Sunday, May 3, 2015

Changing Tigers Mid-Stream

1. Formulating the problem

India has been taking part in a worldwide effort to eliminate illiteracy. Since the largest single set of illiterates are in India, this is seen as uniquely our responsibility. The high numbers stretch our resources and turn sarva-shikshaa into an abhiyaan. Private sector profit-makers are not interested. Only the government, NGOs and the traditional NGOs known as religious missions are making an effort to eliminate illiteracy. These players have accepted the premise that certain categories, such as girl children, are at risk and that accordingly the system must be tweaked to accommodate those categories. This system implies that scheduled caste and scheduled tribe children get classified as needy and thus receive larger quantities of assistance. It does not imply that those in charge of the system wish to rethink the medium of instruction.

India has at the same time been trying to adjust its educational system to the needs and rights of children as individuals. The efforts that go into this type of realignment are very hard to combine with the large scale mass campaign methods of ‘Education for All’. Research has shown that if we wish to enforce the educational rights of individual children, then we must provide primary schooling in their first language (usually called their ‘mother tongue’); any other arrangement causes cognitive harm to the children. But there are several factors preventing us from doing this in the special case of children speaking languages that are called ‘tribal’ in India (in other countries the term ‘indigenous’ has become normal, and the word ‘tribal’ is seen as derogatory). Let me mention four such factors.

First, the teachers available for what is typically seen as the thankless job of teaching tribal children do not know the languages, and cannot be given this knowledge on a platter – for most of the languages, teaching and learning materials don’t exist; teachers willing to learn the languages are forced to learn the language on their own.

Second, administrators in the government and NGOs are frequently convinced that schooling in tribal languages is not a sound idea.

Third, in some schools, the demographic pattern poses a specific problem: each tribal language is spoken only by a small number of children. Even with great goodwill and resources, in such places it becomes impossible to provide optimal pedagogy, and compromises have to be found.

Fourth, many children’s parents are convinced that tribal language medium education is a conspiracy hatched by the elite to keep tribals underprivileged.

These difficulties mean that tribal languages are a special case and need separate consideration. In the present study I focus on the more widespread problems for first language medium education in the better established ‘regional languages’ like Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, Gujarati, Bangla, Odia. I hope that readers who deal with tribal language medium education will be able to make the adjustments necessary for their own contexts. I do not wish to underestimate the severity of their difficulties, or the fact that there are no known solutions to their problems as yet. However, what is said at the end of this study will strike some of you as walking half-way to meet the specific challenges faced in the tribal context.

This first section of my paper sets itself the task of articulating in a national context the linguistic problem faced by primary and secondary educators. I am using the expression ‘changing tigers mid-stream’ in order to describe what we have to do during this transition. For we are moving out of an English-based and macro-socially conceived educational system; we are beginning to face the challenges of a system that takes India’s regional languages seriously on their own terms and seeks to meet the needs of individual children. We have been riding on the back of an English tiger, without however ever allowing ourselves to see clearly just how dangerous this beast is. As we prepare to change our vehicle, fully aware of the dangers of the new tiger – the challenge of teaching in Indian languages – we must also take cognizance of the dangers of teaching in English, and develop strategies to address them.

We all know that regional language medium teaching systems keep a niche reserved for literacy in English and make continuous efforts to expand this niche. It is important to realize why English medium teaching systems need to make corresponding efforts to make room for literacy in Indian languages; they must do this not to satisfy mass demands, but to meet deeper needs. The importance of these deeper needs is not yet widely understood by middle-class parents and ordinary educators. But a narrow circle of educational experts do understand how important these needs are. We must inform the public about these needs, and think about how to satisfy them, before it is too late to repair the damage our educational system has been inflicting on our poor and rich children alike.

This was my two tiger articulation of the problem we face. In the rest of this study, there are short sections devoted to specific aspects of the matter. We end with a combination of theoretical and practical suggestions.

2. The 1986 ‘solution’: Navodaya

Obviously it has long been clear that education in India is in a parlous state. Major efforts to address it began in 1986 with the National Policy on Education. That policy document affirmed that the teaching community in India had failed; it proposed a special intervention sponsored by the state, knowing that this could only rescue some children from the inadequate existing system of schooling. For this purpose, the document suggested the establishment of a network of innovative schools; in due course, this was indeed done, and these institutions were called Navodaya schools. The 1986 document held out no hope for all children; it implied that the nation could not afford to even try to save them all.

