The Purpose – Ila Gayakwad

A couple of years back, I was attending my college’s technical festival; this is the techno-management festival of one of arguably the best state-run engineering colleges in Maharashtra. An auditorium not adequately filled to listen to this lady from TISS, now working to save India’s indigenous, both people and resources. This is not expected, why, only a couple of hours ago, the auditorium was teeming with people to listen to a Harvard statistician-turned-Indian-politician guiding the students about ‘Innovation in India driving it to become a superpower’. ‘Innovation’ and ‘superpower’ are buzzwords, enough to get people on their toes fancying teslas running in India by 2020. This lady, who’s clad in a typical khadi saree, refuses to be served mineral water on the podium, and in a didactic tone, she begins – “Education, you see, is a tricky job. I’d be impressed if even a single person from the audience ever wondered who HR Mahajani was (the road right outside our college premises was named after him, or her, who knows!). Have y’all asked your professor (the only one in the campus other than her today in khadi) why he’s chosen to take his middle name as his mother’s?”. And eventually came the one that shook us all – “Do y’all ever discuss agriculture in engineering colleges when you talk of your innovation and sustainability ventures?” The question was followed by silence reeking of neutrality. Neutrality because it’s a safe mask to wear when we are guilty. We had no answers there. The IoT projects in the agriculture area happening on campus almost inadvertently inclined towards providing more and more information either about the loans or for studying consumer behaviour. 

Those questions never really left me. Every decision that I make reincarnates in the form of whether they’ll be able to look in the eyes of the lady and speak something. An oft-quoted proverb goes thus – ‘Empathy is the highest form of intelligence’. Education bereft of empathy and education bereft of a humanitarian basis is not education at all. That’s the point that the lady from TISS, with her apparel and water container choices, was trying to make, I think.

‘Is it incumbent upon students to move beyond the frontier of academics and make a change in society’ you ask? But do you ask what goal education in India serves today? Does it need to be limited to enhancing the employability opportunities of students? And even if it were, is it serving the purpose then? Most of us would consciously deny. A recruiter from a multinational company went ahead and said that Indian students after several degrees still remain raw, unemployable. They’ve to be then trained for industry, or the real world for that matter. The chasm between the industry and what’s taught in schools is vast. And vaster is the chasm between what’s taught in schools and what society needs out of this education.

Fast forward to when I called up a friend, who had been working in the agriculture domain to help the international body who has been striving for world peace. And his reply to what happened in the auditorium shook me for worse – ‘Forget engineering colleges. Agriculture, isn’t discussed in agricultural colleges either.’

What then is the goal of education in India and where are we trying to reach by educating our children – by allocating some 94,854 crores to the education sector (FY’19 that is), by bringing in a brand new National Education Policy, and investing some 38,547 crores for the National Education Mission?

Data from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs reveals that there were nearly 7,53,000 Indian students studying overseas as of July 2018. As against this, at the same time, India hosted only a tiny fraction of foreign nationals of this number – 47,000. And this isn’t surprising at all. What is the purpose of attracting foreign students to Indian educational hubs with the ‘Study in India’ initiative when we are unsure of our own system then?

India has moved beyond the primitive levels of focus on literacy. We have moved ahead of the agrarian community, skipped the manufacturing phase and are now also offering students niche vocational courses to help them suit the booming service industry. But is the education that solely tries to aid output that our country produces in terms of GDP enough? What has improving levels of education in India after independence done to our economy? The questions are unlimited, especially owing to the diverse and expansive population that we have at our disposal.  

Let’s take the example of the reservation system in India. Education for the underprivileged, the marginalized, and women was a way of emancipation, which is being secured through fixed quotas, scholarships and other incentives including the mid-day meals! Educating women and the Dalits meant they could now be well informed and serve more dignified roles in economy and society. Higher education for a woman meant she could run her home independently of the abusive husband she would’ve been with. Primary education for the Dalit meant he could now read the documents he was officially agreeing with. So much for education and economic independence of the marginalized and yet caste-based reservation as we’ve known has improved the economic status of these communities only marginally. Education for these groups was Phule’s thought in action where he tried to do away the oppressed from oppression through education. If a group of college students is diverse and hangs out together, it is the effect of education. An MBA student who endorses a diverse class but looks down upon caste-based diversity is only weakening the idea of diversity. A fee hike in educational institutes (which apparently are seeds for the left ideology as seen by the rest of the world) only weakens the effort that reservation tries to bring about.

And this brings me to the other question that you pose – Are students exceeding their limits and are the recent encounters proving it?

