What is Education for?

Shalini Advani

It is a strange irony that the more we talk about India 's educational needs, the less we seem to think about the purpose for which we are educating people. And yet an answer to the question which asks: what is the purpose of education today, has quietly made a paradigm shift over the past five to seven years. At various times over the past 100 years that question was answered differently – in colonial India, the official answer would have been, “To create a cadre of clerks and officials to run the colonial state” while in a newly decolonized India, the official answer could be, “To create a nationalist sensibility and the national citizen.”

Today, I suspect the official answer to the question about the purpose of education would be, “To give people jobs”. Increa­singly, the emphasis in education is towards vocationalization and skills development. In a recent private conversation, the Education Minister of a North-Indian state said, “We have a lot of jobs. We just don't have the people skilled enough to do them. We need bio-technologists, fitters, crane operators, nurses and lab assistants. But our education does not prepare young people for what we need. We need to change that.”

Similarly, we find that the Confede-ration of Indian Industry (CII) is showing increasing interest in school education. The CII recently commissioned a study to look at the challenges and opportunities which face Indian industry, and this is their thesis:

In the year 2025, there will be about 40 million jobs worldwide, which need to be filled. India will be one of the few countries in the world to have a labour surplus of the right age group. They therefore, believe that we need to think about the kinds of education system necessary to develop skills, whereby our children will be best equipped to function in this scenario.

These are all worthy aims because we know that simply educating people to be better thinkers is a luxury only the elite can afford. Most individuals need to be skilled to earn a livelihood and in general, education is seen as the path to that. There are, in fact, already a number of powerful initiatives in rural education which emph­asize this. In many cases they are led by the private sector – an Information Technology company working in 10,000 Government Primary and High schools, or a mobile network provider which has committed 200 crores to improve rural primary education. Government initiatives in vocational education plan a doubling of capacity in vocational schools including Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs), and an increase in the number of Jan Shiksha Sansthans to re-skill industrial workers.

Public consensus on the way to improve educational access is increasingly moving towards a public-private partnership. But we must be concerned about the terrible narrowness of the vision for educational improvement which characterizes our discourse. Education, in this picture, is about the implanting of useful skills – the assumption being that it will ultimately lead to both personal and national enrichment. But as Martha Nussbaum writes, ''education is not simply a producer of wealth; it is a producer of citizens." Citizens in a democracy need, above all, freedom of mind to learn to ask searching questions; to reject shoddy historical argument; to imagine alternative possibilities from a globalizing, service and market-driven economy; to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from themselves. Recently, the Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, spoke about the importance of reading novels as what he calls an antidote to hate. He said, "I believe in literature as a bridge between peoples. I believe curiosity can be a moral quality. I believe imagining the other can be an antidote to fanaticism. Imagining the other will make you not only a better business person or a better lover but even a better person. Part of the tragedy between Jew and Arab is the inability of so many of us, Jews and Arabs, to imagine each other. Really imagine each other: the loves, the terrible fears, the anger, the passion. There is too much hostility between us, too little curiosity."

The skills and thought processes which engender the curiosity, the imagining, are associated with the humanities, the arts and literature, and despite the splendid interventions in the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERTs) new textbooks for History and Political Science, these areas are terribly neglected. Our dominant conception of worthwhile education is increasingly technical and mechanistic. The thinking processes engendered by the social sciences are today seen as quaint, vaguely lefty-intellectual, a kind of quixotic idealism which has very little to do with the real business of life.

It is a strange irony that in the educational world of Gandhi, Tagore and Aurobindo, there are tragically few voices which assert a more holistic vision. One of the most consistent and eloquent reminders is found in the writing of Krishna Kumar and it is worth looking briefly at his newest book, A Pedagogue's Romance, to engage with this perspective on education for our national development. The book, like all his writing, engages with the role of education in the creation of a democratic and transformative space for all people, what he ironically calls a romantic ideal in contrast to the practical, instrumentalist planning which characterizes much of our educational decision-making.

It outlines a space which asserts the claims of the rural over the urban, poor over the rich, the regional or Hindi language speaker over the English-speaking elite. It suggests that at its best, education can be transformative, but warns that it is more often a process of disempowerment. The essential question he poses is how education planners can successfully combine the systems of educational policy with classroom practice to create reflective, independent learners in every village, every district, every town.

The book argues that, “We need to guard against the wholesale sacrifice of the humanist concept of education for a cold instrumentalist substitute which promises quality control by focusing on outcomes, both pedagogic and social.” The idea of “outcomes” in education has gained widespread acceptance across the world. It is a term which emerges from a productive, entrepreneurial economy where everything is a measurable outcome, even the extent and depth of learning. In many education systems around the world, outcomes already shape student assessment, teacher salary structures and measure the effectiveness of the learning programme.

So how do these two opposed notions of education relate to each other? The first – a trajectory of vocationalized, instrumentalist education arises out of an increasing need

for trained, skilled labour in the marketplace and at its best, plans to fit people for jobs, creating emancipation through the ability to earn. In contrast, there is a broadly humanist, liberal vision of education which is deeply suspicious of the marketplace as the inevitable end-product.

Krishna Kumar's voice is a messianic invocation of a better world. But is it really possible any longer to halt the drum beat of globalized markets? And do we want to arrest it? I believe that we cannot halt the flood, and therefore, the terrain for the education battle must shift to think about the ways in which we can equip learners to productively engage with it, employing communities, historical understanding and a sense of empowerment.

We must not allow a creative, liberal education, to be seen as an unfashionable or dated notion, irrelevant for the aspirations which have already penetrated deep into the world of our rural and urban students. More than ever before, education has become an aspirational ideal – if we cannot demonstrate the relevance of our education so that it can both shape and fulfil these aspirations, the educational landscape will be hijacked by our new economic forces.

It has become increasingly important then, to find the means to engage in a conversation between different value systems, if only to persuade a skeptical world that there is more than one route to empowerment. How do we find ways of bridging the traditional bifurcations between the world of the mind and the body? Between skill, which is essentially repetitive and imitative, and art, which is original and creative? Between manual labour and intellectual labour?

It is crucial for our framework of education to move more assertively to define this bridge and we need to identify the learning approaches which will incorporate this for all students. Let me venture two examples: the first is how we define creativity. If we look at the creative process, it is clear that it is not only about aesthetics or intuition or inspiration. It is also about working on, testing and refining an idea, to shape it into a desirable end result. To do so, requires skill in analysis and evaluation. The problem-tackling aspect of creativity means that we can encourage learners to work in groups, to find creative solutions to problems, develop the skills of team work and simultaneously promote reflection and independent thinking.

The second example relates to the ways in which electronic technology is used in schools and how it can be used by students to solve problems, exchange information, develop ideas and create models. An example that immediately comes to mind is the exercise where a group of street children used digital cameras to record their daily experience, creating an exhibition which became an essay in self-reflection.

Eventually, the future of education in India is not a question of access or literacy or teacher training – at whatever pace, these features will grow, simply to respond to a market demand. The issue is really about the soul of education and what we are doing to safeguard that.