Creating Ideas for Life: Purposes and Practices of Relevant Education

From dissecting the ‘teacher’, to the digitisation of learning, educationist Krishna Kumar takes us through the critical issues haunting the question of education in India today

LILA: Let us begin with a discussion on the idea of the teacher. If you look at historical ideas of education presented by Tagore and Gandhi, in a way, they look for unexpected teachers. In Gandhi’s basic education, you have people whose knowledge is not the dominant knowledge; while at Tagore’s Santiniketan you see the space itself enabling a certain kind of education. How can we reflect on this broader idea of the teacher today, especially as we move towards a digitised system of education with strong mandates to complete a predetermined syllabus? 

Krishna Kumar: There are two strands that you will have to pursue to grasp the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore, but before we do that, we need to acknowledge that teaching at its core is a relational activity. When it is mediated by technology or administration, then it loses that relationality. Gandhi apparently had an inkling of this. He was very concerned about the Village. When he talks about the villages, he’s not talking about them as they were at his time or as they are now. He explains in a letter to Nehru that my village is in my mind – it is a small community which functions on the basis of relations, and a sense of responsibility that arises out of a relational fabric. It is from that fabric that these ideas of self-sufficiency and the ability to resist the world come. The teacher is very much a part of that life of the community for Gandhi.  

In the world of Tagore, there is a realisation that learning with a sense of purpose that is not imposed arises from working with somebody who inducts you into a journey of creating knowledge and creating works of expression or art. The teacher is therefore someone who establishes the desirability of knowledge, by introducing the deeper pleasure that comes from pursuing the act of knowing, or the act of creating.  

So, for both of them, the core idea is that no matter which area of knowledge or professional work you look at, the teacher’s job is to induct you into a community of learners by establishing a certain relationality with you. How a system of education could evolve around it is of course challenging to both of them. In fact, during their lifetime, the system had not yet gotten to the point where even the question could be fully articulated. Children who got into or completed school were very few. Today we are looking at a system that at least aspires to be inclusive, in the sense that every child should be retained for at least eight years. What that would mean in terms of making the teacher capable of relating to children from every socio-economic, cultural and gender background is a completely new question for India.  

Lila: As we talk about education thinkers, we are drawn to the question of decolonising education. The global movement on this is calling for the removal of all colonial theorists, instead of having a nuanced discussion on the relevance of their ideas in different spaces today. If you bring this question into the Indian context, what is the kind of discussion that needs to emerge on this topic?  

Krishna Kumar: I have spent a long time researching and understanding colonial relations, and in that context I have engaged with the question of what is modern. Modernity for a country like ours has come through the process of being colonised, which is where the paradox becomes very sharp – you achieve a certain kind of awareness about the world by first getting your mind crippled. It is a cultural journey which is very traumatic. The modern world continues to carry all the features of colonial relations – in terms of the economy, relations of power, whose cultural products are more expensive or important and education in which language is more important. The colonial world is very much with us. In this context, a word like de-colonisation strikes me like a hope that is too dramatic. I think the engagement with colonialism which leads to a certain degree of loosening the grip of colonial ideas is all that education can attempt in this phase of history. How long this phase will last, nobody knows. Whether our journey as a society is even in that direction is not at all clear. Look at language for instance; it is at the heart of colonial relations. Somewhere around the early 20th century, a number of people concerned about education, led by people like Gandhi and Tagore, were totally aware that if India were to decolonise its system of education for children, it would have to privilege its languages. If you see this aspect as a means to judge the growth of our system, it is nowhere close to working out ways of decolonisation. In fact, we continue to do the opposite. The dominance of English is no more even a subject of discussion.  

What is interesting is that even this new, very militaristic and assertive nationalism that you see on the political spectrum today is not interested in language. No matter how jingoistic the government becomes it doesn’t touch the language question. So, even the militaristic nationalism ultimately follows the same modernist agenda that was set by colonial rule. In fact, the more militaristic our nationalism gets, the more colonised we prove to be. We are emulating our colonial masters in terms of wanting to become powerful in the same sense in which they were. In that sense, Gandhi’s rebellion against this notion of power has not found any clients at least this time around.  

So, our ultimate ideal doesn’t provide much space for deviation at the level of childhood or learning during childhood as of now at least. But you do see lots of experiments; you see smaller bits of initiative across the country, where people are, at least at a local or sub-regional level, attempting different models of the question of language in education. There are schools which promote multilingualism, bilingualism and they are operating in a kind of limited rebellion mode, where at least for a few grades they try to protect the child and the child’s language and provide a smoother transition from the child’s own language to English. But such experiments are few; the pressure to emulate older middle classes keeps a vast number of schools, and several categories of government schools, committed to the flawed system of forcing children to learn every subject through English.  

LILA: When we talk about a country as large and diverse as India, how do we bring its many languages into the education system, while at the same time ensuring a smooth flow of communication or exchange of ideas across different languages?  

