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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What price education?

As everybody who knows me even at some distance should be aware, I have been obsessed with reading and arguing and thinking and knowing things all my life. I also happened to do more than well in all formal examinations as long as I sat them, and besides, I have been involved, as a teacher, with education for thirty years now, handling pupils from middle school to the postgraduate level, cutting across a wide range of disciplines. So I guess when I say that I am getting sick of what passes for education these days, and wouldn’t mind much if my daughter gave up formal education after high school and concentrated on doing something she likes much better, people should sit up and take notice.

Let me be categorical in outlining what I have understood about the meaning(s) of education.

1.      At the highest, most rarefied (and also the most essential?) level, education is about man-making, in the sense that everyone from Socrates to Vivekananda understood it. It’s the meaning that comes in most useful at the time of giving seminar lectures and writing learned articles, and in practice it has become the least appreciated, most abused meaning of all – as I am sure not only teachers but parents and even little schoolboys will agree with me. If someone grows up into a strong, brave, honest, kind and loving soul these days, it is despite, and certainly not due to the kind of schooling one has received.
2.      Second in importance is a process of nurturing what used to be called ‘well-stocked minds’ – not necessarily good and precious human beings, but at least widely informed, intelligent, balanced and not narrowly-prejudiced men and women, and therefore folks who are assets to any society and nation, as humble parents and office-workers as much as high-level leaders and governors, trained to live the good life both public and private, because they know how much true enjoyment the world offers, and also how to avoid its worst snares and pitfalls. Let my best students, who have acquired postgraduate and higher qualifications from the best of academia in India and abroad, tell me how much they have been benefited in this sense by twenty-odd years of schooling.
3.      At the third level, education is a process that supposedly encourages and brings the best out of those born with exceptional cerebral talents, those destined to become great scientists, inventors, artists, writers, teachers and statesmen. Forget the vast numbers of third-rate colleges that India and America have sprouted of late – do even the very ‘best’ contribute much in that line any more (keeping in mind that many of the most successful people in the US today are dropouts from places like MIT and Harvard)?
4.      At the lowest – not unimportant, and perhaps the only sense relevant to the overwhelming majority of people, but lowest nevertheless – level, education is supposed to equip young people with some saleable skills out of which they can make a living. Now barring a small number of professions (such as surgeons and lawyers, CAs and pilots, and even hairdressers and fashion designers and carpenters who are lucky), our ‘educational institutions’ of this sort, it is an open secret, equip their ‘students’ so poorly that, after, say, a BTech/BHM/BBA degree bought for five or ten lakhs or even more from an upstart private college, they consider themselves both lucky and ‘proud’ to get 20-25,000 rupees-a month jobs in this or that corporate house, whether they are back-end IT firms or banks or hotel chains or shopping malls and suchlike. These are 12-hours a day grinds, too, sometimes, and despite all the vaunting, the work is often of a very menial sort, and demeaning, and full of drudgery, and offering few prospects of better things in the long run: rather, there is always the threat of the pink slip hanging like the sword of Damocles over their heads, and these people get broken families and ulcers and burnouts long before they reach middle age. Also, they are by and large uncultured with a capital U (whether you judge by their public manners, the general burden of their conversation, or the books they have read, their taste in clothes and jewellery or their attitude to charity), as I have been chagrined to find out a thousand times over… my question is, is the pursuit of this kind of mind-destroying, soul-deadening ‘education’ worth it? Given that if someone is intelligent, and well-informed, and energetic, and willing to work long and hard, and is only interested in money, and she starts her own fledgling business with a bit of daddy’s money at age 20, chances are reasonably good that she will be doing much better than 95% of her contemporaries in 15-20 years’ time, as I have verified from a thousand live examples around me, even if she only runs a good garments shop or eatery? Besides, financially speaking, it is always better to own an iron foundry or hospital than to be employed as an engineer  or doctor there, and one thing I have learned very well is that you certainly don’t need to be an engineer or doctor to be able to set up businesses like that, whatever other qualifications you need.

So I tell my daughter ‘If you are seriously interested in getting a good education, go the furthest mile along the line of your choice, whether you want to study Physics or Sanskrit at the university level, but if you only want to make money, and big money at that, don’t waste your time pretending otherwise. You don't need formal education beyond high school to make a good career in purely material terms’. Who is going to tell me that I am misguiding her?

