India is a conundrum vis-a-vis education. Individually we put the highest priority on education. Every parent is keen to buy or secure for one’s ward the best education. But collectively we are most indifferent to what education is, and where it is going. This means only one thing. We have no intrinsic value for education, and we are obsessed with its instrumental benefit. The idea is not to equip young people to contribute to the society; the idea is to equip them to secure for themselves the largest cut of the national cake.
This is a dangerously uneducated approach to education. It is understandable if the rank and file entertain such an outlook. But it is worrisome and perilous when the ruling dispensation itself endorses such a view. As of now the situation is that the only thing you can do, administer and regulate without knowing what it is, is education.
When Prakash Javadekar, the minister for human resource development decides that teachers in higher education shall be spared the pain of doing research, one wonders what his ideas of education—of teaching and research—are. We are also required now to believe that once the magic wand of the Higher Education and Empowerment Regulation Agency (HEERA) begins to be wielded, all ills that currently plague education will vanish.
We are also told, in the same breath, that centralisation is our besetting evil and that excellence in education can be attained only through decentralisation—as in the case, for example, of greater encouragement for autonomy for meritorious individual colleges.
Surely, the minister thinks that research is extraneous to excellence in teaching and that it is a baggage that can be dispensed with to the benefit of quality in education. One wonders on what data, what audit of higher education, this assumption is premised on. How many teachers in higher education, for example, do research of any kind? How many of them contribute even a straw to knowledge? How many are capable of transmitting existing knowledge in a cogent and stimulating manner to students? If, as the minister says, research has become a joke at the hands of teachers—college magazines becoming research publications—is abolishing research the solution or is it, instead, tackling this rampant dishonesty?
Here is a bit of reality. I looked into the reading habits of the teachers in one of the most prestigious colleges in India. The findings were shocking. Several of the faculty members had not borrowed a single book from the library for an entire semester! There were senior teachers who hadn’t borrowed more than one book per year for several years. Now, let us assume that teachers have their personal libraries, which combined with the massive resources available on the internet, suffice to remain at the cutting edge of knowledge. Such an assumption can be accepted, provided outcome-based evidence of some kind is available to support it.
Why do teachers fight tooth and nail against assessment and feedback on their teaching? Why is classroom attendance outrageously poor throughout the country even in the best of institutions? Why is it that a whole bogus industry of quack certification of conveniently acquired illnesses thrives and medical certificates begin to rain on institutions around the time attendance is computed to decide eligibility to write examinations? Are the students alone to blame if they find time spent outside classrooms at least as rewarding as times endured within? If attendance is made optional today, how many classrooms will have even 10 per cent attendance? Why are teachers resisting biometric attendance?
Now what, dear minister, is research? It is laughable how superstitious we are about this basic concept! To research a topic is to stay engaged with it in a spirit of intellectual curiosity. It is to grow progressively into its orbit of scholarship and to become intimate with the larger intellectual ambience in which it exists. Surely, such an intellectual intimacy is basic to quality in teaching and liveliness in communication? How can teachers communicate concepts with which they maintain only a dim and distant relationship? More importantly, how can a teacher derive any happiness from mechanically recycling whatever they were taught years ago, or what they may have put together as lecture notes in the past? That is what happens, when research—the deep and abiding interest in growing into and growing with ideas departs and teaching becomes a ‘labour’ driven by livelihood alone.
Why is it that teacher truancy is so high in our institutions? I wonder if Javadekar is aware of the ground realities. Even in a premier university like the University of Delhi, teacher truancy has reached epidemic proportions. What is truly significant is that students too are happy about it. As a student asked me, as I was chastising him for playing truant in class, “Sir, how would you know what we have to endure in classrooms?”
It is a terrible disservice to the society and the nation to lower the bar of professional and intellectual standards for teachers in a seemingly genial gesture to appease them. The truth is that what seems to be, for the time being, a teacher-friendly gesture will prove, in the long run, a fatal blow to the profession itself. Already the teacher-student relationship is at an all-time low. The respect and affection that teachers used to command from students have all but vanished.
Students no longer look up to teachers for inspiration. Students and teachers mind only the syllabus. For students, teachers are no more than ladders by which to somehow climb to the next level. We do not want to address this reality, but are surprised that we are not among the top educational institutions of the world! We might as well expect India to corner all golds in the next Olympics by doing no more than making training and physical fitness optional to athletes.
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi