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Thursday, August 26, 2010

More musing on education...

John Kenneth Galbraith coined the expression ‘conventional wisdom’ – the kind of stuff that everybody takes to be axiomatically true. He also pointed out, with a great wealth of historical examples, how conventional wisdom keeps changing from one era to another. Thus, for instance, ‘everybody’ knew once upon a time that dragons existed, and the earth was flat, and monarchy was enjoined by divine right, and woman’s proper place was in the home, and so on and so forth. He also discussed how people of every age scoffed at the conventional wisdom of their ancestors while passionately and uncritically clinging to their own.

One such piece of conventional wisdom that is currently accepted as gospel truth is that every kid must be sent to school and college, and kept there for twenty years at least. It is said that the young ought to be given a chance to ‘enjoy life’, and also all the ‘benefits’ that formal education can provide. Now pursuant to what I wrote in the last post titled What price education?, I would like to rock the boat violently, and suggest that 99 per cent of the population neither needs nor wants schooling beyond class 8, which means up to the age of fourteen. Given that neither they nor their parents want anything more from education besides jobs, and given that most jobs definitely do not need any education beyond class 8 and a few weeks or months of training (think of everyone from a shop attendant to a bank teller to a hotel receptionist to a petrol pump manager to an office clerk or an insurance agent or a factory worker), who needs to hang on to high school and college and ‘learn’ all sorts of stuff from the calculus to Shakespeare to the way our digestive system works or how imperfectly-competitive markets operate, stuff that they are not remotely interested in, stuff that they will forget within months of their examinations, and which they will NEVER need in their working lives? As for other professions requiring a little more education, such as those of mechanics and nurses and primary school teachers, it’s very little mind work and mostly repetitive, hands-on training, nothing that cannot be started off after class 8 really – why waste four more years and then go to college to learn such basically elementary stuff?

Consider honestly – how many people do you know who are genuinely interested in medicine, or the law, or history, or literature, or mathematics of a high order, things that really need many years of study beyond high school? Why send everybody to college when they could be making a living by the time they are 18 or 20? Look around you: it is an open secret that the overwhelming majority in our colleges are actually what economists call ‘disguised unemployed’, doing nothing but having fun at their parents’ expense, sleeping, partying, chatting on Facebook, idling at cinemas and shopping malls, putting people’s lives at risk zooming about on snazzy bikes, having silly affairs, experimenting with drugs, getting unwittingly pregnant, waiting to get married off, or for ‘campus recruitment’ into the kind of jobs which, as I said before, don’t really need any education beyond class 8, and involve pretty menial work and pay peanuts anyway. All they get from their long ‘education’ is ingrained laziness, irresponsibility and swollen egos, which actually makes it tough for them to adjust to the rigours of the working life. Think: if they had been working since mid-teenage, in however humble a capacity, they would have been contributing something to the family fund as much as to the gross national product; instead, they are allowed to live as high-expense parasites till their mid-twenties: who gains from that?

The very worst thing about these millions of pampered brats is that they have been conditioned to look down upon people who are actually much more valuable than they. Thus the ‘smart’ schoolgirl sneers at the ‘mere housewife’, and so does not want to get married early, though she might be dreaming of becoming nothing more than a waitress in a hotel or a call-centre employee, blithely oblivious of the fact that being a good housewife (not the rich couch potato type who leaves everything to in-laws and maidservants) calls for much more hard work and worldly wisdom than their aspired jobs do, and is nothing if not a respectable occupation. Likewise the ‘smart’ male bank teller talks to the fishmonger as though the latter is an infinitely inferior being, though his own education and job is nothing that any truly civilized man can be proud of (and he might be stupidly ignorant of the fact that the unpretentious fishmonger actually earns much more than he does!). As for the so-called all-important chance to ‘enjoy life’ while young, who says that being idle and fooling around all the time at one’s parents’ expense is the only way one can enjoy life, or even the best way? Millions of people down the ages – from super successful ones like Dickens and Sachin and Bill Gates to much less famous ones without number – have dropped out of school or college and started working early: who dares to claim that they never enjoyed their lives? In any case, doesn’t the idea of ‘enjoying life’ sit very uncomfortably with the idea of getting educated, which, unless grossly caricatured as it is being these days, has always meant hard slogging round the year?

