Seventy years ago, Travancore, Cochin and Malabar regions put together had 47 per cent literacy - almost three times higher than the British Indian average.
Transcending the caste-based familial initiation into hereditary crafts (kulathozhil) and traditional general initiation to read and write at the pallikkudam/kalari (village school), education in Kerala was predominantly a missionary enterprise substantially complemented by the state.
School education, from its very inception, had de-skilled the children in traditional arts and crafts, but had made them employable in white collar jobs, including teaching. It emancipated them from the bondage of caste-based hereditary occupations. Quality of education, in terms of competencies in comprehending, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating, was relatively high till the 70s, thanks to the variety of government measures adopted for improving the school infrastructure, learning environment, curricula, textbooks, teacher education, etc. in the wake of the socio-political rush towards 100 per cent literacy. Kerala Education Rules culminated the state efforts to ensure corruption-free governance of schools, quality teaching and effective learning. Introduction of ‘All Promotion’ with other means to check the drop-outs in the 60s began to compromise quality.
Ever since, the growth of literacy became independent of quality. Since the 1990s, commercialisation and privatisation of education under neoliberal national education reforms have inflicted a rupture in the symbiotic relation between the schools of the government and the aided private sector.
Teaching has degenerated to mere militaristic disciplining of students’ memory, and learning has reduced itself to mere remembering. Teachers hardly think about teaching how to learn and students seldom distinguish understanding from memorising. Colleges and universities became institutions full of students behaving like objects floating in a current and teachers mostly discharging their duties in a ‘work to rule’ system. This has made higher education too mechanical. Today, commercialised professional education of abysmally poor quality is proliferating unemployable graduates, awaiting enslavement tomorrow. In short, 70 years of education show a trajectory of steady rise in the percentage of literacy, but with an intersecting quality curve sticky downward from the 1990s.
(Former Vice-Chancellor of MG University and an eminent historian and social scientist.)