P.S., August 18: It is now a week since I put up this blogpost, and it has been visited almost 500 times, from literally all around the world. But just listen to the deafening silence! Nobody seems to have anything at all to say, in criticism, support, or to point out dimensions of the issue that I have missed, or even to ask questions. Yet virtually every visitor is not only an educated person, but has been reared in a family where education was supposedly given the very highest priority. Doesn't this single fact speak volumes in support of the point I was trying to make: that education these days does nothing to make mentally alert and active human beings?


Shilpi said...

Well it is a healthy obsession.

1, has been forgotten.

2, from what I’ve seen is not nurtured either. Well-stocked in terms of abstruse theories (which only other theorists seem to understand) and clumps of specialized information - maybe; and maybe there are exceptions in terms of schools that do a wonderful job of nurturing 'well-stocked' minds which I don’t know about. The couple of students who did have remarkably well-stocked minds did it on their own, outside school.

The 4th one is what is spreading and I don’t see the point in it. People could have done the same or better without going to school and college for 21 years of their lives…

The key is as you put it in being intelligent, active, and energetic, and well-informed, and willing to work hard, alongwith having the knowledge of what s/he wants in life. But then in some ways doesn’t that go back to your point 2? So now they have to learn that somewhere else...

I’m glad you wrote this for a number of reasons – and for dividing the essay into points – one of them being I tend to pile the many meanings on top of one another. Of course I still do wish you were in formal academia here.

And for your last bit, I'll say my very long bit:

Even with all its faults and hoops and inanity – if your daughter does wish to pursue higher education – then I would still insist that she go to a good U.S University. The one thing that it still allows is for someone who is creative, sensitive, observant, has an unusual mind, is motivated, directed, and active to read, know, and learn, and go out and do what she wants to do, and make a name for herself (if that matters). The resources that these universities offer are so horribly under-utilized (probably because people have become lazy or slow or stupid or narrow) and this is what I regret on two specific counts, and one is permanent – enough to make me weep or to be angry.

Even if she just wants to make the big money – even then it would be an experience that I would wish for someone extremely bright (which immediately eliminates more than 99% of the population that ends up in colleges and universities). I know that any person worth his salt these days is a drop-out from big places and the only ones there shouldn’t be there – maybe the great ones and the exceptionally bright ones don’t go to Universities anymore which is why Universities are themselves churning out factory produced masses of nothings – but there is still something about the educational experience here that allows a person to grow and be and if that person then reaches out for the stars – I’d say, why not…

Dipayan G said...

Well said Sir, but I hope you realize how unfortunate some "differently" talented children are in terms of their parentage. It's true that schools don't help much in enlightening a pupil on a particular subject or notion (which, of course, is THE most important idea behind education), but good parents play an important role in nurturing a child's mentality. A lot of children are taught to look down upon people, say for example, who are pursuing commerce or literature in college. I know a few people who never go out with their children to watch movies, "because movies are 'bad'". Well, what is 'bad' about watching a movie???!! Coming back to my point, as a result of this narrow minded parenting, most children actually grow up to believe in choosing the safer side (and, in doing so, repent throughout their lives). Hardly any of these grown-up adults have a significant EQ. Which means they are lacking in mental development.

On the other hand, those possessing special talents in sports, music, art, dance, acting, photography, writing, and all other such 'non-conventional' areas have a tough time generally, if not always. In fact, quite frequently, every effort is made on part of the parents to ensure such talents are nipped in the bud. Now when such children grow up, they realize how they have been wasting time and energy running after their parents' unfulfilled ambitions. Unfortunately, Sir, there are few families who would want their children to follow their dreams. And, I'm afraid to say, generally such families are very healthy, financially. That's why i feel making big money becomes so important as you can really have freedom in its true sense.

I do agree with the last couple of paragraphs by Shilpi. However much would I be in love with my country, if this current state of affairs surrounding our education system prevails, I'd be more than happy to raise my kids in the UK or the US.

Everyone knows (and I certainly do!) that children are like seedlings; how you care for them shows when it's become mature. Their mind is like a canvas; what you paint on it remains put, and that's what shapes a child, mentally as well as emotionally.

