Only last year we heard Manmohan Singh bemoaning the fact that not one of India’s institutes of so-called higher learning ranks among the top 200 in the world; now we see the incumbent President of India (himself a most uncommonly erudite man) doing the same. In this context, I find it remarkable that Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, in the capacity of Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, had lamented the ‘isolation and stagnation’ in academics almost a century ago (long before Amartya Sen had gone to college, or I)! What has changed, if not for the worse, though India churns out several million college graduates a year today?
Very closely connected to the issue of perpetually falling standards in education, from KG to PG, far more serious than lack of funds or infrastructure I have always held, is the lack of competent and dedicated teachers. If anything, things have become worse over the last three decades: despite the considerable hike in salaries (and despite the fact that many private tutors earn very sizeable incomes – certainly much more than the average IT worker, bank officer or journo can aspire to), very few of my brightest ex students even consider becoming teachers, especially at the school level, where the foundations are laid and futures are made. So I am more than a little pleased to see that even the new Prime Minister has gone public saying that ‘good teachers are one of the biggest needs of society’, and he has ‘rued that there were very few available’: see this news item. Not that it will make the slightest difference – children and parents alike are convinced that what matters is a combination of reasonable (not great-) pay and slight requirement of learning, skill, patience and hard work, therefore if one good student opts for a teaching career, ten thousand will want to be engineers or hotel managers or stringers for TV…making even 100K a month as a private tutor at home, one’s own boss and everyone calling you ‘Sir’ is a vastly better career proposition than slogging for 40-50K (or even 100K) as an insignificant cog in a vast corporate wheel in Bangalore or Mumbai, but I guess the only youngster I have really convinced is my own daughter.
Which brings me to something that our Chief Minister said in a public speech the other day. She is one of those brave politicians (or driven by desperate circumstances) who can take the bull by the horns. She has candidly admitted that it is not within the government’s power to provide millions of new jobs every year, so young people had better look out for themselves, and there is nothing shameful or pathetic about self-employment: a lot of hardworking people are doing very well indeed, she said, citing the example of a telebhaaja (fried savouries) vendor in her own neighbourhood, even if you forget arguments about the dignity of all labour. What I found imbecile and risible in the same news article is that some ‘professor of marketing in a Calcutta based B-school’ has remarked ‘at a time highly educated students are suffering because of lack of employment opportunities, such comments are extremely insensitive’. Let us take this comment apart, piece by piece:
1. ‘Highly educated’ students? 90% of those in the age-group 18-24 who are attending some private engineering or management school (the kind where this kind of oaf can be a ‘professor’), I happen to know, would make pathetic cartoons of themselves if they were asked to teach any subject to kids in class ten.
2. ‘Suffering’? These kids are the most pampered generation the planet has ever seen, the type whose parents buy them bikes, smartphones and seats in private colleges – what are they ‘suffering’ from, except maybe obesity and boredom?
3. How much less would they ‘suffer’ if instead of taking up some sort of self-employment they became shopfloor supervisors in Big Bazaar, or insurance policy sellers, or cybercoolies, or ‘professors’ in private colleges who – I happen to know – are frequently paid less than government schoolteachers and treated like slaves by the owners?
4. Why ‘at a time’? Of course this ‘professor’ and others of his ilk are history-illiterate, but it just so happens that Indians have been suffering from ‘lack of employment opportunities’ for at least four generations. Only, strangely, there are far more Bengalis among them than Biharis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Marwaris and Sindhis. Something to learn here? What might this ‘professor’ say?
5. Why is it less glamorous or respectable to be a roadside dhaaba owner who makes several lakhs a month (there are many in Kolkata, and I am sure in all the other metropolitan cities) than to be a ‘professor of marketing’, who basically teaches young people tricks to fool people into buying things they don’t really need? (think: do you need to market insulin?)
6. What is ‘extremely insensitive’ about advising people to stand on their own feet instead of expecting parents and the government to do things for them all their lives? Is it actually a fact that if a lot of youngsters got interested in fending for themselves instead of wasting a few years in a run of the mill B-school, a lot of ‘professors’ like this one would lose their jobs (is it really a job? Look up this old post of mine…), and that is what he found most frightening to contemplate?