Sanjay Ranade

Sanjay Ranade (PhD) is Associate Professor at Department of Communication and Journalism, University of Mumbai.

A Counter to the Grand Narrative of Education

Sanjay Ranade

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Language, Maths, Science and Geography are gradually disappearing from our classrooms. Along with them, we have also forgotten music, drawing and craft. All of these are interrelated. And just to clarify – it is not just the students, but the teachers too who are losing their grip. There has been gradual erosion over the decades since Independence, and the effects can now be seen. Young Indians are graduating and even acquiring higher degrees in ever increasing numbers, but without having a language of their own and lacking critical analytical skills. The crisis is so deep that we are now afraid of admitting there is one. As if this one crisis were not enough, we now have a complete disconnect between formal education and livelihood. The nature of our economy is such that while education is a social and political necessity, it has failed to become an economic and commercial imperative. The argument for education is losing its sting as the numbers of unemployed pile up with every passing year. There is no correlation between the time and money spent on getting higher degrees of education, and the returns that people are getting from this incremental activity is robbing half their productive life.

Due to global economic and commercial forces, some important grand narratives are beginning to fail us. Our farmers are just that – farmers. They are into agriculture, but not into food or cloth and garments, or whatever it is that is the end product. Land prices are going up and it is no credit to the farmer. It is simply the result of global economic forces. Then we have our traders. They too are just that – traders. These are not capitalists or industrialists. The third category is the artisans. They too are artisans but not entrepreneurs. Not many people from these three categories have exposure to either entrepreneurial or industrial cultures. Of these three, the farmers and the traders are generating economic surplus thanks to the forces of global economics. They are suddenly finding themselves into money. They, however, lack the resources to make modern wealth from this money. Their ideas of what constitutes wealth continue to revolve around two important institutions – the family and the community. Both these institutions have remained traditional and conservative. Additionally, their identity is located in caste and religion – in that order.

The artisans have been beaten into submission for too long for them to really imagine expanding and growing and branding themselves. They value their autonomy, but that translates into pride over being independent, but decidedly small. They have the skill sets but lack any other support. The traditional support systems like the guilds were destroyed long before independence. Independent India has simply continued with the lack of trust in its artisans, leaving them to fend for themselves. However, they too are benefitting from the global reach and expansion of markets. But, they are not industrialists or entrepreneurs. What they call factories, are really karkhanas. The organisational structure is not the modern industry but the traditional ustad-shagird hierarchical relationship. Not modern management, but traditional Hindu Undivided Family frames the organisational culture.

All these three categories have several things in common – they are all traditional, conservative, hoarding their wealth in family and community, and locating their identity in caste and religion. Combined, they constitute a significant proportion of the population. There is one more factor that has been added because of our education system. They constitute among the largest numbers of people getting higher education and remaining unemployed or underemployed.  The grand narrative of education is definitely failing us. We are not an agrarian economy but an increasingly pseudo-agrarian society. We are rooted in tradition and culture not because we care, but because we are afraid to move any other way. Our spirituality is a facade to cover up for our lack of critical thinking abilities. We want technology, but definitely not science, and most definitely not scientific temper. We want literacy, but we will not allow for space to think and contemplate. All these and similar contradictions have emerged because of the way our formal education and our means of livelihood have gone in completely different ways.

It is at this stage that two of the dominant institutions in an average Indian’s life, the State and the family, have quietly abandoned their responsibilities vis a vis education. At this point, it would appear that both these institutions have lost the moral high ground they had held for so many centuries. Both have demonstrated levels of moral and material corruption that would knock down the sensitivities of previous generations.

1When education becomes ‘self-financing’ in a society that is at the subliminal state between tradition and modernity, it becomes a commercial activity and teaching-learning disappears. Education is a violent process. The classroom is a very violent space. There is intense interrogating, redefining, critical analysis that is being taught and learnt. There is more disagreement than agreement. There is self-exploration leading to revelations that are not comfortable, not agreeable, and not palatable. There is brutal criticism, not appreciation. There is more failure than success. This is true for the learner as well as the teacher. Without a lot of empathy and understanding about education in society, the teaching-learning process dies and what remains is instruction. Indian families have abandoned all understanding of the process of education. They do not empathise with the process and do not participate in it. The educational institution is a sort of factory where the unfinished product, the child, is pushed on to a conveyor belt. Given time, the product takes on a finished shape and form, and comes out. If the product succeeds in the market, the parents take credit and if it doesn’t, then the ‘system’ is responsible. The State, on the other hand, has learnt to take advantage of the emotional distress that education causes. It has gone further. It has learnt to effectively fuel the distress and direct it towards its own goal of amassing and monopolising power and wealth. Over time, the corporate have also joined in – the State has the legitimacy and the corporates have the money. Both are populated by traders/farmers/artisans because that is where the money is. Thus, the State and the corporate are essentially money laundering and hoarding devices for the neo-rich traders/farmers/artisans, and the tremendous demand for education is ground for keeping the wealth in the family or community, and reaping the returns at the same time. The grand narrative of the modern Indian State and the private sector is just a dream that never came true. The grand narrative of the family is also coming apart. The organisational culture is agrarian, and the commercial culture is shop keeping or the karkhana.

