Education now appears to be a monstrous institution that imparts less learning, takes away precious years and causes great pain. The cramming game continues to expand this business with more subjects, more coaching, more acquisition of marks, more rituals and more differentiation all of which only prolong and intensify mindless institutionalisation.
The question is not new and was powerfully debated in the early 70s by Ivan Illich, the rebellious clergy. He had a handful of Indian followers, too, who were quickly marginalised by entrenched interests. He argued for the creation of convivial rather than manipulative institutions that support individuals and their interaction with the environment. He argued for creation of learning webs and skill centres that concentrate on language, arithmetic and practical skills, somewhat akin to the current idea of lokshalaas.
Bureaucratised mass schooling is recognised as a Prussian invention that was first copied in England and then spread to its colonies. Mass schooling taught virtues of obedience, silence, punctuality and acquiescence such as in the army, civil service, and the factory. The salient features of this system, as noted by Illich, included: Age specific groups moving as an age cohort through the institutions; graded and sequential curriculum; classroom supervision by teachers who were a mixture of non-commissioned officers and factory supervisors. This factory produced students as products graded, labelled, and shipped out.
The system creates a steroid and stereotype environment with a whole lot of rituals, which support the livelihood of the administrators, teachers and those in this occupation. In fact, there is suspicion that the process of education is getting unnecessarily prolonged just to keep people out of the crowded labour market. These children read ancient history and long poems, whether of the vernacular or the Macaulay variety, mug up formulae and cut up flowers, frogs and earthworms; cram dates, names, events and species most of which have doubtful value and little retention. They read but may not be able to learn and may not get as educated as we hope.
In actual life, people do not move in age cohorts. They meet a variety of people; confront problems for which the skills acquired in schools have little meaning. The bureaucratised institutions take critical periods of life away to favour the lords of rituals who have to live on them. The erstwhile sanatoria for the children in Europe or our gurukuls were indeed different in their patterns of teaching they tempered age cohorts and relied on flexible approach and meaningful practical exposure. They only needed to be made mass systems.
Entrenched interests have particularly reinforced the make-believe world that one has to acquire outstanding grades from a tortuously intense and long process whose objective is self-perpetuation than true education. The result of decades of self-captivating conditioning is that every one must go through the mill and do the best one can in the race so that one eventually becomes acceptable fodder for wage slavery. Unfortunately, the logic does not hold good for many when the job market is depressed. The irony is that the smaller the job market, the higher or longer will be the treatment of acquiring more education and aiming for even better institutions that may actually fail them in their aspirations. Thus, we end up having a PhD as lab assistant than a matriculate.
No wonder that several in the West have started believing in neighbourhood and community education and even in home education than consigning the children to the stereotyped system that comes along with the potential risks of bad habits and unhealthy value systems. These students carry out their education innovatively, pass exams privately and take up formal college, professions or vocations that might be personally satisfying and socially meaningful.
The current education system has failed to a great extent, apart from contributing to the fiscal strain of a stressed economy that cannot conjure up a system that is more appropriate to our needs. Whether the NCERT issues revised books of history or not, that will only satisfy the political stand of one versus the other. The mighty challenge continues to be of de-bureaucratising education, making it dynamic, flexible and more relevant for Indian lives and times.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org