In a perspective shaped by UNESCO’s Millennium Development Goals, now that India has committed itself to the complete eradication of illiteracy, does it make sense to simply upscale the Navodaya solution so that we can deliver the currently promised Education For All?

Alas, we cannot even imagine such an upscaling. For there never was a Navodaya solution in practice, or even in theory. Other than equipping its teachers with the standard normative competence that government funding can buy, the Navodaya schools have not distinguished themselves by creating a new path. The 1986 policy was fundamentally flawed.

It should not be necessary to say this; all commentators should have realized long ago, and should have told the government and the public, that 1986 had left the mimicry syndrome unaddressed. But unfortunately our elders standardly assume that – even though rote learning, mimicry, clerical reproduction and other features of our faulty study methods have been the acknowledged bane of most Indian schoolchildren – these features are just a side issue. Standard commentators have been tirelessly saying that the mimicry syndrome will vanish once we eliminate private coaching; once we train the schoolteachers according to the perfect syllabi of B.Ed. and M.Ed. courses; once we give the schools enough money to consolidate their buildings and secure the pay packages of administrators and teachers; once we achieve the other perfections repeated in every election manifesto. While the pundits are aware that obvious factors persistently keep these goals out of our reach, they nonetheless assume that the mimicry syndrome is not a separate nut to crack, but will automatically dissolve as we make progress on these other fronts.

Alas, those commentators are grotesquely wrong. The mimicry syndrome manifests mechanical hierarchy – the core malady afflicting our culture. We in India are orthodox; we want babies to grow into children who mimic, and children to grow into adults who mimic; for only mimicry guarantees mechanical obedience to hierarchically transmitted instructions. In short, we are afraid of personal independence; this is our core malady. No approach to education can succeed if it fails to address this pathology of ours.

I am embarrassed, as a professional linguist, to observe that linguistics does have a uniquely effective set of tools and can help address our core malady, but that in practice our linguists have allowed themselves to be stampeded into accepting the current state of affairs. So I dare not invoke linguistics at this point in this exposition; I shall return to its virtues and vices in a later section.

At this point, it is perhaps most useful if we categorize the major inadequacies of the National Policy on Education of 1986 in terms of three types of deficit:

Educational deficit: A serious education stimulates students, enabling them to blossom as children and to flourish as adults. The 1986 policy simply missed the point. It was not an informed educational policy at all.

Psycholinguistic deficit: Psycholinguistic research has shown that, for the languages in which a child needs to operate seriously, schooling will have to equip her with competence of two types: first, basic interactive proficiency; then, building on that foundation, cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP), in the context of the intellectual content of secondary schooling. Given this research, we must evaluate each educational system in terms of whether it imparts CALP in the child’s first language and in the language or languages of wider communication. The 1986 document evinced no awareness of the issues, and was in any case finalized at a time when these results were not widely known.

Sociolinguistic deficit: India as a polity rests on an innovative linguistic deal, built as it is around the notion of ‘linguistic states’ that constitutionally guarantee the rights of minority languages. Any serious educational system that intends to follow the rules must do what is required not just in order to implement constitutional provisions, but to educate each child about the linguistic rights and responsibilities of all children, on the way to an adult understanding of what is involved in being a citizen of a uniquely multilingual republic. For adults to fully participate in the public space, education needs to prepare them when they are young, connecting them with the terms of public discourse. The Indian educational system has never been seen in these terms; certainly the 1986 document did not try to do so.

Why am I spending so much time on the National Policy on Education of 1986? Writing so many years later, is it not more appropriate for me to comment on the NCF 2005 document’s remarks on language and education instead?

3. Deepening democracy

I would have liked to see the NCF move away from the 1986 document towards democracy; this did not happen; hence my decision to focus on what it takes for an educational policy to direct itself towards the cultivation of the arts of democracy.