The one thing that is sacrificed in this scenario is quality. The grand narratives of socialism, secularism and federalism have been used to cover the inefficiencies in education, and to divert attention from its disconnect with livelihood. Quality has been sacrificed at the altar of so-called social, political and economic equality. This has ensured that pseudo-intellectuals remain in power, the State stays legitimate and relevant, the shop keeping corporate continues to operate with abandon, and the mysterious ‘elder’ continues at the top of the hierarchy. All four actively keep quality out of the frame. It is not surprising that in the classroom, the teacher teaching Newton’s laws is treated as Newton by the learners who themselves either believe they can never be as good, or remain just as good, getting no better. Now, the teacher is teaching Newton from notes given by her teacher that were given to her by her teacher and so on. Nobody is reading Newton, so nobody is teaching nor learning Newton, so of course there is no Newton. Not second handers, there are now glorified fifth, seventh handers in abandon. Of course, they are unemployed. In this situation, success is not understood as a coming together of many ordinary factors that can be studied and most importantly, turned into a replicable model. Success in this world is always shown as being magical and worse, the result of divine providence, the blessing of elders and so on and so forth.

It would be naïve to believe that the young do not feel stress emerging from this shattering of grand narratives. It is the young who are most sensitive to the stress around them. How do the young in India cope with this? Easy access to mass media technology and digital devices has given them the opportunity to escape into a virtual reality where they feel they are connected, they feel informed, they feel they have worth, they feel appreciated. Of serious concern is the fact that the youth feel, but are aware that it is not real. They have the choices, but find themselves wanting in the ability to make the choice and live the success or failure of that choice. The impulse is eliminating the contemplation. That may look very youthful and energetic, but one need not be an intellectual or philosopher to know that one is useless without the other. The common complaint that the youth do not read is actually wrong. The youth are reading too much. They are reading much more than they are speaking, listening, thinking, writing or doing. They are reading into the text and the visual that is constantly flashing before them, but they are reacting much more than acting. The speed at which data is coming to them is much faster than their ability to plough back that data into their lived realities, see the data work itself out, and finally translate into some action or thought. Younger and younger Indians are hitting the data highway running, and then they keep running breathlessly. It is important here to recognise that it is a data highway, and definitely not an information highway. It was branded as an information highway merely to sell the idea. Information is a by-lane flowing from this data highway, and knowledge is an even narrow and obscure lane tucked away without signposts. It is also important to note that as one begins to differentiate and look for information or knowledge, the cost of being on the highway increases dramatically.

This situation is compounded further by the dominant aural-oral communication culture in India. This culture encourages one to contemplate even the most intimate thoughts or ideas publicly or within family, community and not in a private, individual space. As long as this contemplation happened, new ideas emerged, they were critiqued, questioned, changed. However, for several centuries now, this contemplative space has been replaced by axioms, grand narratives, shared within families and communities. The narratives went unchallenged and were enforced by force of hierarchy. Now, the young have found a space where these narratives are beginning to be demolished. The rationale of the narrative was lost over the years. Now, the indefensible narrative is in danger of losing itself. A key element of the new communication universe is the emphasis on user-generated content. The user feels completely empowered to express whatever comes to mind.

2For the first time, Indian youth has the opportunity to look at data and come to conclusions, formulate theories and make meaning about the reality they live in, on their own. This is leading to some very dramatic effects. The youth has not just left the real world behind; they have left books, theatre, cinema, television and classrooms too. They are engaging with their realities on their own terms. This is what is going to completely revolutionise the Indian social, political and economic context, and our basic structures. This is true liberation. The grand narratives are being ignored completely, and as more and more young people express themselves through micro-narratives in an environment of extreme violence and aggression, they are going to learn an entirely new discipline, a new behavior, and come up with a completely different rationale for their being. This tide cannot be turned back because of the sheer numbers involved. True, it has still to pick up its energy and reach its potential, and that is where our policymakers have to grow up from being mere farmers/shopkeepers/artisans/elders and therefore, politicians, to something more responsible and mature.

In India, it is difficult to enter the education system, but easy to stay in it, and easier still to exit it. This has to turn around. Quality and entrepreneurship must be at the centre of education. Education cannot have the restricted socio-political agenda of State or family, but a more pragmatic goal of first and foremost, providing with livelihood and next, to help acquire the skills and knowledge required to measure, and achieve one’s true potential. India has been a phonetically rich world, and yet, our youth has no language to call their own. We have reached peaks of abstraction, and yet our youth shrink away from mathematics and critical enquiry. Indians achieved what they did with a combination of innate skill and extensive migration. Yet, the Indian youth is saddled at home cradling caste, family and community. Education must stop at twelve years. If a human being cannot be made worthy of earning a livelihood in that time, the system is obviously flawed. It is ridiculous to keep adding layers of meaningless degrees. Higher education must be driven not by livelihood needs, but self-exploration, analysis and most importantly research into our realities. Education has to be free. Only free education for all would demonstrate both the will, and the empathy and understanding of society towards this very important, but violent process of human evolution.

India is about software not the hardware. We never had hardware. We gave meaning and purpose to the technology of the world. What appears as inertia among the youth, what appears as disinterest, is actually the youth soaking up all there is to know and learn. India’s century is just round the corner, and the Indian State and the family, two powerful institutions in an average Indian’s life, can either choose to be left behind or lead the way.


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