The answer is a clear no. The background of the recent mishandling in JNU was already laid with their ongoing protests against the hike in fees. As we know, the student debt in the US alone has been pegged to a staggering $1.69 trillion with almost no solutions in sight. Research suggests that debt doesn’t support the emotional wellbeing of the students positively. This should make us question the vicious cycle of ‘Improving human life – educating students for working towards improving human life – debts for educating students – measuring the ill effects of students’ wellbeing due to debts – thereby having a negative effect on the initial purpose altogether’.  Research also suggests that students caught in debt were less likely to take up jobs to improve the well being of the society as compared to those whose debts were written off. An MBA grad in a grand debt trap is more likely to be lured by ‘We make the rich richer’ kind of taglines from prospective recruiters who will pay their debts off than a humanitarian job which is less likely to help them do it. And why shouldn’t students rise in revolution against these issues when they’re the ones who are being affected by it?; when we’re looking upon our demographic dividends to somehow magically transform India? Kierkegaard goes on to tell us how ‘truth always rests with the minority’ and if students who are thoughtful enough to come up and wake us up by telling some truth by risking all that they have, even lives, we should be alarmed. The universities in the forefront are the ones renowned for their research and change-making abilities all around the world. These are the centres for improving the fabric of society and the economy. To me, the student community is essentially a basic model of the contemporary society. The student elections here are indicative of the voters’ trends in the upcoming general elections of the country and so on. And what do student protests look like (now, and over the history of 200 years or so of student agitation in India)? Unarmed students fighting with revolutionary songs and posters facing the water cannons and armed policemen? From burning down Curzon’s effigy in 1905 to the ‘hok kalorob’, students’ protests are based on the underlying intention to make the world only more human. And I think society owes them for their efforts, but we’re only paying them back with higher debts!

So, let’s say that the purpose of education in India should be to secure individual future first, enhance the national GDP second, and then transform society et al, if at all. Consider then, the well accepted idea that “political reform cannot with impunity take precedence over social reform in the sense of reconstruction of society” as was exhibited in the case of the Irish Home Rule as well as the case of the Patrician and the Plebian while making the Constitution in the history of Rome. The same idea also goes on to explain how “economic reform by equalization of property must have precedence over every other kindo of reform” (including political and social reforms) is but a “gigantic illusion”. If you were to tell me how an individual being economically sound contributes to the society better by being more active in the economy and thereby contributing more to the output, I’ll beg you to read in between your own lines and acknowledge the purpose of it all, whether it is to create a consumerist society or to create well being for humankind. For instance, as the Mckinsey Global Institute estimates, “Achieving complete gender employment equality would mean the global GDP soaring by 26% by 2025”! So, social reforms essentially drive the economic reforms and not the other way round. 

All in all, to me, intelligence is a function of how sensitive you are to everything that’s happening around you, how empathetically you make your decisions in these set ups, and ultimately how woke you behave when trying to act as individuals coming out of your family’s narrative. If you have secured a place in a highly competitive course but make a conscious choice to let your actions make fellow humans suffer the same evil that they suffered at your family’s hands, you need to rethink about the purpose of education. If you are a 99.something percentiler and make a conscious choice to weed out the concept of ‘sustainability’ from your lifestyle, your education has failed.

As was pointed out in the book ‘The Goal’ by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, if we are not aware of what the goal is, all our efforts will be futile. Increasing the efficiency of one particular department by using robots does not always move us towards the goal of making more money for the corporation. And for these reasons, we must be thoughtful about making our choices. About thinking if profit maximization should be the end goal of a corporation. Of whether or not students should be a decisive part of the ideas towards which society is leaning.  Of whether students be given the power to direct our country right when they’re learning or when they’re done with education in a socially isolated environment.

I firmly believe that philosophy should be a part of the ethos of education systems. For instance, it’s only after you read Plato and Aristotle and compare their theories with the present day financial transactions that you realize how far we’ve come and from where. It’s only after you read concepts like ‘interest on money being a pointless manipulation’ that you begin to formulate and improve ways to make the present system better through mindful and more humane ventures. It’s only then that leaders of the world community and also at various positions in the corporate, in the education system, in the developmental sector make choices to not exploit the resources that we have per se but to help them replenish.

On a concluding note, I’d like to quote Bertolt Brecht – “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

Let us pledge to make the Indian student community less politically illiterate and more empathetic.

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[The article is the winning entry for the Article Writing Competition organized by Public Policy Club, IIFT. ]

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