Ours is a culture of hierarchical instruction. Even democratic intellectuals write mainly (or only) in English, hoping it will all trickle down, which is a hierarchical hope. This style of theirs is more than bad pedagogy: it is a case of democratic intent subverting itself.

This subversion needs to be condemned in unequivocal terms. I have found that readers do not understand subtle prose. Let me therefore speak more explicitly.

India’s elite, since independence, has kept trying to win approval from old masters in Britain and new masters in the United States. Even when we were following a political and economic path that opposed Anglo-America’s geopolitics, our elite did not make the slightest attempt to set itself credible goals on a basis truly independent of Anglo-American perceptions. All efforts – including those that tried hard to look oppositional – took Anglophone norms for granted. Our radicals kept emulating their radicals. Even intellectuals working in Indian languages have stayed in an exclusive asymmetric translational relation with English as the unique reference discourse. ‘Knowledge texts’ are translated from English into Indian languages; it is assumed that there are no ‘knowledge texts’ in Indian languages that need to be translated into English and thrust under the nose of the members of the white Herrenvolk out there in the west – despite the long demonstrated gross incompetence of white ‘linguists’ in the domain of learning the languages of the global ‘south’.

To defend this as a rational strategy on the basis of claims about the global reach of English would be to miss the point. The point is that India’s Anglophone intelligentsia have chosen to avoid reading each other’s work; to marginalize the enterprises of Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo; to push Indian language focused inquiry into provincial ghettoes; to miniaturize our historical memory down to a twenty-year time-span (okay, thirty); to belittle access to other global communication channels like French, German, Russian, Spanish, Arabic or Chinese; and to keep these grotesque choices out of sight by pushing screaming headlines into the forefront of everybody’s attention. Few intelligentsias in modern times, with such access to resources, have let their public down on such a spectacular scale.

Our badly designed educational system, and our half-hearted efforts to tweak it, are only some of the effects of the pathological choices our elite has made for itself and has with some success imposed on the rest of our social order.

One place that can in principle enable us to identify the pathology and to come up with an antidote or two is linguistics. This discipline has the resources to constrain the power of the authoritarian imagination embodied as grammar. Now, the global hierarchy associated with the grammatical embodiment of the authoritarian imagination can be said to treat ELT as one of its central enterprises. Given the terms of reference of linguistics as a discipline whose putatively scientific pretensions should delink it from the authoritarian imagination, one would have expected the best linguists writing today to be engaged in a critical counter-enterprise, or at least to keep ELT at arm’s length. To our dismay, we find instead that linguists have been in bed with ELT.

Those of us who want to improve the cultural and educational scene can respond to this predicament by taking it upon ourselves to help establish an authentic linguistics – one that proposes to articulate and address the needs of serious pedagogy – in a contestatory marginal location. For reasons to be emphasized soon, I am visualizing such a location on the edge of the poisonous systems currently prevalent, not a position of exile that would render us impotent.

In the early twentieth century, linguists were steeped in a spirit of moderate democratic reform of cultural institutions. That impulse has long been abandoned and was in any case associated with a linguistics of codes, of languages seen in terms of codifiable grammars and dictionaries even if scientific linguists did not agree with the way in which authoritarian codifiers had been doing their codifying. In our more accountable times – sensitive to human rights and to the desire of the objects of social analysis to speak for themselves as much as possible – carrying out a transition from that hierarchical linguistics of codes to a democratic linguistics of discourses is a task with two dimensions to it, social and academic.

On the socio-political axis, the point is to challenge the forces that have been keeping the authoritarian imagination in place.

On the intellectual plane, scholars carrying out the unfinished academic struggle against the residues of colonial rule have diagnosed our pathology (including the mimicry syndrome described earlier in this paper) in terms of a particular kind of colonization. Those scholars have called it the colonization of the ‘life-world’ by the ‘systems’. (I am mentioning these technical terms just to help some readers to identify the type of analysis I have in mind; other readers unable to follow this thread of the discussion should please ignore it.)

The linguistics of discourses does not simply jettison the work done in the older linguistics of codes; the point is to turn the codifiers into servants rather than masters, reversing the arrow of colonization, and to put in place the constituent assembly of authentic popular articulators – who have to learn how to make these servants serve their true masters, the public.