I can't say anything more substantial, so am ending abruptly. Before I conclude, I'd like to remind you all about the Tata Tea Jaago Re advert where the guy posing as the "education vendor" tells the father,"Education to ho gayi iski..... corruption ki", before handing over the cuppa!

Krishanu Sadhu said...

The pertinent question to ask is, what is the purpose of education ? And quite unsurprisingly, for the majority of Indian populace passing out of high school , it is to get a job. Mental development , character building , or even learning one's own subject thoroughly is rarely of prime concern. What else can justify the beeline for engineering degrees , often at a huge price tag? And this trend shall continue for a while, thanks to outsourcing (mainly from US). This highly skewed choice of career path shows its evil effects at a later stage, as you have mentioned.

Self employment , however glorious it may seem ,is not for everyone. Few people possess enough talent in fine arts or sports to make a living out of it. For running businesses of one's own , some basic qualities like risk-taking abilities, discipline , courage etc. are required , which we Indians inherently lack , generally speaking.So,following the herd is the easiest way out !

Education , I believe, is the power to apply one's knowledge and sensibility to a field different from his or her area of study. I have spent two years at IIT-Bombay , and what I can comment is that IITians learn more from outside the classroom than from their curriculum . The congregation of a large number of brilliant minds brings out the best in each of them , helps in their all-round development.

As far your daughter is concerned , she will definitely make an informed choice once the time comes , but unfortunately , quality learning is becoming increasingly rare in our country. Maybe moving to a good US university shall be the best option.

Krishanu Sadhu

Shilpi said...

I, for one, am seriously impressed that such large numbers of brilliant minds are to be found in our own IIT institutes. And no doubt these brilliant minds shall reflect deeply, go on to make significant and useful contributions in the world, and raise our awareness regarding the meaningful aspects in our lives such as beauty, truth, goodness, courage, freedom, reverence for life....much like in the mould of Tagore, Einstein, Schweitzer, and the blog author, I am sure.

Navin said...

Hi everyone,

I could not agree with Sir more. If anyone has to earn money, without doubt starting early is probably the "safest"
option. People like Warren Buffet filed their first taxes when they were 13, Bill gates had his first company when he was 19. More closer to home, many parents in my community(bania's, Marwari's) put their children to work by the time they are in their teens in shops, or train them by taking them to business deals and many of them successfully open a shop by the time they are 23. And without a doubt they are way more richer than even the highest paid engineers and highest paid doctors. And many of them have startups(Shops etc), and do not rely on parents to give them the seed money to start.

In my opinion, point number 1(because point number 2 is an implication of point number 1) is probably the only reason one should get educated. Many of us have this refrain that we really do not use most of what we learn in school and college. The "industry" is way different than any education imparted in a college. And anyway for most people, their success in life is often directly correlated to their PR skills, then why spend so much time in learning science, math etc. Most people I know who work in an industry are often complaining about how technically incompetent people are doing as good as them, and I do believe that one does not need any high skills to succeed in the industry.


Nirman said...


As far as 4 is concerned I think the educational system in India does quite a good job. In order to estimate the influence of education, one must compare two individuals who have had a comparable life, monetarily and skill wise while growing up, but one of them took schooling seriously while the other flaunted it. From my experience, on the average the former is better off by an order of magnitude.

As for 3, I think again the education system is instrumental and successful in achieving it. Some of the bright people do get inspired by their teachers or colleagues. While much depends on their own curiosity, attitude and initiative, the social benefits cannot be discounted. On the other hand, sometimes the social aspects can be detrimental but that is another topic.

Regarding 2, for sure, the Indian education system is not good at all. The schooling and societal prejudices do not help making well rounded citizens (at least mentally). On the other hand, in the US, most people who have had schooling are exposed to a wider range of interests to choose from, but then their base is more wide and shallow. I think the education system in India and US has helped me in this regard but I would also give credit to other individuals around me who inspire me with their own interests to learn more.

1 seems to have been lost somewhere down the line. Only purists would probably believe in it. I think a typical MBA today believes more in the "topi pahnana" style of business than taking a honest course. I may be wrong in asserting that, but thats the general impression I gather when talking to some of my MBA acquaintances. Actually during schooling, 1 is probably never even associated, even on a theoretical level, with education. The majority of people would even probably disregard this as some kind of remote theoretical and irrelevant thought. The commoditization of institutions of education is not helping in any way as regards this point.

