Why Education has become the new Wild West

As pandemic ravages on, it exposes the failings of our education system. Hence, it is the opportune moment to rethink our approach to developing human capital and saddle up and venture into the endless possibilities that lie ahead.

We have all come across that one friend who still boasts of his high school glory. Lording over everyone how he had the privilege of belonging to an institution of traditions and values distilled for generations – your Loretos, the La Martinieres, the St Xaviers or Bishop Cotton’s schools.  A pedigree to be proud of. Who knows … one might just discover oneself to be that very clandestine elitist. However, a closer examination of this phenomenon certainly reveals a peculiarity in logic. Would we truly commend any other institution for being impervious to change for almost 200 years? It should be noted that the reluctance to evolve is not endemic to institutions which are remnants of the Empire. The entire Indian education system from CBSE to ICSE to the state boards is deeply flawed. A look at our brain drain or research outflow from IoEs will all serve as scathing indictments of how we nurture human capital. Shashi Tharoor once famously quipped that Indian education infrastructure had islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity.

After having had over 70 years to reform primary and higher secondary education infrastructure, the shadow of Thomas Macaulay still looms large over us. Despite the English’s general apathy towards the natives of the subcontinent, Macaulay had championed the English Education Act of 1835 which established the principles of modern schooling in India. Macaulay argued that education should be centred around the English language which- apparently, dwarfed the quality of oriental literature- and introduced the British format of assessments; all to create a class of anglicised Indian bureaucrats. With that, they not only brought subjects like European History, Geography and euro-centric Science and Mathematics but also the quintessential rigidity of Victorian England. Despite that even today it is hailed in certain circles as the benefits of enlightened despotism when in reality it was mostly a paternalistic rebuke of existing pedagogy. There is a reason why the GCSEs and A-Levels of the UK mirror SSCs and HSCs of India so closely. They were created by the same, out of touch, aristocrats in London for a very specific purpose. The British have since tried to drag their education system – albeit reluctantly- into the 21st Century. They now allow a wider variety of subjects with more freedom to choose, eliminating  specific subject requirements, and a combined 2-year grading system. However, there has been little imagination by their Indian counterparts apart from rebranding the examinations by changing their names.

In India, we seem to have comfortably settled into a status quo where the expected outcome is preferential conferment of grades to students who can memorise a certain type of question and write uninspired answers to facilitate the ease of checking for appallingly treated teachers. Not to mention practically forcing students to undertake certain subjects regardless of their interest in them. This predicament is exacerbated by the antagonising sentiments towards “non-science” subjects that have percolated the education system. This, in turn, leads to ridiculously fierce competition among a certain class of colleges and universities. The persistence of our societal problems can trace back their origin to our schooling system. The overabundance of engineers settling for low wage employment, the absence of a robust ‘arts’ funding, the lack of good finance/ economics-related jobs, a paucity of entrepreneurs. The dearth of imagination from an early age also contributes to an individual’s performance down the line. The dismal levels of research output from most of our universities are a result of an incurious populace. The lack of innovation in non-STEM-related fields should also be concerning. Lopsided growth is unsustainable. Not to belabour the argument but even if one is fortunate enough to attend a private school (the state of our public schools is best left unspoken) then they have to endure a barrage of tuitions, competitive exam training and lofty answer guides to memorise all at the cost of personal development. This exposes the misplaced priority of our education systems. Priorities which unfortunately have been passed on to colleges as well.

This year has exposed just how hapless schools and universities are without pen and paper examinations. It turns out to be the only valued metric in this country. But with the confusion regarding Class 12 board paper evaluations along with universities scrambling to stipulate new criteria for admission and graduating students without any assessments have shown that these methods are not invulnerable. On the university front, some have made efforts to undertake a more wholistic approach to admissions by considering an applicants non- academic activities. While not nearly as comprehensive as international standards, many public universities such as Delhi University have extended the the same courtesy to students gaining admission under the  Sports Quota to applicants who had other non-athletic talents such as arts, theatre, debate, writing among others.  Yet even this change came in the form of a  clunky  new Extra-Curricular-Activities (ECA) Quota. What’s more concerning is that the universities were perfectly comfortable to declare them – barring the athletes for some reason- the first casualty in the admissions process in lieu of the pandemic. Thankfully more rational heads prevailed and the incoming batch of 2020 will feature students with a diverse talent set.  But the ease with which we are able to rely on grades to judge an entire life’s worthiness – for opportunities, higher education, jobs – is alarming.  Things must change.

Despite our – arguably- best efforts the majority of the incoming cohorts of our universities are sadly not independent, confident, personable or inventive. They have been guided to fit into moulds unquestioningly, despite being talented, smart and certainly capable. Historically, exposure to the outside world cannot be stymied despite our best efforts. It is lamentable that the creative minds such as Abhijit Bannerjee, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai had to look west for success. Alas, it would seem that we need to look west for the solutions to the very problems we inherited from them. We should embrace their Problem Based Learning (PBL) format of instruction; endorsed by universities like Stanford University, University of Leicester, Queen’s University, Maastricht University and so on. However, if we choose to plagiarise others the least we should do is improve upon the idea and introduce it at the school level along with the reforms mentioned earlier in the British context. The possibilities are boundless.

The pandemic has already set the stage for reform. Right now as schools have shifted to online modes of education children are already engaging in a form of PBL. They are being encouraged to understand the concepts themselves with teachers serving as a guiding tutor. They are being asked to come up with examples to improve their understanding through community learning instead of being spoon-fed the solutions. A drastic shift from the usual top-down approach. As challenging as it may be now, with institutional support – by changing assessment methods, curriculum – we could create a crop of more self-reliant and innovative graduates. Necessity is the mother of innovation as the adage goes, and perhaps we are seeing it unfold in front of our eyes. In the absence of the 4 walls of the classroom, we are seeing long-standing yet fringe concepts such as the use of case studies, interactive television, Internet video conferencing, increased emphasis on computer literacy becoming mainstream.

We see people coming up with quick solutions to existing problems much like the cowboys did in the un-tillable lands of yore. Of course, given the deep inequities of Indian society, this should warrant a careful examination before national implementation to avoid erroneous reforms like the No Child Left Behind Act. But supporting enthusiastic schools should definitely be the first step to change. Much like how the freedom and proactive nature of the west coast settlers during the Gold Rush transformed the “Wild West” into a flourishing society; we too need to rage against the bloated education bureaucracy and embrace this change.

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