What is India’s biggest challenge today? I ask this question in almost every public lecture I give. The answer almost always is education. A vast majority believes that it is lack of access to good and quality education that keeps people marginalized and vulnerable. When we went across the Telangana State as part of the Sudhir Commission, various vulnerable groups among Muslims across all districts highlighted lack of education as the biggest reason for their backwardness.
The other challenges that people speak of are lack of access to credit and banking, employment, drinking water, sanitation, housing, hospital care and roads. But, they all come after education. The reasons for education being the top most concern are obvious. A good degree is seen as pre-requisite for a good job. High school certificates allow young men and women to pursue higher studies and acquire new skills. Education also allows youth to leave traditional low return occupations like handicrafts, manual labour and agriculture.
On the other hand, our public policy looks at education from exactly the other way round. The policy maker believes that education is about compulsion and making it mandatory for children to go to school. When in school, there are fixed syllabi that must be completed. A teacher is not judged by how much he or she is able to make children feel comfortable and enthusiastic about learning. His or her performance is evaluated by how he or she manages to cover all chapters before the exam.
The other objective of our education system has become the homogenization of all learning. Everyone must learn a fixed number of subjects. The new CBSE board has gone to unprecedented extremes. It has recommended that all students must compulsorily learn three languages till class X and one of them, they urge, should be Sanskrit. Once again, education is being used, not to make the child a better person, but to impose an ideology that believes in one language being better and more important than others.
There is no better way to extinguish interest in a subject than making it compulsory. Worldwide the education system is witnessings a transformation. A new world requires new skills. Learning mathematical tables by rote is no longer critical. An obsession over handwriting and spelling is no longer required as computers and laptops replace notebooks and paper. Information is no longer required to be memorized, the student should rather learn how to retrieve information from a plethora of sources available online and offline.
The existent examination system is built on these archaic principles of rote learning and memory. They are built to test for discipline, attendance and regularity. That is why our exam system belongs to a bygone era. However, our obsession with easy to mark answer scripts, and a simplistic set of percentage marks obtained, has ensured that the CBSE now has decided to bring back the dreaded Class X board examinations that till a few years ago had pushed many 15 year olds to depression and suicide.
These days it is only in China and Japan that the old exam system persists. The Chinese Gaokao, or the annual Matriculation exam, is called the Big test and is held once a year. In Japan, children are dropping out of school and college because their exam system makes the entire experience far too stressful. In fact, one of the reasons quoted by Japanese couples for not having children is that they do not want their kids to go through the same stress they went through in school and college. In the rest of the world, exams as we know them are extinct.
In top Universities in the US and UK, what counts for granting of admissions is the number of hours that children spend on social service. On how they write essays where the author presents arguments and provides insights into social issues and concerns. International qualifying examinations like the SAT and the GRE do not measure the information that students possess. These examinations quantify understanding, application and articulation.
It is a pity that a large number of people have still not understood how to use comprehensive and continuous evaluation mechanisms. As a result, they want to go back to the old examination system that is easier for the office to administer, making life simpler for the teacher and is effortlessly monitored by the boards. The fundamental mistake we are making is this. Education should be seen from the lens of the student not on how difficult it would be for the teacher or the board.
Good policy always is the one that expands choice and gives more freedom. Anything that restricts choices cannot be good. Dividing knowledge into compartmentalized subjects and having very young kids specialize in Maths or in Social science is not what the modern world is looking for. A great example of how the modern education system is evolving can be seen in Finland, considered by many to have the finest school system in the world. There are no mandated and standardized examinations there. Children do self-assessments, teachers do not teach separate individual subjects in silos.
Unfortunately, in our case, we allow an ideological organization like the RSS to dictate our education system. The thinking in such nationalistic organizations is to make children pay for the nationalistic experiment. Hence they must study Sanskrit, they must take an unquestioning pride in Ancient Indian History. They should be taught that foreign rule was bad for India. They must take examinations so they can be arranged in some rank and file. We have taken two steps back as far as our education system is concerned.
All this while we have a huge problem already. Drop-out rates are gigantic. Not more than 10 per cent of our students graduate form high schools. Less than 3 per cent of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe children, and also upper class women, complete their undergraduate studies. No more than 25% of engineering graduates are employable by industry. Instead of focusing on these critical issues, we have made compulsory examinations, eligibility tests for principals and mandatory language training our main goal.