The task, so visualized, needs to be translated into a concrete programme so that workers of different types can contribute to the common cause without getting in each other’s way. From this point onwards, I shall make brief and focused points about such a programme of action in a series of capsules.

4. Long-term goal: perspectivism

David Bleich’s (1988) double perspective vision [Bleich, David. 1988. The Double Perspective: Language, Literacy, and Social Relations. Evanston, IL: Northwestern U.P.] may inform our updating of the pedagogic cuisine we inherit from Gandhi, Tagore, Aurobindo, Krishnamurti – perhaps with bits of Freire and Illich thrown in as tokens of the need for ‘south-south dialogue’ on our way to a democratic linguistics of discourses whose practitioners can work in partnership with educational activists at a global level. Bleich proposed that for every binary (men vs women, blacks vs whites, urbanites vs villagers, savarnas vs dalits, etc.) the task of education is to teach children from each side to take on board the point of view of the other side as well. Bleich devised specific educational techniques that show young adults how to do this. Our long-term goal is to build similar techniques into schooling. I mention Bleich because he has created a theory-praxis dyad in his work and explicitly begins to fashion a democratic linguistics of discourses.

5. But series of short-term targets first

On the way to such a target, we need to set interim targets. The long-term goal presupposes robust adult dissent led by articulate bahujans/ girijans/ women/ LGBTs/ PWDs and ‘other others’. I propose to call such dissent Ceteropolitics, avashishtavaad. To organize cetero dissent is an essential step in the transition from a politics of codes (most clearly articulated in identity politics, whose leaders concede the cushy territory to hegemons and are content to grab ghettoes of one’s own which they get to codify) to a politics of discourses. Cetero dissenters openly contest hegemony, staying in margins in order to do so without developing vested interests; note that margins are not positions of exile. To exile oneself is to step out of the code and thus to indirectly acknowledge the code as a legitimation device.

6. Why short-term target serials?

The reason for setting up a series of short-term targets is simple. Children, for whom education must be designed, cannot wait until adults in those perfectly chosen marginal niches successfully pursue their contestations and manage to triumph. For the good of the children, education has to be upscaled right now, under conditions acknowledged to be oppressive, with admittedly ill-trained teachers who are in unrelieved distress and cannot expect speedy relief. In order to keep long-term goals in view, in order to continue to improve our understanding of these goals and our capacity to work towards them, we need to set ourselves short-term targets, serially. A nation addicted to TV serials can do this. If you are looking for a slogan, my working draft is Naraanii taaliim (a blend of nayii with puraanii). If you can do better than this draft, please go ahead.

7. From old tiger to new tiger

Setting serial targets will land us in an unmanageable mess only if we do not come up with a way to handle the big jump that is now in progress – the jump from the back of the English medium tiger that we’ve been riding to the new, multilingual saddle we hope will accommodate us on the capacious back of the tiger called India. This big jump is happening and will be completed whether we like it or not, whether we manage it well or not. Let us try and do it gracefully and with full awareness.

As we leap from one tiger to another, we exchange old risks for new. We obviously want to understand the new risks first, postponing for later a full post mortem of the main difficulties with our English medium tiger. Here we only have the space to summarize rapidly. The main danger of the multilingual educational system is the malady usually called ‘Balkanization’. Denial or escape is not an option. One way to face up to this danger and handle it intelligently is to review the experience of the actual Balkan states – to inquire how they have handled their predicament. In this context we encounter the use of Esperanto as a bridge language. The state of Croatia has sponsored translations of the Croatian children’s classic The wonderful adventures of apprentice Hlapić through the Esperanto bridge translation into Bengali and other foreign languages whose speakers are extremely unlikely to learn enough Croatian to do the job from the original by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić. Slovenia and Croatia have used European Commission funding to get other children’s classics from the Balkan region – and an Italian children’s classic – translated into Bengali in the context of cultural exchange. If even the Balkan states have found ways around Balkanization, surely we in India, forewarned as we are, will know how to avoid the worst rigours of that danger; we too can use the bridge language Esperanto and other resources, all of them drawn from the domain of translation. We are not using ‘multilingual’ just as a label for the situation we face; the education we are proposing also is a multilingual cuisine, and translation is an essential part of the work of fashioning it.

