E for Elephant, oops! Education

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Every one of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They all fell into heated argument as to who was right in describing the big beast, all sticking to their own perception. A wise sage happened to hear the argument, stopped and asked them “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.”

The wise man then calmly said, “Each one of you is correct; and each one of you is wrong. Because each one of you had only touched a part of the elephant’s body. Thus you only have a partial view of the animal. If you put your partial views together, you will get an idea of what an elephant looks like.”

We may disagree on many things, but all of us including the all important teachers- the primary drivers of our education system agree that education as it exists today is not good enough. The honest among us also admit that crisis largely remains the crisis of poor. But no matter how many times we reiterate this, it is a tired argument unless there is a revolution of sorts and a social awakening. Whatever word reflects the level of urgency we need to assign it all.

Having seen the education department very closely for some time in past, I have come to believe that the understanding of this complex issue remains as limited as a blind man’s elephant. No attempt is made to get an objective picture. Teachers try to pass the buck to administrators, politicians, government and the ‘system’. Administrators see their association with the education department as transient and for them it is comforting not to know. Ministers prefer to handle it as day-to-day operational management crisis. They do not want to take any initiative which will disturb the entrenched vested interests which have permeated every element of the education space. In this way, together we have helped creating and flourishing a parallel system whose beneficiaries are entirely different and who don’t need us at all. For the toiling masses, inequality in society becomes more pronounced as the government school system continues to deteriorate.

What is the problem? Well, nearly everywhere. Many government schools do not exist in building, but only in paper. There are teachers where there are no students even if the building exists. Names are recorded and maintained for the sake of escaping the penalty of losing the job. Even where there are students, the condition of the school does not allow a learning ambiance. Teachers are often used for a variety of work that has nothing to do with their core expertise. We find them manning election booths or collating data for census and other enumeration exercises and sometimes humiliated in the process.

When we consider the outcomes produced by our school education system, troubling gaps persist. A huge percentage of Class 8 students can’t read Class 2 level text. Our Class 6 students often can’t make subtraction. Toppers in English can’t speak a grammatically correct sentence; toppers in mathematics can’t apply their knowledge in daily life situations. Concepts like soft skills, social abilities, interpersonal skills, communication and personality development are alien. Memorizing is understood as learning.

In higher education too we are just churning out loads of mediocrity. Most percentage of our graduates and post graduates are unemployable and thousands of them line up for the post of a “government sweeper”.

All these questions lead us to the one question of where our education system has faltered? The problem, as in other fields, is the abysmal quality of governance, with politics permeating every aspect of educational administration. Some people are only interested in the status quo and ripping off the rest of us as society. But the blame for a failure lies not just with those resisting reform. Thus, it is for the government to run its writ. The ambitious goal (read slogan) of economic prosperity is not possible while you indulge in political wringing of education sector. Development won’t come without education and let’s not confuse roads and buildings with the development.

The government school teachers, who could steer us through this situation, are completely uninspiring. While they cannot shoulder all the blame for this failure, they have the primary responsibility. They have an inherent advantage of being administrators at the cutting-edge level; they are the teachers, the parents, the civil society and a powerful pressure group in terms of sheer numbers. But invariably they try to criticize the egg rather than understanding the chicken. Ask them why this state of affairs, they will narrate a long list from poor children to their uneducated parents, from infrastructure to unionism and from politicians to the system.

Teachers enjoy the best of both the worlds. Employed in government schools, they don’t send their children to the schools they work in. They need to ask themselves why a government-school teacher is a private-school parent. Why? Because, unless government school teachers repose trust in a system run by them, no other section of society can. You can not inspire bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, lawyers, and businessmen to send their wards to your schools while your children are out of them.

The way education is presently conducted needs a complete disruption. We need to go against the flow, challenge the status quo and take on the resistance at any cost including the political cost. Lest we will continue to helplessly watch, be the part of or preside the decimation of our entire generations.

Given the power of vested interests and the politics of education, it’s hard to see serious education reform without making education reform a true civil rights movement. But social movements do not succeed on moral force alone; they need leadership and strategy as well. It is up to the leaders to engage more and more people in the debate. Who is ready to strengthen the case for a stronger education system? My hope doesn’t rest on administrators, politicians or the ‘system’. It rests only on the teachers. And my hope rests firm.

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