Sunday, March 25, 2012

Probal's newspaper articles on education 1, 2

[The following articles – originally written in Bangla – have been published in _Anandabazar Patrika_ in 2011 and submitted to _Anandabazar Patrika_ in 2012, respectively. While they reflect only the author’s own views, there has been some resonance: some of these views seem to be widely shared. Hence the decision to circulate them. – Probal]

Does it help if educational reforms are imposed from above?

Probal Dasgupta

To initiate serious transformation is a major responsibility. There is no reason to expect to be able to carry it out at leisure; time is limited. People tend to run out of patience very soon. That a large section of the public is now aware of the need for change is already a major gain. It is essential that many of the important targets are reached before this sense disappears, for otherwise the opportunity for transformation will be lost.
Perhaps certain key minds are affected by anxieties of this sort. This could be the reason why the West Bengal cabinet decided, on 19 October, to issue the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Ordinance (no. III of 2011, issued on 2 November 2011).
Many people, indeed, are convinced that the damage done to education in this state can only be reversed if political parties can be prevented from interfering with the administration of universities. That such interference had brought the universities to the brink of disaster is a fact that I myself have observed. After my B.A. examinations (1973), I left West Bengal for other (Indian and foreign) pastures, from which I returned only five years ago to my mother province. Obviously I was obliged to compare the 1973 ‘before’ photograph with the 2006 ‘after’ photograph!
I assented wholeheartedly to certain other initiatives of the new government; my inability to respond to this ordinance with the same enthusiasm cannot be expressed in a one-liner. A government that has taken on the task of transformation must have realized that one of its responsibilities is to notice that fundamental questions like “what does responsibility mean?” and “what would count as a real transformation?” are seriously debated only in the universities, the principal site of intellectual discourse by the thinkers from whom we expect viable answers to such questions. Common sense tells us that we should not pay obsessive attention to the purity of the water we use to mop our floors or to clean our streets. But when the point is to clean up the university itself that really pure water must flow from, surely we need to prepare ourselves by brainstorming about the best way to carry out this cleaning up so as to ensure optimal long-term results.
Could it be that what worries me is the cabinet’s decision to use the ordinance mode – to issue an ordinance for the Governor to sign when the Assembly is not in session and to leave it for ratification by legislators who may, when they reconvene, possibly move an amendment or two to fine-tune its details? No, my worry is not mainly about the fact that legislators are being bypassed. To see where the problem lies, consider the justifications being advanced in favour of the ordinance. The public has been told, for instance, that this ordinance closely follows the University Grants Commission’s norms. Heads of college departments will be represented on the councils of the university they are affiliated to, precisely along the lines of Delhi University’s functioning. As we get ready to get West Bengal’s long dormant educational wheels moving again, we are being encouraged to emulate the model of Delhi.
It is true that many students leave this state for higher education in Delhi right after high school. I also recall seeing a laudatory reference to North Indian norms in a letter from Swami Vivekananda to a disciple of his. Someone disgruntled with the performance of local teachers had attacked the Bengal-focused curriculum (based on the Mugdhabodha grammar of Sanskrit) and urged Swamiji to adopt the superior Sanskrit pedagogy prevalent in Varanasi. Swamiji wrote to him to say, well, do this if you must, amen, but remain committed to the path you are choosing. He did not sound convinced that the Siddhantakaumudi-based syllabus of Varanasi was superior to the Mugdhabodha. He was simply trying to calm his disciple down. I suppose our state government has similar reasons for holding up the UGC’s norms or Delhi University’s affiliation practices as a model.
One problem with this becomes clear when we notice that neither UGC nor Delhi University is known to have ever had any serious and wide-ranging democratic talks with academics as a prelude to adopting these norms and practices. Another point worth highlighting is that on certain matters every university in this country is bound to follow the UGC’s instructions; to ensure compliance with those norms the UGC is willing and able to use the instrument of recognition and derecognition. Evidently there is no need for a separate ordinance by the state government to guarantee such mandatory compliance. We can only infer that the ministers of our state want us, over and above our compliance with the UGC’s mandatory rules, to emulate some optional norms of the culture that the Commission would like to put in place. I take it that they would like West Bengal’s institutions of higher education to emulate the nation’s democratic practices, mediated through Delhi.
It is hard to disagree with the implication that our public is sick and tired of watching constant non-performance and anarchy, and that therefore it makes sense to offer them this model. Why then do I find it necessary to comment? One reason is that removing one evil with another is not a viable method. The root of the problem is not simply interference by a political party, but also interference by an apparatus that regards the government as the supreme arbiter of the public good in the educational domain. I agree that we need to learn from Delhi. But it seems to me appropriate to move back to an earlier Delhi that was willing to think outside the box of bureaucratic mechanism-mongering.
In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi’s government, instead of imposing arbitrary decisions from above, circulated a draft of his new education policy and sought comments from academics and ordinary citizens throughout the country. Only after this consultation was the policy finalized. This is not the place to discuss the quality of that policy or the seriousness with which the consultants had provided input. My purpose is to draw attention to that method of subjecting tentative proposals to public scrutiny as part of a consultative process whereby one arrives at a viable, final document.
In the social arena of democracy, the educational institutions are not engaged in narcissistic endeavours disconnected from other social processes. What academics do at the universities is conduct teaching and research, thus discharging some of society’s responsibilities to the younger generation. Consequently, academics are accountable to all serious and thoughtful observers for any inadequacies in their work. All of us must now regard it as our duty to find an optimal route back to the collective capability that we had once achieved – the ability to discharge adequately our society’s responsibility to its young in the educational domain. This is no job for the government alone. We will all want to participate as much as possible in the work of telling good methods from useless methods. If the government could post a school education policy document and a higher education policy document on the web, this would facilitate the public process of collective brainstorming. This is the main point. Making a fuss about the ordinance format is not my purpose. If for some reason this document simply gets signed by the Governor and fails to face any legislative scrutiny – let us assume, for argument’s sake, that legislators see no problems with this document, or that they carp about it but propose no viable alternative – then my response will be, okay, we lost one opportunity, now let us focus on making sure that the government does consult the public on such issues next time.