8. Build triple embedding vision into education

Even conceptually, independently of the demographic realities of the republic of India, it is no coincidence that the resources that most immediately come to mind should pertain to translation. Translation is the most obvious next-door neighbour of the perspectivism goal and the differential imagination exemplified in David Bleich’s enterprise. As we visualize our short-term interim goals one by one, we will have to embed (1) differential imagination into translation, (2) translation into language teaching, (3) language teaching into subject teaching. This third step will involve making the teaching of technical terms individually (and the art of terminology more generally) vivid and processual. Connecting (3) to (1) will involve showing one’s students that one must constantly translate back and forth between technical terms and the ordinary language explanations on the basis of which we grasp them.

Perspectivism requires bridging distances: in some of our implementations, we will find it appropriate to thematize the bridge language Esperanto. Not only the Balkan example will lead us to do this; even in China, I am given to understand by friends based there, some ELT courses teach a little bit of preparatory Esperanto en route to the initial teaching of English. Esperanto is not just a bridge language that helps translators and educators dealing with the ‘subjects’ part of the curriculum rather than the ‘languages’ part; it helps language teachers as well, even in systems where the final goal is the learning of some other language.

9. Transregional pedagogy: a long-term global need

Friends based in China also tell me that the Chinese authorities, disappointed with the actual results of their massive ELT effort, are planning to do some downscaling. If China really downscales ELT in its educational system from 2020 onwards, as is apparently envisaged, then obviously they won’t seriously try to teach everybody Chinese instead. Their exit will simply spell the end of English as a global lingua franca without any replacement; nobody in or outside China imagines a world in which Chinese has become the unique global lingua franca; and the United States itself will be less well placed to propagate English over the next few decades, as the Hispanic population keeps expanding and speaking far more Spanish than English; by 2050 it is expected to overtake the Anglophone population of the United States. Once the notion of a unique language as the major global verbal currency bites the dust, which is going to happen in the lifetime of children now in school, the world will need a fully elaborated transregional pedagogy to be put in place soon. It is up to us to notice that India as a ‘transnation’ is best placed to help everybody by “turning the crisis itself into a solution”.

10. Turning the crisis itself into a solution

That ‘crisis into solution’ quote is from Lev Vygotsky’s book Thought and Language. His approach to psycholinguistics was distinctive – and, now that it is being discovered by educational theory and practice all over the world, remains distinctive – for at least the following reasons. His paradigm (a) places the affective and the cognitive on the same screen; (b) frames the scene of instruction (the classroom or whatever setting serves as the location of teaching, often a cybernetic site in contemporary contexts) in the parameters of the technological and industrial development of society, especially in its conceptualization of secondary schooling; (c) allows for the heterogeneity and unevenness of social development in a multilingual federation, keeping pre-capitalist and even pre-feudal social formations in view; and (d) articulates the pioneering notion of a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) as a model for teacher-student partnership. These features make Vygotsky’s work a vital ingredient for the cuisine we need in India.

Vygotsky’s approach views a student’s capacity for learning in terms of its fullest realization made possible under the stimulation of an effective teacher. The microsocial space that such a teacher creates, enveloping the teacher-student dyad and giving the student an opportunity to go beyond her current standalone ability and to approach a full manifestation of her potential, is the ZPD. Vygotsky achieved the vital insight that in order to understand how far a student has been able to travel an evaluator must consider not how well she can perform on her own – for a young person’s solitary performance at a given point of time never adequately manifests what she has attained up to that moment – but what she is able to grasp with the help of the minimal, necessary urging that an effective teacher can provide.

Even this limited presentation of one aspect of his approach may suffice to indicate the affinity between Vygotsky and Bleich. Vygotsky, unlike many other Soviet thinkers, did not assume that the Soviet Union should keep applying to the Asiatic republics the methods of political and cultural domination that the Russians ruled by successive Tsars had been using; he wanted the children of every school in the Soviet Union to be treated as growing human beings with a right to stay rooted in their own cultural milieux, some of them ‘tribal’ milieux if we use the vocabulary still current in India. Unlike many psychological theorists who likewise believed that the way to achieve a unitary psychological paradigm was for one method to defeat all others in the field, Vygotsky proposed that psychology’s crisis, its multiplicity of theories, should itself be seen as the beginning of a solution – that the way to unify the paradigm was to accept its necessary plurality.

