In recent years, I have been increasingly saddened by the fact that we have managed to reduce the business of education in Assam to a little more than an impressive ritual. Those who are serious about education, must remain focused on how well the education imparted in our schools, colleges and universities prepares our youths for productive and satisfying work. Higher education for the sake of education alone is a luxury that a developing country like India just cannot afford. I have had to say this quite often because I see no signs of anyone in our educational institutions even trying to read the writing on the wall. Our colleges and universities have a surfeit of teachers who continue to be influenced by the ideal of the wealthy West: that those who impart a ‘liberal general education’ in our colleges and universities need not lose any sleep over how useful such education is going to be in the matter of securing jobs or means of livelihood. I consider this a major aberration in our planning for higher education and our notions of why we need this so-called ‘liberal general education’. I remember having raised this question during the days of the Assam Movement between 1979 and 1985. In those days, I was in the habit of asking why the large numbers of individuals with doctoral degrees in Political Science were unable to offer any pragmatic solutions to tackle the problem of large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The thrust of my question was that if our doctoral degrees in Political Science were worth anything at all, we should have had a large number of persons capable of offering rational and practical solutions to the problem that they were facing at that time and one that has got much worse with the passage of time.
Perhaps my question is still a very valid one. In fact, one begins to see the difference between our colleges that impart ‘liberal general education’ and the education imparted in our technical and professional colleges. One can see how the standards of education in general and teaching in particular have remained somewhat better in our technical and professional colleges as compared to colleges that exist largely for the objective of imparting ‘liberal general education’. Even though it is a saddening exercise, I can begin by looking at what is happening in my alma mater, Cotton College. I still think of the Cotton College of my student days as a very fine institution of higher education that could match any college in the country. Even as a teacher there, we had a wonderful sense of fulfilment that was bolstered by the achievements of our students all over the country and abroad after they graduated. I really don’t know when the canker started. I often wonder whether it had anything to do with our former President Shankar Dayal Sharma calling Cotton College “a centre of excellence” in the course of a visit to it or whether it had to do with a small group of teachers who started private tuitions with their own students. The decline in the standard of the college began to be visible soon after. After all, a college that admits only the cream of students should be able to produce human resource material that is even better than it was at the beginning of their education in the college. Unfortunately, this has not happened. One is struck by the difference in the standards of teaching the science subjects in Cotton College and the humanities subjects that make up the ‘liberal general education’ compendium. In other words, those who take up subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology, Geology or even Economics generally do much better in their careers and in life than those who opt for subjects like Political Science or Education or even English Literature at times. The difference perhaps is that one can make a career out of pure science subjects or subjects like Economics. This is not generally the case with a subject like Political Science. Something else that is happening in our ‘centre of excellence’ is that teachers are beginning to take teaching rather lightheartedly. In many private colleges of Assam, there are teachers who go to class 15 minutes late, teach for about 15 minutes and then get back to the common room for a juicy bit of gossip. This is a malaise that is also spreading to the more prestigious colleges. Even in the centre of excellence there are cases of teachers who manage to retain their jobs without taking a single class for a month or two. What kind of real education can one expect from institutions of higher learning where highly paid teachers shirk their responsibilities and bunk classes just like some of their irresponsible students?
One is beginning to notice a striking difference between our old established colleges and some of the new ones that are often accused of turning education into a business. It is true that some of these new colleges charge extortionate tuition fees. But they also ensure that they give their money’s worth in terms of actual teaching of the students. That apart, these new colleges are acutely conscious of their responsibility of also ensuring jobs or livelihoods for their students. These colleges are ‘placement’ conscious and duly publicize the number of their students who have secured jobs. This is very important in a country where education is getting increasingly expensive by the day and students and their parents are naturally concerned about the placement potential of the education that has been paid for.
Regardless of how expensive education may have become, it is the institutions of higher education that mean business that will continue to do better than those colleges that have chosen to maintain status quo and are carrying on with their old tradition of performing rituals rather than imparting good and useful education. And quite often teachers of the traditional institutions of higher learning even get paid better salaries than teachers of the new colleges who have taken up the challenge of providing more useful and worthwhile education and training.
This takes me on to what might have been a more logical beginning to this column rather than the winding up. As teachers, we have absolutely no way of overlooking our responsibilities to the society that we find ourselves in and one that has suffered considerable destruction at the hands of our leaders and the government of the day. We find ourselves in a society that has been inert for over three decades in respect of industrial development; we have a society that has the highest unemployment rate in the country as a consequence; we also have a high level of militancy and terrorism (masquerading as insurgency) partly as a consequence of the lack of opportunities for work; we have an abominable level of health care and we have a high level of alcoholism among the youth. This is the milieu in which our teachers must work and in which education must be imparted. We have the added component of fear—fear of losing our hearths and homes, fear arising from the large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh that is being encouraged against our interests by our elected government, and the fear of being insecure and jobless in our own homeland. Our education must prepare our youth to cope with such an adverse situation and to be able to do at least modest jobs in the service sector (in other States if need be) efficiently so as to be preferred to workers from other States. Our education must encourage and promote entrepreneurship. It must promote a culture of exemplary honesty and dependability if we are planning to make tourism an industry in our State. Our teachers must ensure all this. And if education is really a process that brings about desirable behavioural changes, then our education must also serve to make our youth more courageous and much more industrious, articulate and honest than they are now. How many teachers can ensure this? If they cannot be the catalysts of the change that is required in a time of crisis how useful are they as teachers? Are they in the business of teaching merely for the salary teaching brings them? This is a time for a great deal of soul-searching. Who needs teachers if they are unable to shape and mould the most valuable of all resources—the human resource. They have a wonderful tradition of what their predecessors were able to do with a fraction of their salaries and a fraction of the infrastructure and resources that today’s teachers command. Will our teachers pick up the gauntlet or just wave a white handkerchief in lieu of a flag?