Krishna Kumar: When you talk about the language question in education, you talk about how pedagogic relations are established, and in which language they are established. For that, a systemic formula was already in place by the 1960s. The idea of a three-language formula which was articulated elaborately by Kothari in 1964-1966 pretty much tells you how schools ought to proceed to ensure that the child’s own home language is given a place and additional languages are learned. That pedagogic formula doesn’t come in the way of managing the diversity of languages. I think the will to pursue that formula was tainted by a kind of deceptive pursuit, especially in the northern states like U.P, Rajasthan and Bihar. Instead of the second language coming from a non-Hindi region like the south or Bengal, these states opted for Sanskrit. So, it was in the northern states that the grave of the three-language formula was dug. Inside that grave the formula is still valid and offers you a considerable direction to move in if we are talking about educational governance. There is nothing very strange about it. Of course, we need to remember that the Kothari report was sceptical about implementing the formula at the primary level. The report recommended that it is best to introduce second and third languages after the child’s grip on the home language has acquired maturity during the primary grades. Introduction of English from Grade I, which has happened across the states now, was unimaginable in Kothari’s time.   

The only place where this experiment has been successfully worked out is the Navodaya Vidyalayas, where every child actually learns the language of a state other than his or her own. To further consolidate that learning, the entire grade IX cohort in the Navodaya Vidyalaya is shifted to that state. It is a remarkable experiment of governance in India, which has failed to attract any notice in the media despite successfully going on for more than 15 years.  

LILA: What about cultural education in India? Reflecting on the ideas expressed in your book ‘What is worth teaching’, do you think within the debates on curriculum there is deliberation happening in this regard?  

Krishna Kumar: The question of culture of course poses a lot of challenges about what we mean by curriculum. Under the established discourse, we regard culture as an extracurricular thing, which is very problematic. The National Curriculum Framework that the NCERT prepared in 2005 sharply repudiates this practice and attempts to bring into the curriculum what is a worthwhile activity for the child’s development. There is no reason why theatre and music should get any less serious attention than, say, physics and chemistry. 

But ‘culture’ as a term is very easy to distort unless we see it as a means of living in a community, and the school as a place where you absorb the complexity of your own social ethos. Arts are certainly one means of doing that, but they remain on the periphery of Indian school system on account of its various rigidities. We have already discussed the problem that language faces in our system. As a major aspect of culture, the child’s language and the literature available in it also remain marginalised. Knowledge about religion is another problematic area that we simply have not engaged with when it comes to designing the curriculum. So, we end up with this very narrow notion of knowledge, which is inserted into recognised mainstream disciplines. There is no scope for any cultural growth left in the school system, except for special functions where a VIP guest is to be presented with some ‘culture’! That’s a travesty of the word culture but that’s how it is.  

LILA: So, what can be done to change this? 

Krishna Kumar: I always find this question always a bit strange because we know what can be done. On language, we have always known that, and in the arts sphere, too. We need to reform our system; we need to improve our teacher training; we need to stop the neglect of education as a part of governance, both financially and systemically. Kothari and J.P. Naik (who drafted the Kothari report) told us around 50 years ago that the day we start spending at least 6% of our GDP on education, a lot of things will become possible. Today we have come down to less than 3%, the level that we had achieved somewhere in the 1980s. So why are we asking that question? We have known the answer – public expenditure on education must increase; the system has to become capable of more sophisticated and sustained handling of educational problems; it has to become less bureaucratic, less rigid, more professional; it has to have far greater engagement with the social context. All these things have been known right from the first commission of Dr. Radhakrishanan onwards.  

LILA: One of the latest educational reform efforts that is being celebrated is the Delhi government’s push to transform the education system in the city. The AAP government is being commended for improving the infrastructure in classrooms, and providing the resources that were not available earlier. What is your take on the kind of approach that is being undertaken in Delhi? Do you think that can lead to results? 

Krishna Kumar: There are so many initiatives that I understand the local government of Delhi has taken, and they don’t add up to a coherent view. I get very worried when you start by improving the surveillance system in schools, and bring the teacher under a CCTV. The teacher is your means of promotion of independent thought and inquiry. If the teacher herself is under doubt, and if you think a CCTV camera is a good way to control her, then we have a very serious problem to start with.  

Then there are other issues on which we can talk, like instead of creating capacities in institutions like the DIETs [District Institute of Education and Training] and the SCERT [State Council of Educational Research and Training], they have chosen the way of bringing some quick results by involving non-governmental organisations to make schools function with greater efficiency of a certain kind. Another initiative is to withhold those who might not score well in the Board examinations, and put them through the open school system so that school results are not spoiled. That way a certain kind of manifest or surface efficiency seems to have been achieved. But we are not seeing a bridging of the gap between private and government schools – from both sides – through more enlightened policies. Instead we are seeing this desire to make government schools look like private schools and deliver results through instrumentalist attempts that make the situation look better than it is.  

So I don’t know if sufficient thought has gone into improving learning, teaching and governance in schools. A number of teachers you meet are actually stressed and unhappy. That is very unfortunate. If you see the history of education anywhere in the world, you will find that the system improves because the teachers are driving it towards improvement. If your teacher is merely an instrument that is driven by somebody else, then you don’t get very far with reforms.  