As this reasoning renders apparent, a crisis can begin to look like a solution once we change our perspective. As long as some of us are openly predatory and the rest of us directly participate in this rapacity – or (like the relatives of the bandit Ratnaakara [who turned into the sage Vaalmiiki]) indirectly benefit from the thefts and robberies and ask no questions – our attitude remains wholly controlled by the parameters set by conquest and greed. Once we make the transition to an acceptance of the imperatives of peace and sustainability, it becomes clear to us that we must all take part in the actions of sustaining for the new paradigm to work. It is in that changed perspective, moving away from conquest, that we begin to understand, with Gandhi, that the world has enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed.

11. Conclusion

It is time to conclude. We have chalked out the main points of a serial unpacking of the Bleich-Vygotsky agenda. For colleagues who would prefer a more technical and rigorous exposition we can only say very quickly that the architectural foundation for the crisis-to-solution cuisine deploys the paradigmatic axis. The syntagmatic style of linguistic theorizing that has been dominant since the 1950s is associated with ideas of conquest; bringing material under the umbrella of a single syntagm is an annexational gesture. A balanced biaxial perspective that gives the paradigmatic axis and the syntagmatic axis equal importance incubates serious thoughts of durable peace; for one country to learn how to leave other countries alone is to learn how to dream responsibly, not to dream of enlarging its own syntagmatic boundaries, but instead to dream of harmonizing its existence with the cross-border independent existence of others, without colonizing or being colonized.

This technical point can be presented as an unpacking of the struggle against the behaviourist approach to psychology and education. That approach is akin to war. While the generative school that has shaped the most widely known toolkit of contemporary grammatical theory in linguistics can be given credit for having pioneered the struggle against behaviourism and for whetting our appetite for better psychological and educational theories, a serious overcoming of the behaviourist malady must work with tools that take us towards social peace and personal flourishing. Such an enterprise, which is vitally needed if India’s educational reform efforts are to succeed, lies beyond the intellectual, aesthetic and moral horizons within which the enterprises of generative linguistics and its close cousins have been working. I say this with immense respect to their practitioners.

For friends dealing with or belonging to tribal communities, I can offer only a hint as to the way to use these remarks as a basis for developing locally valid solutions in the contexts in which their work has to move forward. The hint is as follows. The formula of turning the crisis itself into the seed for a solution applies a fortiori to tribal language workers. The very absence of a ‘rich’ and massive archive accumulated through thousands of years of history, instead of being viewed as a lack or a handicap, needs to be seen as an asset. A non-massive archive, encapsulating tribal wisdom in a relatively manageable quantity of discourses that individuals can hope to master without unimaginable decades of effort, is a portable archive. In this electronic day and age, when children of industrial and historical-archive-endowed societies are shedding the burden of heavy individual memories and working with a portable personal archive of the few records that one individual can hope to cherish, it is a wonderful advantage for a tribal child that she can hope to share a portable archive with the rest of her tribe. A lightweight archive known by all members of the tribe gives her collectivity the option of leapfrogging over steps in development that the discredited, heavy, lumbering, obsolescent forms of thought once taught us to regard as compulsory steps. The tribals who learn how to take advantage of archive portability will leap over the ‘modern’ phase of history directly into electronic postmodernity.

To overcome despair, one has to find ways of turning it into hope, and to do so without telling lies.


This paper was first presented at a seminar on ‘The right to education and the future of our languages’ organized by the department of linguistics, University of Mumbai, 9-11 March 2015. The educators I met at that seminar, many of whom have been teaching tribal children and learning their languages under conditions that most educators would have found intolerable, manifesting standards of resilience and speeds of learning that lie far beyond at least my personal capacity, proved to be iconic pioneers. Exposure to them would humble most of us in the much hyped ‘professions’ of linguistics and psychology; I hope there will be more opportunities for mutually beneficial exchange between such educators and ‘professionals’ like us.


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