I think that there is another related meaning of education - and that is to make one an independent thinker, and make one believe in and learn to use the so called scientific method or rational thinking. To train people to acquire knowledge and be able to use knowledge on ones own and not be afraid or lazy in doing so. In a sense, if this along with 1 is achieved, regardless of whether one has completed schooling, then the ball has been set rolling. I believe the successful dropouts you mention reached that level.

As many others have suggested, I also think the US is a great place for one to explore and expand ones creativity. This is both because it offers much infrastructure and also because it is appreciated. Better organization also helps one find other interested people ...

But coming back to 1, is there any way the situation regards that could be fixed?


Navin said...

Hi Nirman,

For epistemological reasons, the influences on children below the age of 7 are very important. I think the panacea of all the concerns etc, could very well be educating parents and making parents aware of the influences they may have on small children, and any possible ways to improve upon the current methods.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

There were at least three questions in my post, and hardly anybody has answered them yet.

Subhanjan said...

I must admit that I do not have the slightest depth to understand the abysmal significance that Sir has brought out in the first three points. But I definitely understand how true he is in his fourth point as I am currently experiencing this cataclysmic scenario of our civilisation and I know this is just the beginning for me and for those like me. Whatever Sir has said is the truth and the sole truth that exists in the world of mediocre students who have left the truly significant streams and have opted for technical courses like MBA solely because of their incompetency. And whatever skills they have – that too skills that neither they want to develop nor the institutions are successful in developing after plundering them of their money - are skills that make them sellable for utterly basic technical or managerial functions that rip their lives apart. And I am very afraid of not only the future of these people but also of the future of this world. With every passing day we are not making the world better for the coming generations. On top of that, most of the people are very sceptical and afraid of the idea of being an entrepreneur. The instinct and internal passion of starting one’s own venture is still very rare in India. But I am yet not able to understand why. But it is true that if one wants to earn a lot of money, definitely being someone else’s servant is not the way to do it, but to start-up a new venture, or by being a clever investor. I have none of these two qualities. May be it is a long hard race for me where I will be one of those thousands waiting at the bus stand below the scorching sun for the next bus to come.

And Sir, as far as I have known you, you will never be misguiding your daughter. Because I know one thing for sure that a person like you considers the pursuit of knowledge and the usage of that knowledge for the betterment of society as one of the highest achievements in life. And I know that your daughter, under your guidance, will surely contribute to the society in a significant way apart from making money.

santanu Chatterjee said...

It seems you have raised too many issues, rather should i say stirred up the hornet's nest. Is it education in Indian context, or is it a global context? Is education about learning or about teaching? Thanks to innumerable "monkeys in the net" i get to hear the classroom lecture in all premier universities across the globe. Still the fascinating and fantastic word "INSTITUTE OF HIGHER LEARNING" when they should ideally be named as institute of higher teaching.
Will write more about this later.

Shilpi said...

Suvro da,

I think I need to clarify something: I wasn't saying that the U.S education institutions are putting into practice the purposes of education except in the 4th sense. I meant that the material resources - like the libraries - and something else make the experience worth it...

2. There are only a few things better than aiming for and making big money in the real sense of the term...

3. I can't think of anything that you may have missed out. The only things that I did think about were the ability to make choices, the ability to think, the ability to know what one wants, the ability to dream big, the ability to self-discipline oneself...but you cover that in 1.

If there is anything else that I would mention it's the lack of ideal and passionate teachers. If teachers come from the 4th category - and are dullards themselves or maybe a little better than that - with one brilliant exception here and another notable one there with most of the rest scoffing the ideals of teaching/educating but still being teachers for demented reasons - how can education be anything other than what it is? I don't see or hear teachers talking about what Russell talked about or about what you talk about.

Finally, I don't see why anyone would need the sort of education doled out today: neither to make big money nor to be properly educated.

And seeing people, supposedly educated, use words when they don't know the meanings or the spellings - I don't see how education is making people literate even in the most basic sense!

...I'll put in some questions another day.