Let me stop at this point and wait. I am hoping this time round many more people will come in with comments, and thus join in a debate…


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

In our country education is directly related to employment and that is why most people choose courses which they feel will generate more income for them in future. Whilst, in principal I am opposed to the fact, but I am not sure where is the way out.

In New Zealand, I have met people from a wide variety of profession - horse riding teacher, sculptor, trolley fixer, bag maker to name a few. Each and every profession here is well respected as well as moderately rewarded unlike India. These people know little beyond class 8 education but are very conscious of their area of work and not only that they feel a sense of accomplishment while doing their job. Here, I find every man is very knowledgeable about Biology (because it concerns their own health and body), Rights (Civics) and of course Politics. Seldom you will find someone who does not know anything about these subjects. Having said that, I don't think you will find many in New Zealand concerned about say Korean society. In India, especially in Bengal you may find many.

Recently, I found out many of my friends in JNU who are now PhDs and I always thought are brilliant students who love economics are doing research and teaching subjects like - Correlation between Unemployment and divorce in rural India where water is scarce. I am not sure what does such research contribute to society in the name of education and further studies? I will forever wonder who or why such studies are sponsored. What is the use? However, you will be surprised to know all those PHD friends look down upon people like me, who did not choose to do such a research. In their eyes, we are not educated!

Fact of the matter is, how education is interpreted by different countries and societies varies. Developed nations have taken a wider view and have created jobs and given each and every job their due respect. Our society in India did not give many job its due respect so the people who even choose to be nurses or midwife are generally looked down upon.



Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for taking the trouble, Tanmoy. I shall reply to your comment a little later.

Meanwhile, I am butting in to say that comments are welcome only from people who
a) can write correct English,
b) have checked the facts carefully,
c) have read the post carefully, and
d) are willing to tell me their (real) names.

Sumi said...

In India, education is directly related to employability; also, the absence of dignity of labour adds to the dogma that people need to spend several years in the educational realm, to be considered "respectable". So while a carpenter and an engineer might be part of the same social circle in a western country, in India, the carpenter (or any person employed in a similar profession), is looked down upon. And so, we persevere to study, study and then study some more.

The recent trend has been a tendency to bracket the BPO and IT industry workers by the non BPO and IT industry folks as "nothing to write home about". While it may or may not be true (matter of discussion for another place, another time, wherein both parties need to see each others' points of view without any bias), the fact remains that this is again shifting the focus to categorizing occupations as "indicative of high intellectual capacity", " indicative of mediocre intellectual capacity" and "indicative of litle or no intellectual capacity" in the workers concerned. And I feel, that is the most dangerous thing that we as Indians could get into, at this stage. We have all already suffered the ills of such looking up to, or looking down upon certain vocations for the past few decades, and certainly need to walk out of that mode.

To that end, if the current education system makes someone feel at par with his/her peers who otherwise tend to look down upon him by virtue of his perceived mundane profession, then so be it.

And as regards why people tend to forget the stuff they learnt in school, I must say, and sadly so, it is most likely because of their teachers. I remember certain lessons from primary school (nearly 20 years ago), as vividly as though they happened yesterday; such was the magic of way the teacher taught the lesson; whereas some other lessons have long since been forgotten because the teacher was more intent on focusing on how her wards could garner more marks while writing exams.

The education system in India is certainly crying out for some significant changes, and we can all but hope that when they do happen, they would help us overcome some of the age old beliefs associated with the rigid educational model.


Harman said...

During my early years in this country, once in a while the thought used to cross my mind as to why they are making me do undergrad for 4 years, when I had another 4 years of medical schooling and 7 years of residency ahead of me.
But looking back now, I did have a great time. I experimented with ROTC, adventure training, creative writing, philosophy, astrophysics, piano/guitar performance, alterantive medicine, world music...anything that ignited my imagination.
Was it really necessary to go thru that in order to do the "job" that I do today. Maybe not, per se, but there is no doubt in my mind that it helped me become the person I am today.