But I don’t think we should dismiss the reforms in Delhi. It is an attempt, and a number of people feel that education as a means of delivering a service to the poor – in the limited sense that schools open in time and have a more regular life – has improved and that is quite an achievement in itself. To that extent you can give credit to the sincere attempts being made. But it is a rather limited vision and a self-constrained attempt hampered by jostling for credit.  

LILA: Since we are talking about where education is going and have also come back to the teacher, let us discuss the increasing digitisation of education. When we move to such a system of imparting education, how do we balance the technological interventions, support and improvement in accessibility it brings with the relationality of the teacher?  

Krishna Kumar: It is a complex question – about how digitality is shaping our mind and our ability to think about children and their education. A lot of people say that it has improved the child’s access to knowledge. It worries me that in fact it has improved the access of very powerful financial interests and the State to the child. If at the heart of the process of learning is the ability to distinguish between sense and nonsense, then certainly the digital world has not improved that ability. Rather, digital powers have made the distinction fuzzy, permitting fake knowledge to grow like weed. So, how this technology will help shape the world of learning in schools and colleges is still a very open question. Very often, people who feel much more comfortable with digital solutions to educational problems are talking about information. One hopes that they are aware that information is not even half the story of learning, and if information is the strong point of digital technology, then it is not a very strong point to begin with.  

Use of schools as a hostage market for equipment – that I think is a very serious problem, in terms of the public expenditure in schools now getting pushed more towards equipping the school rather than making the teacher feel recognised and happy. Vijaya Mulay, who headed the educational technology focus group when the National Curriculum Framework was being drafted in 2005, had very sharply said that we have failed to stop our schools from becoming graveyards of successive generations of technology. This has remained a fact since 1960s, when the first generation of supplies came to school. At that time it was radio – you can still visit schools where there is a closed room inside which old radio sets are lined. Then came television, computers and many other things, and the graveyard has been growing. Vijaya Mulay herself was so convinced about the importance of film and technology, and yet she was deeply worried that there were no answers to this question. She wanted technology to make the teacher feel more independent and resourceful. That has not happened on any scale.      

People like Professor Yash Pal, who had a broader perspective on things, used to say no matter which technology it is, it has to help the teacher. You cannot substitute the teacher with it. But that is where the vision has become very arrogant. Gandhi’s idea about machinery is worth revisiting. He had pointed out that he could appreciate the use of machinery in society so long as human beings are in control, but the day the machinery got control, he would be worried. We are very much in that situation now, when the mother of a three-year-old gives the child a smart phone and by the time she is 4 or 5, she is already completely surrounded – and arrested – by the digital world. You are looking at a child who is being controlled.  

So, something awkward has happened in the world and people who are concerned about the potential of this technology for education in childhood have to sort these ideas out before they sell their ware. Right now they are in the selling mode, and the education system is in the buying mode. But there is more to education than just buying and consuming things.   

LILA: On a concluding note, since you have engaged with the education system across its various levels, what can you tell us about the holistic educational experience that a student can have, especially with respect to transition and continuity from the primary to the higher level?  

Krishna Kumar: We often forget that the system is a whole, and the parts within it have to be understood as parts of the larger system. Let me explain by giving you a common perception amongst people who complain about university standards being poor or college teaching being poor. Very often those people blame school education for it. Typically, we will be told that what the child should have learnt in grade IX or X, they have to repeat in the first or second year of college. You could look at this exactly the other way around. It is higher education that forms the heart of education as a system. These are not my own words; Mahmood Mamdani, the Ugandan educational theorist, explains this very sharply by saying that it is in higher education that knowledge is created and sorted. Your nursery teacher has to deal with children. She needs to have an understanding of child psychology that is currently available. Where is it going be available, except in the highest levels of psychological research about childhood? Whatever humanity today has managed to understand about the child’s mind has to be known to a nursery teacher, otherwise the teacher will be guided by concepts and ideas that are long outdated. I think it is this complete confusion about which stage is more important that leads to financial allocations getting so skewed, or questions of status taking precedence. All of these problems are very central to understanding why a child who goes through the system is unable to pick up some of the basics of education.  

What are the basics of education? I think the most basic idea about education is something that Mrinal Miri, the philosopher, pointed out in an article some years ago. He said if education is able to imbibe the ability to remain excited in life with one or two ideas, that’s enough. If you haven’t picked up one or two ideas at university or college – ideas that sustain your life and interest – then that means your education has failed you. Modernity brings upon you a demand to give a purpose to your own life (in a very universalistic sense), and education ought to help you do that. Now, if education is an exercise of putting you in chronic stress from the beginning to become something – a doctor, an engineer, a civil servant or a few other roles, then certainly it has no capacity to enable you to discover the purpose of your own life. It cannot be the purpose of your life to become X, Y or Z. That is a search for a role in society. But this idea of education giving you a sense of purpose through ideas that keep you going, I think, is very central to judge the worth of an education system. If you apply that idea, our system is not doing very well, even if it helps people achieve cent percent marks and stuff like that.  

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