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

sorry, was away for a few days. Read an article in Times of India, was reminded of a friend who did serious writing in Telegraph from school days. I have said this before - his Bangla and English writing were at least two grades ahead. When he wrote in Durgapur Mail for Chatterjee Sr., readers commented that it was Sr.'s writing being passed of as his son's. I would like your daughter to hear those stories.

and here we are now seeing a current product of education, training and talent on the same profession, journalism -

Article in Times of India Online from Mohua Chatterjee of TNN

Defiant Mamata Banerjee targets Left

a few of the screw-ups in the writing -


She complained to the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley that he had failed to misunderstood her.

and alleging that the ruling Left in the state has aqcuired arms which has should be stopped,

Mamata who came under attack again in the Rajya Sabha from the Left and the BJP for sticking to her comments onm Azad,


atrocious English overall as well as no use of even basic tools like spell checker.

tools to fix language have also been around for years now.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Welcome back, Subhasis. I thought I had lost you.

Ha ha ha: as far as Durgapur is concerned, at least, I am Chatterjee Sr. now!

Thanks for the link.

This comment, though, would have been more appropriate for the post titled 'My daughter's new blog'.

Yes, she gets to hear a lot of stories, and she is growing up to be rather different from her contemporaries as a result.

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Although I am a part of the huge bandwagon that goes to engineering colleges, I do have a genuine love for science and business and would love, someday, to combine both and make a living for myself. Then there is literature. I love all three equally I suppose although at that point of time in my life, science took the precedence. But I do admit that it is a little difficult to stick to any sort of conviction these days. All day at work, I see a lot of IT drones, who just go on and on and on. There are mechanical engineers and electronics engineers who write the same java programs and there is an IIM pass out who is a senior manager for software testing. By large money seems to be only factor and I am growing heartily sick of the word "growth" in the IT terms. "Growth" means that it is just one more day with an employee tag, a bigger cubicle and few more people to terrorize. Of course, more money, but that is neither here nor there. "To study" or "to learn" have been run over by so many twisted versions that nobody seems to be sure of their true meaning or worth anymore. Everyone wants the big cars, the "big life", climb the real estate ladder, well, to some extent all even I want these things, but at what cost? If I do not like doing something, will I continue doing it for the money alone? People at work have become clones, there is no originality anymore, thoughts, feelings have become increasingly banal and it is hard to find inspiration. I suppose parents should stop the "only medicine or engineering" ultimatum and for us kids to at least have the guts to stand up to them if we don't want that. I actually know people who go to their medical schools, cut up things and then come home and cry because they didn't want to do medicine but their parents have forced them and as they have paid over ten lakhs for a seat, they can't afford to waste the money and are now well and truly stuck.


Shilpi said...

I've got another some questions, Suvro da. If I get the meaning of the first complex ideal/meaning right - then you've included matters of the spirit within it.

I still don't know whether I can put the question so that it makes sense but here goes: So shouldn't/can't education teach us the means of dealing with life at multiple levels - from the mundane to the higher and more abstract levels till it can also teach us to (and to steal a line from you) "rise above the veil of worldliness"? To deal with the here and now at different levels but also to teach us something of the beyond - at least to those who are interested - and in a disciplined (but joyous) way? Can education and educators do that? It did - didn't it, at some point? Shouldn’t education in an ideal sense help us to travel amongst the regular levels and the non-regular, sensibly and sanely?

If I'm not clear in my framing of the questions - I'll try again another day. It's sometimes very difficult these days to frame a sensible question not related to the immediate without worrying that I sound somewhat delusional or fanciful, and I don't want to sound like either of the two.

Thank you.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Take a look at point 4 in my post, Shilpi. When we live in a milieu where the be all and end all of education for nearly everybody has become just finding a job (basically any job, just so long as it allows me to live the life of the dumb, unthinking, sensuous consumer), how can it simultaneously accommodate other (higher) aims?

It is said that Europe in the middle ages was overwhelmingly - perhaps sickeningly - obsessed with the life beyond the here and now. We might say that now the whole world has swung over to the other extreme. Nothing but the here and now seems to matter any more. Even science - medical science and cosmetics science, especially - is geared just to prolonging the here and now a little more, that's all. That's why death has become, civilisationally, the dirtiest possible word: no one wants to think about it, it mustn't even be mentioned, except under compulsion, in polite company, for it takes away 'all there is'! Maybe the tide will turn again someday, but I fear it won't be anytime soon, unless there are global cataclysms brought about by our increasingly insane lifestyles...

