At the time of Independence, our literacy rate was about 12% and school enrolment was less than 40%. That cut an extremely sorry figure. But the excuse was that a tion invaded by Mughals first and then the British – and despite the British effort to introduce Western brand of education in us, and despite their attempt at elitism by introducing the likes of the Indian Civil Service – was doomed to fail and falter in the crucial yardsticks of development such as education. Later on, nonetheless, as the tion began to mature as a democracy with education being viewed as the most important driver of the growth engine, more and more schools, colleges and universities began to sprout, and we have had, fortutely, even the famed IITs and IIMs, including research hubs like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Bombay), the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (Calcutta) and the Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore). And now we have this situation of having to have even rural and semi-urban areas take pride in a whole gamut of private schools set up by education entrepreneurs who are more into the commercial dimension of education than into the real goal of education – that of producing quality human resource capable of adding to the productivity factor of the country’s growth engine as we prepare the road to a knowledge society and hence a truly empowered society.
In the given situation, the million-dollar question is whether we are merely putting our children into schools of myriad hues for them to pass out with a secondary or higher secondary certificate and then to jump into the bandwagon of higher education, or whether we are even conscious as to whether these schools are schooling our children. By schooling one obviously means imparting the basic values of life as well as the skills necessary for a sustaible livelihood to the ones who are in schools for what is called ‘education’ quite casually. As far as values are concerned, moral and spiritual (not religious, mind it) values are paramount. These are domains in which a huge majority of our schools have failed, not because these are very difficult subjects to teach or learn but because such values seem to have gone out of fashion! What seems to be in sync with time is technology, and the most fashioble perhaps is information technology or IT as is its much-celebrated acronym. Every school student seems nursing the idea of being an IT giant one fine day. There is nothing wrong in this, but the question is whether our schools, especially in rural areas where most of India still reside, are imparting the right IT lessons. Here comes the role of the government schools that operate in rural and semi-urban areas, with teachers nowadays drawing handsome salaries but with them not at all worrying as to whether the lessons they impart in classrooms are worth anything or not – because accountability is a big zero. How many government schools have teachers who are versed well in IT so that they teach their students what the latter need to know in an are as diverse and complex as IT? The situation in Northeast India is all the more pathetic. One should visit a typical government school in this region to get a first-hand knowledge of how ‘computer’ (as IT is funnily called) is taught to our children and as to whether they are learning anything at all except some ‘games’ and sundries. Even the private English-medium schools that have mushroomed in recent times – even in rural areas, thanks to the growing importance of English in this IT age – have this notoriety of hiring semi-IT literate teachers on a contractual basis, some exceptions apart of course.
In a whole lot of ways, therefore, our children in schools – next only to one’s home when it comes to learning and developing an effective response system to live a fruitful life – are being rendered a disservice, except in some really quality private schools run by dedicated trusts and orders, including the church-led convent ones. One of the biggest impediments is the ibility of parents in rural areas, who are fincially crippled in one way or the way, to send their wards to private schools where tuition and allied fees are far higher than those in government schools, which forces them to send their children to government schools where in general the quality of education is very poor and where there is no schooling at all in the real sense – where children merely walk into their school premises in scruffy uniform only to jot down whatever is written on blackboard or the notes dictated by their ‘teachers’ who are teachers not by choice but as a result of them being incompetent in other professiol areas.
Infosys co-founder and one of India’s most role-model first-generation entrepreneurs, ndan Nilekani, has this thought-provoking point to make in his bestseller Imagining India on the subject of discussion here: “While the demand for better education is at new highs, our failing schools and our dismal dropout rates have long ceased to shock us. Our schools now present us with the kind of crisis where the point of no return can slip silently and irreversibly past us…We cannot forget after all that the toughest questions around education are rearing up even as India’s demographic dividend ramps up. Our response will make all the difference between the world’s largest lumpen community of illiterates in an uncertain tion, and a country with a large pool of talented human capital that can fire up the economy to new levels of growth.”
The question, in the ultimate alysis, is whether we can repair our failed and failing schooling regime. This will make all the difference, given our aspiration to be a knowledge society.