A college education gave me ready access to enjoy a lot of other pursuits besides medicine that I was curious or passionate about.

You are right Sir, there is no need to go thru tradional channels to follow your passion and interests.

There are just as many lazy people in college as there are outside.

If one is not willing to agitate, how does one feel alive? Unfortunately, there are too many people who are dying intellectual deaths from stagnancy while enrolled in institutions of higher education.


Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

I suppose education has become a thing of habit more than anything else. The pathetic thing is it doesn't even occur to most of us unless we hear about or read something like this every once in a while. I was watching 3 Idiots on television today and was wondering about the same thing. The fixations we Indians have on engineering and medicine is just sick, there is so much to learn provided one really wants to. I suppose therein lies the problem, a commerce degree is perhaps "required" for a job as an accountant but how much of that course is actually taken in by the student? This is the case with most of us. Now and then I do come across people who genuinely love to study for its own sake and benefit immensely from that but will the numbers go up? I do not think so...unless something changes at the base level at which everyone thinks..


Suvro Chatterjee said...

I have partly replied to your observations on your own blog, Tanmoy. In addition, I agree with the social view that having a basic grounding in things like health, nutrition, human rights and suchlike is of infinitely greater use to the average citizen as much as to the nation than much of the arcane physics and math they teach in Indian schools, if only we had healthier world views! Rajdeep once told me the same thing about the Japanese schooling system.

Harman, welcome back. I thought I had lost you! I wonder what you meant by 'agitate' though. There's way too much agitation in India, it seems to me: what we badly need, from within the household to parliament, is more cogitation!

Sumitha, it is indeed true that to some extent 'modernisation' in India has only meant hardening of old and stupid social prejudices. Notice, though, that the contemporary Indian's attitude to education has become not only anti-physical labour but anti-intellectual: the typical argument that I hear against opting for a medical career, for example (forget about non-science careers) is that you have to study so much more, and so much longer, than in engineering! and I personally know lots of parents who are dismayed, if not horrified, if the son wants to study beyond a BTech. Well-off parents, too, who have no urgency at all that their son should get a job somehow.

Vaishnavi, you have hit the nail on the head. Blind habit it is. Which is why I fear that things are going to go from bad to worse in the years ahead. The more I hear about the new crop of teachers - many of whom could have been my pupils 15-20 years ago - the more I shudder, seeing that teachers make or mar the nation's future...

Arijit said...

Sorry to say, but I have unfortunately met with a teacher who say's "Don't try to teach me." What kind of a teacher he or she is who doesn't want to learn at all ? These type of teachers are useless and they should be thrown away from institutions.
On the other hand I have also met with a teacher who quite humbly says I'm only learning.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

The reality about teachers in India, Arijit, is that they are collectively pushing India to its doom - no matter what we like to think to the contrary. Try to realise that most people who have become teachers (at all levels, but especially in school) over the last 25 years have done so only because they were not good enough for anything else. Little knowledge, bloated egos, no interest whatever in their vocation, working only from one payday to the next, and throwing their weight about with pupils temporarily in their care to the maximum extent possible: that is how they have been conducting themselves. It is a wonder how some few students still manage to learn something and emerge from school and college with their brains and humanity intact!

As for the type who says 'I'm still learning', that sounds much better, provided it is not a cover-up for ignorance and incompetence!

Arijit said...

No he is neither an ignorant nor an incompetent. He really has the urge to know,quite humble,disciplined, and not a self-braggart. The instinct that he is a good teacher has come out from the soul.....

राजीव रंजन बंदोपाध्याय said...

आपके इस विवेचनात्मक लेख की जितनी प्रसंसा की जाये कम ही होगी. आपके सभी लेखों में समाज की विडम्बनाओं का ज़िक्र तो मानों ऐसे होता है जैसे पूरा समाज विभात्स्य सा हो गया है. इश्वर आपकी लेखनी को यूँ ही सजीव रखे और आपसे यूँ ही ऐसी बातें लिखवाता रहे जो आपकी कटुता जाहिर करता रहे. यह कटु लेखन और लेखनी दोनों समाज के कुछ वर्गों की जो आने आपको संवेदनशील मानते हैं, उनका सही चित्रण प्रस्तुत करता है.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for commenting, Mr. Bandopadhyay, but why not in English or Bangla?

