Is westernising education the way forward?

August 30, 2021 2:45 AM

In the West, you can question, which is a good thing, but education is getting commercialised. The East, while considering education sacred, observes a very hierarchical system. We need a healthy balance between both

To understand the consequences of this, we need to look around.To understand the consequences of this, we need to look around.

By Subrato Banerjee

I see an increased devotion to the idea of westernising education, perhaps as a subtle resistance to an apparently anachronistic system of instruction prevalent in India—one that is almost destined to kill curiosity and freedom of thought. To be fair, these concerns may not be without merit—with a certain element of sanctity, generally attached to education in the East, we have often been conditioned to worship our books and teachers, almost to the extent that today we have forgotten to question them. This system, through its very construct, has been misused by a few who knew that none of their actions would be questioned or challenged—a power equivalent to that accorded to the high-priests in temples who openly exercise a right to be offended if our offerings fall short of what they themselves pronounce appropriate. This lot has benefited from being surrounded by excessively obedient pupils and followers, for whom the very idea of questioning is either absent, or not without an element of compunction. To me, this celebrated lack of ability to question anything is the beginning of the end of progress.

To make matters worse, the fear of falling short is magnified in our nation. Where half a mark is all that makes the difference between enrolment in a top institute and in one with a lower rank, it is understandable that the cost of making mistakes is high. Learning is driven not by the love for a subject, but by the fear of staying behind. All this stress exhausts a significant part of a student’s mental bandwidth, leaving lesser cognitive resources needed to nurture one’s emotions, personal interests and social involvement. In the pursuit of quixotic measures of academic performance (reflected in the progressively higher cut-offs for college admissions with each passing year), a student isn’t even left with the time to question the very process of learning s/he is engaged with. In this current realm of education, therefore, nobody is used to questioning anymore, and everybody fears making mistakes.

Having taught in both the developed and developing worlds, it is impossible for me not to notice the stark differences between the different cultures of education. I have talked about the element of sanctity attached to education in the East. Once that sanctity is removed, and education commercialised, we have the model of the West: one in which the student is the client, the teacher is the service provider, and the degree is the product. Obtaining education, therefore, isn’t significantly different from buying a mug from a supermarket. One buys the degree instead of earning it. Once the fee is paid, the student is entitled to the degree. It is the professor’s responsibility to make sure that the student passes.

To understand the consequences of this, we need to look around. Supermarket owners sell mugs for revenue, and similarly if degrees are being traded, then one can imagine institutions’ need to meet their annual revenue targets, where a major source is the fee. Core departments of economics, for instance, that haven’t been able to meet their revenue targets, have been absorbed by business schools of the same affiliations across the globe. Departments that have survived this have done so by increasing student intake by lowering bar for admissions. Thus, unlike in India, where the bar is being raised over time (due to competitive pressures), the bar is being lowered in places like Australia. There is an associated pressure to display high rates of graduation (lower failure rates) to allure more and more students to join courses, and this requires setting easy question papers.

The combustible mix of the ease of graduating and the intake of lower-performing students compromises the long-term objective of education—to create able contributors to growth and development. Imagine a world where all doctors, pilots, educators and law-keepers are products of a fully commercialised education system! The least one could acknowledge here is that skilled labour from the East (mostly from India, Japan, China and Russia) has made contributions to the success stories of the developed world. However, in this developed world, all non-marketable fields such as theoretical physics, pure mathematics, sociology, anthropology and history are unfortunately witnessing lower student intake by the year. We are probably making way for an idea of a professional that is no longer distinguishable from a money-driven reprobate.

We need to collectively look for a healthy balance between the eastern and the western ways in education. The East, while counting education sacred, observes a very hierarchical system—we are trained to worship our teachers and books, almost to the extent that we forget to question them. The western model offers this freedom of inquisition, but a great deal of it is being used up in confidently asking for answers that are elementary—I was once asked to explain why ½ and 0.5 are the same, and that’s when I was relieved that the tests that I had cleared weren’t that easy! Frankly, I wouldn’t have made it to the Delhi University this year had I graduated school with the percentage I did in my time, but the least I know now is that the cut-offs here are moving in the right direction—consistent with the idea of progress.

The author is assistant professor of Economics, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay

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