By Bikash Sarmah
At the very outset let it be said here that education is not about acquiring degrees from universities in flying colours alone. Thanks to the semester system, everyone seems to be placed in the first class, something that only the most meritorious and creative ones used to don in the past. The education fashion statement of the day is a walk into the interview room with a high first-class graduate or postgraduate degree in a particular discipline and one getting jittery when questions are asked about conceptual foundations and applications in daily lives. Hardly do they have any clues. They have read everything in elegant theories, they have written these down neatly on answer scripts, but they are not aware of the interlity of their disciplines and their practical or application dimensions. Here lies the biggest problem, the glaring failure of our education system – this vast architecture of degree-manufacturing institutions that stand nowhere when pitted against the world-class ones. For instance, just compare the department of mathematics of Princeton University, New Jersey, US (arguably the best one in the world in mathematical sciences) with the best mathematics department of any Indian university or research institute. Compare the papers published. Compare the ingenuity. A very discomfiting story will hang there. And yet we do not alyse this embarrassment, even in a discipline as mathematics that is often rightly called the queen of all sciences.
The crux of the matter, then, is that India has failed to respond to the education imperatives of the day in an effective manner. Even the best institutions of higher education such as the IITs and the IIMs do not figure in the top 100 global list of universities. Neighbouring Chi, with which we are said to be competing, has some very promising ones in the list, such as Beijing University. The brilliant one in the tiny Taiwan, Tsing Hua University, often comes in the best 20 global list (remember, Taiwan’s population size is just as about Assam’s!). What really happens in these institutions of higher education in our very own Asia, not to speak of the Cambridge-Oxford-Harvard-Yale-Stanford-Princeton ilk in the West, as to make them so different? Well, education in the real sense, accompanied by research that matters and that affects the course of human civilization. These universities are not mere degree-manufacturing hubs of so-called education that we are so familiar with in this country of about 1.3 billion. These education-research centres are drivers of growth and development; these engender new, bold and radical ideas; these engineer new roadmaps that are pragmatic and act as virtually infallible responses to the varied needs of humanity; and these have inherent expertise in pricking the intelligence quotients of those who have had the best of primary and secondary education where they had been groomed to accept ideas only after subjecting each idea to valid tests and fashioned to opt for out-of-box thinking rather than to cling to ideas whose time had gone long back.
Seldom do such things happen in our education system, right from the primary to the university level. We are attired in mere degrees that tell the world about our ‘educatiol’ qualifications, such as Bachelor’s or Master’s in arts, science, engineering and technology, medicine, magement etc, but do not – and cannot – inform the world of our knowledge of the deep expanses of the disciplines that we have chosen to shape a career and of our ability to engender more knowledge of the kind that the world requires to face and solve its many and virtually insurmountable problems. We are, which is to say, not attired in any degrees of real education, the inevitable consequence of which is that we have yet to even appreciate what it takes to be a knowledge society even as we are never tired of blowing the knowledge-society trumpet, mainly by our political executives most of whom have no idea at all of what it takes to plant the seeds of a real knowledge society. No wonder, the recommendations of the tiol Knowledge Commission (which had one of its most illustrious members, Prof Pratab Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s most brilliant political scientists, resign due to sharp differences with the government of the day, then led by Manmohan Singh) have yet to be heeded. But this is not surprising in a country where education as a priority area would be the last resort for politicians as it does not help make any vote-catching machinery by hook or by crook, which these people’s ‘representatives’ are so used to and fond of.
The most worrying aspect of our education system is its neglect of applied areas. Our graduates are exposed to a whole lot of things in classrooms as part of the theoretical enterprise of education. Their teachers give them notes – sometimes prepared way back when the world and its needs were quite different, or when the curriculum was quite different – and ask the learners to study that ‘knowledge’ in what can well be called the hopeless universe of rote learning with no emphasis at all on origil thinking or thinking beyond the stereotype. Hardly does one find teachers in university classrooms inspiring students to think on creative lines with a view to applying the ideas in real-life situations. Some excuse may be made in subjects belonging to the humanities domain, such as history. But even here, say, for instance, in political science or sociology or anthropology or philosophy (pure humanities subjects as they are called), the application side cannot be glossed over, given the changing circumstances or the pace at which the world is metamorphosing. Apply, for instance, a political science theory, say, the notion of sovereignty as advocated by political science giants such as Harold Laski, to the space of non-state activism guarded zealously by rebels and see whether the match or mismatch factor has anything broader to tell the world, anything that could be contributed to the existing theories in terms of their relevance and utility. This is just one instance.
As for science, the applied universe is scintillating if one has the will and knowledge wherewithal to make that discovery of glint. All the science subjects, except of course mathematics, are taught right from the higher secondary level along with practical classes in which students are required to test for themselves the truths of what they have learned in theory classrooms. Now, in most cases, as anyone can see in most of our schools and junior colleges, the talk of ‘science subjects being taught along with practicals’ is itself a theory! What do these practical classes impart? Nothing more or meaningful than mere repetition of old and stereotypical things with no relevance at all in real life. Just because something is there in the practical syllabus of a particular subject under some board and it must be ‘taught’ and ‘learned’, one goes ‘practical’ with the subject! There is no appeal at all to the befuddling world of real-life situations. This is so very true of a subject as crucial to technology as physics. And what is technology without the correct and relevant application of science? This defines the difference between what universities in the West – or in the East too, such as in Japan, South Korea and Chi – are doing, or have accomplished, and what we are doing here, merrily, blissfully as if learning by rote still holds the key to some stupendous success in the 21st-century world. No. A reversal in our education direction is a must now, sooner rather than later.
To come to the end – though the subject under discussion is a vast one – one cannot help wondering as to how things should go so terribly wrong with our PhD-manufacturing industry of universities. These doctoral dissertations are mere tools, in a vast majority of cases, to clamber the ladder of professiol hierarchy in the business of ‘teaching’ and ‘research’; these long theses are not any commentary on what really the world is like and how it should chart a meaningful trajectory in the future in the universe of knowledge generation. No wonder, therefore, that we are so pitifully short of world-class research in any field – me it, any. Even a grammar as scientific as Panini’s work in the apparently infinite ocean of Sanskrit literature has brilliant takers in the West, especially in Germany where scholars evince a great deal of interest in Sanskrit literature, while in India we are too busy with things like ‘Hinduization of India’ as if Sanskrit is meant just for outdated Hindu minds! Pity, this very thought process. Given my own experience as a PhD student of non-Newtonian Fluid Dymics saying a happy goodbye to it all just after about five months of stereotype rammed into my reluctant mind searching for something origilly thrilling and real-life-situation-oriented, it will not be wrong to say that unless our universities lay stress on the quality and industry utility of research in any science domain, including of course in mathematics (pure or applied), the dawn of a real, meaningful education era, decorated by technologies of the best kind, will still remain a few light years away.
All said and done, the ray of education hope still remains unceasingly resplendent. Therefore, let 2018 be an Education Year. Let this be Strategy 2018 for development and progress. Let us be educated in the true sense. And let us develop thus. The best thing amid all this is that we have no dearth of merit and potential. The only task is proper exploration. Right knowledge. Right application.
Happy New Year 2018. Beautiful education times must be ahead.
(Bikash Sarmah is a strategic affairs jourlist with focus on Chi, Northeast India and Southeast Asia, and may be reached at email@example.com)