Rajdeep said...

Not much to add Sir. What is called education in this country is not the kind of ideal education. With no sort of compulsory education till middle school, we are far from aiming to be a developed country. We may pretent but what then about Japan, South Korea, Singapore? In Japan, students learn to clean their own schools, distribute lunch to their fellow students and help clean up the plates etc. and also learn music and participate in sports seriously. High school baseball has the kind of fan following that our national cricket team may be getting. It is so different. Most people neither know about their own country nor about any other properly. Hope things change for the better though I am not hoping for in my lifetime. Thanks for the thoughtful article.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Not one person has yet responded to the last line in the last but one paragraph, 'In any case... hard slogging round the year?'.

I think most people understand somewhere deep down that when faced with some very unpleasant truth, the best thing to do is to keep quiet and pretend that one hasn't heard... otherwise, tell me where I am wrong!

Anirban said...

Very interesting article indeed.I feel that most of us,Indians, are not taught to ask the right questions about ourselves and our life.A majority of the rest, who probably learn to ask the right questions do not have the courage to follow the answers they might have got.Then what is the way out?Follow others instead of trying to take an unconventional path and in the process make another mistake-try to study when you really don't want to.The advantage of following a faulty process-well,it helps you become average and avoid further unpleasant questions.

Anyways...onek boro boro kotha bole fellam..aamio aekjon shadaharon manush, khubi shadharon..kintu honestly, aami ei proshnogulo nijeke korchi..dekha jak ki hoy? :)

I would like to sign off with a favourite quote of mine.You can see this quote on the website of
Harvard Business School :'Its one life - what do you want to do with it?'

Stay well


Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am delighted to note that since the time I wrote this post, a lot of old boys - and people I don't know - in their 30s and 40s have written privately to acknowledge that I was absolutely right, in the sense that the work they currently do, whether it is maintaining machinery or keeping accounts or selling stuff of one kind or the other, certainly doesn't need any education beyond class 8 and a few months' on the job training. They have even admitted that they have forgotten everything they were taught in high school and college almost completely. At least good to see that there are some honest people around still!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am rather surprised to see that this post has lately gotten into the list of 'most-read'. Wonder why? Also, that although so many people read (or at least visit) it, so few have found anything to say about it...

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

here is the link to a good article http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?271696

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Many thanks for the link, Debotosh: it is a most relevant and timely article indeed.

However, the line "Liberal education is not some fusty notion about reading good books, but is rather an important investment in the future" (last paragraph) makes me wonder whether the writer is himself really convinced. There is nothing 'fusty' about reading good books: next to a lifelong regimen of taking physical exercise daily, nothing can be a better investment in the future than reading good books, as any real reader knows!

santanu Chatterjee said...

There are many problems with the Indian educational system but i feel it largely stems from society and the way it functions. In the earlier era, the teachers used to get a meagre salary but earned a lot of respect from people and their students around them even when the students might have had reached a position where he/she is earning much more money. But over the last couple of decades, the financial gains have started fetching disproportionate importance and respect causing an exodus of talented people from this profession. As a result the population that has grown up in this era have got a peculiar point of view towards their education being brought up by their parents with this mentality. Because of my profession, i do not have to interact with parents, but i do interact with so many green kids across the country. Sometimes i really get confused as to what these guys take education for. When they finally get the job and enter the training room, i have seen in many a cases, they carry a huge attitude, especially if they are from some of the top wrung colleges of the country as if trying to scrutinise me. i have even had to face hostile attitudes at times albeit only for the first hour. They are only interested in clearing some exam. They simply fail to realise that their bread and butter for at least next few years depend on what they are going to learn. In case i slightly deviate from topic to teach them how some activity started and that too from their own field, they stare at me, as if to ask "Do we really need this?".