogan, the process of achieving that goal has been rendered magical and mysterious. This is what I describe as alchemy.

The discourse of the child

The important question is – how does learning happen? How can we make it happen? These are the structural problems we need to resolve. But we avoid doing so by transferring the problem on the child and the child’s family. And within this framework we find that some children are resistant to education and change. The educator is not going to be able to motivate some children to change, because these children demonstrate a recalcitrance towards education that leaves the educator helpless.

From the very beginning, these children are suspects in the eyes of teachers and school administrators. Because of their socio-economic background (coming from poor and uneducated families), they are considered hopeless. The failure of middle-class children however is perceived as individual/personal failures. While the family and the community of disadvantaged children are blamed for their failures, for richer people, the individual child is to blame.

The real challenge is that no educator in India wants to acknowledge that teaching the children is their responsibility. Instead, they seem to believe that underprivileged children fail because of their own inherent drawback, which is lodged in the child herself, or in her family. Rich and educated people blame the poor and the uneducated. Trained educators blame the ‘backward’ parents, especially those who are uneducated. Leaders in administrative, management structures, sometimes even in the field of arts, blame “the ignorant masses”. English speakers blame Hindi speakers; Hindi speakers blame Bhojpuri speakers. Uneducated adults shrug off the problem as perplexing.

Possible solutions

We need technical solutions in education of course, and that could be detailed in a separate article. It would be relatively simple and pleasurable to devise technologies that could remove the veil of mystery from the schooling process.

We need to first confront the discursive challenge, however. We need to recognise that India is now grappling with a dual or double discourse in education with the same ‘stakeholders’ articulating contradictory views. The principal who affirms faith in the power of modern education in enabling each child to grow to her full potential at the same time maintains poor children cannot possibly be educated alongside middle class students, and that a parallel school system is necessary for the disadvantaged children.

Paradoxically, it is one part of this double discourse that could give us promise in our educational work, and supply a strategy to deal with the other part. We need not yield to the claim that hierarchy is the ‘culture’ or philosophical framework within which people function, as argued by some scholars. We can instead mine the divergence and the inconsistency – the doublespeak and feigned ignorance – to focus on that part of the dual discourse that says that anyone can change, and that of course children are malleable, impressionable beings.

To take a discourse seriously is also to realise its multivalent and dialectical power. If the discourse indeed argues two opposite things simultaneously, it is only because both positions exist in society, and very importantly, both spaces for action exist. In opting for the space that we would rather use from the two existing spaces, we would be doing what leaders have done throughout history, and what people, anxious for change, expect their leaders to do.

Nita Kumar is a Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College and Director of NIRMAN, an organisation that works for education and the arts.