Educationally speaking, West Bengal is a lot like Gujarat

Probal Dasgupta

And like Karnataka and Goa as well. In what respect, exactly?
            To answer this question, we have to move back a little. In April 2010 we passed a ‘Right to Education’ act that was supposed to get all our children into school without delay. That act said that as part of the run-up to the work of launching schools in every neighbourhood the state governments would carry out a survey, mapping the neighbourhoods and determining how many children there are in each, and would send this map and these numbers to the central government. Then the centre would release statewise grants based on these maps. The state governments are also responsible for filling certain blanks in the implementation plan for the act. The principle that every private school shall reserve twenty-five percent of its seats for poor children will be the basis for appropriate central grants once the state government defines how much the grant should be per child.
            If instead some Delhi bureaucrats had imposed specific numbers on the entire nation, surely there would have been a storm of protest, and rightly so. Not all regions have developed at the same pace. The per capita grants for different states should naturally correlate with these differences. But we in West Bengal, Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka have neither mapped out our neighbourhoods, nor surveyed the children, nor drafted detailed specifications for statewise implementation norms. This means that our four states are not receiving the relevant central funds. What has reached us instead is a letter from the minister for human resource development to the honourable chief ministers: we are unable to send you money under these budget heads, could you kindly get your specialists to hurry up and do their job.
            This is what the newspaper headlines tell us. It is unclear which states have begun to take action. When we look carefully at the dates we notice that neither the Left Front nor the Trinamool government is uniquely responsible for this inactivity. Civil society also should have kept tabs on education. Furthermore, it is up to the mass media to keep pressing governments and parties on such issues. If journalists do not scrutinize the manifestos of the political parties and keep asking candidates, leaders and party workers all the why and why not questions about the promises they have made about what they plan to do to implement the Right to Education Act, and if such conversations between journalists and the political parties do not reach the public, then how are we to even know what to expect, let alone monitor anybody’s performance? That many of us have not met minimal expectations is quite clear.
            Obviously, if civil society confines its efforts to putting pressure on bureaucrats to get them to do their jobs, then the enterprise will get stuck at the minimalist level of pressing for demands. No society can afford to let itself get so badly stuck; intellectuals active in civil society surely see this far more clearly than anybody else. I have a humble submission to make to our various leading thinkers who lead variously. Here it is.
            The moment anybody begins to talk about what is going on at our educational institutions, many of us are quick to point to the use of muscle power. Physical attacks on heads of institutions are clearly criminal acts. But fixating our attention on symptoms can get in the way of addressing the malady itself. May we take a closer look at the similarity between West Bengal and Gujarat, please? Where business is the measure of all things, it becomes a social norm to assume that exchanging views is as pointless as comparing your taste with mine; the point is to keep your eye on the main chance. In a province where exchanging sentences is the most highly valued activity, the maestros divided into camps have taught everybody to regard victory for one’s chosen side and defeat to its adversaries as the highest achievement to aim for. It is an ethos built by such architects that leads those who are into muscle power to conclude that, if one can physically target one’s real or imagined adversaries and get away with this, then that is the way to go. If one wishes to address this malady, non-aggression pacts are not exactly sufficient. Even spreading messages of mere toleration for the views of others will leave us saddled with a deficit. My prayer to our leading thinkers is as follows: please lead us to a desire to listen to others, not just tolerate the unpleasant fact that they speak – to a sincere version of this desire that is based on the realization that none of us can possibly have or can validly claim any monopoly on the truth.



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