What kind of education for what kind of society?

Raju J Das

It seems that in India many good students, after completing their 10th grade, are spending most of their time in private coaching classes and attending colleges/universities only for the practicals. This they do to prepare themselves for entrance exams for engineering and medical seats. Even if they do attend colleges/universities full-time, their main aim is to sit for these entrance exams. Several questions come to one’s mind in this context.

1. How can someone learn theory from one set of ‘teachers’ in coaching classes, and learn about the practical matter (lab work) from certified college/university teachers?

2. What is all this craze about getting into medical and engineering colleges? What does a student who goes to these places almost straight after higher secondary (or what is called high school diploma in North America) really know about society and nature? His/her time is mainly spent on a limited goal: being able to answer expected questions in entrance exams aimed at screening students? Much of the time is perhaps spent on memorizing a lot of information without an opportunity to critically assess and assimilate this. Isn’t there something to be said for a well-rounded post-high school university education before one goes for specializations?

3. Is it not the case that many of the so-called medical and engineering colleges may be ill-equipped to teach the relevant subjects? Parents pay a huge amount of money for a seat for their children. And a lot of people – investors – of course make a lot of money out of this business.

4. What is the outcome of this system? In a country of a billion plus, how many doctors do we produce who actually invent new ways of curing illness, as opposed to writing prescriptions on the basis of knowledge produced mainly in the western countries? Similarly, how many thousands of engineers do we manufacture who produce knowledge about new ways of making things? More importantly, how many scientists – in biological or natural sciences – do we produce who produce new ways of understanding nature and body? Is this craze for professional-technical education promoting an overall scientific culture, a culture that encourages people to be rational and find empirically verifiable reasons for events around them?

5. Under the British system, we were producing clerks. Now, are we not producing a different kind of ‘clerks’ or assistants – sophisticated semi-coolies, tech coolies and the like out of the population that goes into so-called professional institutions? It is interesting that what many of our engineers do (e.g., reading/processing credit card statements transmitted from the West – that is, keeping records), they do not really need sophisticated engineering skills acquired from colleges? Or, is it that the kind of education they receive makes them suitable for only this kind of semi-skilled, techno-coolie jobs, and nothing better?

6. Why is it that a vast majority of good students want to be either an engineer or a doctor? Arguably, the aim of education, real education, is self-development (changing ourselves, our ways of thinking) and social development, i.e. contributing to society and towards a reproduction of natural systems that are sustainable (I am not denying that education, in the current form of society, helps one get a job so one can pay one’s bills). Now, is being an engineer or a doctor (and in the ways in which people become engineers and doctors) necessarily the main way of achieving real education?

7. I do not deny the importance of forces of technology and medicine at all, but are the major problems of human society the ones which can be solved through the actions of engineers and doctors who mainly keep on recycling old knowledge? What about a human rights or labour lawyer who fights for the rights of our peasants, workers, poorer people, and so on? What about a professor who aims at changing the collective self-consciousness of a society, who aims at making us rethink the directions in which a society is moving? What about a professional who can organize and manage the cooperatives of poor women or workers’ coops? What about a scientist who finds out new ways in which nature works, and new and sustainable ways in which nature can be suitably ‘modified’ in the interest of the humanity? What about someone who can organize poor masses in new ways to independently fight for their rights and change the fundamental nature and goal of our society, nationally and internationally? What about artists and story tellers who can feel the pulse of a society and represent it in beautiful ways for us to enjoy and learn from? What about the role of socially conscious journalists who consistently and courageously lay bare (quasi-)criminal conduct and corruption of our economic and political elites? And so on?

8. What is the implication of a society over-emphasizing so-called professional education? Is it not true that in part because of the sort of financial as well as ideological-political emphasis on technical-professional education that we see, other kinds of education (including in basic sciences; social sciences) are neglected, and that to the extent that many students go for this latter kind of education, they go there, perhaps, just to pass time, to remain a part of the army of unemployed and under-employed in a manner which can be seen by society as a little meaningful and dignified?

9. The moot question is: why is this kind of education being promoted? We must understand the nature of the forces (read: commercial and state-bureaucratic interests) that drive the kind of education (rush for engineering and medical seats, and the argument can be extended to other ‘professions’ such as business management) which we want to give our children, which we want to promote. In more direct ways: to what extent is our obsession with the so-called professional education driven by the fact that investors make money by selling professional education as a commodity and by the fact that this kind of education is making India (and other similar countries) a cheap low-wage platform of global capitalism, both for its own business people and international business? To what extent are our bureaucrats and politicians benefiting from this business directly because they also invest in this? And how does the state benefit from this kind of education system, a system which reproduces a cheap skilled labour force through the system of private profit-making such that the state no longer has to provide affordable education? To what extent is the kind of technical-professional education-for-profit we are promoting creating a compradore educated elite, which acts as a conduit through which the country (the nation of workers and poor peasants) is subordinated to international business and imperialist states?

10. Therefore, and ironically, is it not the case that: the kind of mind-numbing education we are promoting is stopping us – or discouraging us – from asking this kind of questions that challenge the nature of education and therefore the nature of society we live in?

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.

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