Arijit said...

I have understood that today’s education system is more theory oriented. People are only mugging up books and becoming parrots, as Rabindranath Tagore had stated in the story Totakahini. Nobody has become learned ever by reading books.
Take care.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

But you swing over to the other extreme, Arijit. Tagore was fulminating against blind, mindless cramming of texts in Totakahini, most definitely not condemning all reading as useless: that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater! Remember that he himself was an (incredibly, even by my standards) well-read man. I myself have gained most of my knowledge from books, despite having seen a bit of the world with my own eyes, too... though that is not the same thing as reading nothing beyond prescribed textbooks all one's life, which is the real problem today (and people don't even remember much of their textbooks a few months or years after exams are over these days, while insisting that they are 'educated'!)

I shall make bold to say that there has never been a learned man who was not very well-read. Find out about Julius Caesar, and Vivekananda, and Winston Churchill. Also, as just these three names should suffice to indicate, the most significant men of 'action' are usually the most well-read people like them. Did you know that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is widely read in the Greek and Latin classics?... don't judge the whole world by India's current pathetic standards!

Arijit said...

Sorry for judging the whole world with India’s pathetic condition in education.
I would like to share a few more things:
1) Once in our college a debate was being held on the topic “Food is more important or character”, I was quite astonished to hear from the majority that Food is more important.
2) A few friends of mine in these recent days have also stated that the need of education is to only have a good profession, money, and a wife.
3) Another friend had text messaged me stating “ Par likh ke kya fayda, akhir mein marna hai aur fir dusre janam main fir sai nursery sai suru karna hai.”( What’s the use of being educated? We will all have to die and again in our next birth start our education from nursery.)
Well in the above cases I was speechless.

sanjukta said...

Dear sir,
I have spent almost twelve years studying in some English medium schools and these are some things that I have realized:
• The schools have not taught me even a bit of the English I know. All of it is a gift of your classes and the few story books I have read. Some teachers have also taught us the wrong uses of words and phrases.
• In the board examinations some students do well and some do not. The school has almost no credit in the good results, other than giving the marks of internal assessment. The marks are guided by sheer luck of the students. The school takes absolutely no responsibility for the unfortunate ones.
• Regarding the other subjects- we students still do not understand a bit of science. The school has created fallacies about science instead. They speak a lot about EVE, but students like me still throw plastic bags outside the dustbin. Even a vegetable seller is better than us students in doing simple arithmetic.
• The schools take wads of cash from us and in exchange they give us the authority to call ourselves students. It is a kind of habit now. The school does not care what a student does inside or outside the school.
• The schools do enough to poison your ideals if only they would leave you mind free enough to choose some.
• You can earn a pretty well livelihood with the skills you already have. So why pretend that the school has done any good to you. As some people say, ‘At last it all turns out to be a terrible waste of time and money, but then it is too late to realize this.’
• If you want to make good money, be wise and practical. The school has to do nothing with these two virtues.
• The school teaches you no morals. Many students who go to the schools are more superstitious than any common folk who does not have this privilege.
I think it would be best if we could stop pretending and move on.And Sir ,with all respect, this is what I think you try to teach your students.
Thanking You,
With regards from,
Sanjukta Saha.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

The new government in power has spoken with one voice about a) the critical relationship between education and all-round socio-economic development, b)the overall degradation and decay that has come about in the educational sphere over the last three decades, c) the need to re-design our curricula and methods of teaching from KG to PG level so that we can dream of producing geniuses in diverse fields once more. Now I do not flatter myself that Mamata Banerjee's government will take the advice of someone as humble as me, but I do think that if someone drew their atttention to the kind of ideas that I have written about time and again concerning educational reform in this blog, it would not do the state any harm. At least, it is a fact that I have given my whole life to education - and not merely as a means of living, as even my detractors acknowledge, whereas over the last decade our state government had been delegating all responsibility of educating people to those who are basically banias out to make a fast buck...