A malfunctioning system in need of repair

September 14, 2014

Published in The Hindu http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/a-malfunctioning-system-in-need-of-repair/article6408307.ece

Rohit Dhankar

We may have to seriously re-evaluate our notion of quality itself and then match the systemic efforts…

The unsatisfactory quality of elementary education has been a serious concern for India at the least for the last four decades. Many quality improvement programmes have been devised and implemented at State and national levels; but they all left the quality lower than they found it.

The access in terms of children attending the schools has certainly improved. But it is mainly due to increased awareness of parents and mushrooming private schools that cash in on the parental aspirations.

The BJP, in its election manifesto of 2014, has promised to “meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education” among other things.

Since then there are periodic announcements from HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding curriculum improvement and policy review to ‘reorient education’ to meet the aspirations of the people. However, if we really want to improve the quality of education for all, we may have to seriously re-evaluate our notion of quality itself; and match the systemic efforts to achieve what we understand by it.

The notion of quality

The popular discourse regarding quality today revolves around reports of certain large-scale achievement tests in language and arithmetic like ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) and the world-wide PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) for ranking; even though India does not participate in the PISA. These may indicate an important part of what needs to be achieved, but they also mislead efforts for improvement of quality in education. One, by narrowly focussing and therefore emaciating the very idea of quality; and, two, by creating an impression that one can improve scores in these tests by directly targeting such improvement. Education is a complex affair, the visible achievements often are the result of subterranean processes and belief systems operating in the system. Unless we pay attention to them, direct teaching-to-test may produce no substantial results.

In efforts to rethink quality we should note that, like everything else in education, quality also has a political dimension. Education systems are geared to larger social purposes. The definition of quality we will create for, say, turning India into ‘make-in-India’; whatever that might mean; may be very different from the one we create for ‘inclusive India’. There is no necessary contradiction between ‘make-in-India’ slogan and notion of ‘inclusive India’, but the emphasis does matter; and it is possible to forget the latter in the energetic pursuit of the first. The emphasis on inclusiveness in our education policy needs not only be safeguarded but also be deepened. The ‘make-in-India’ without inclusiveness is neither achievable nor worth striving for. This political orientation of education is an essential part of quality.

The second aspect of quality are the twin problems in our education system which have been lamented in virtually all committees/commissions reports and curricular documents since Independence — one, the plague of rote learning devoid of understanding; two, the disconnect between education and life.

The large-scale testing completely ignores both these aspects, and the noise created around the scores takes the attention away from the essence of education. Israel Scheffler, the well-known American philosopher of education while discussing teacher’s control over learning wrote: “It is where his control ends that his fondest hopes for education begin.” Our education, as it is implemented in the classrooms today, does not provide scope for creativity and independence.

The third, an essential aspect of pedagogy for meaningful education, is the child’s right to “meaning making” and confidence in the truth of what is learnt. This confidence cannot rest on the authority of the textbook or the teacher. It has to be cognitively earned by the child through constructing her own justifications for what she learns. In our zeal for teaching everything as fast as possible we bypass the creative processes of justification that makes confidence and relevance possible.

The fourth — our pedagogy has to learn to respect the child as a person. Corporeal punishment and insulting behaviour in the classroom are already punishable offences. But respect for the learner as a person goes beyond this. It is acceptance of her individuality and judgement. The child’s questioning, failure to understand in the classroom, scepticism and rejection of what we want her to believe, etc. all are part of her self; and the teacher has to engage with them with full respect for her cognitive and moral development.

Unless we see quality in this larger sense our attempts will bear little fruit.

Preparedness of the system

Is our education system prepared to take forward quality understood in this larger sense? No. We have to work towards this preparedness. Some of the most important aspects of this preparedness could be identified as below.

One, we need to create conviction in the political elite, administrative structure and education functionaries to look at education in a broader sense. And to ram the point home that better education is essential for both ‘inclusive India’ and well as for ‘make-in-India’.

We have to face the truth that as a society we do not exhibit concern for providing equal opportunity of good education to all. This would require a large-scale churning in society for consensus-building on this issue. The government, universities and apex institutions like NCERT and NCTE can take a lead in this; and substantial cooperation from media will be required.

Two, we have to recognise the inadequacy of our teaching force; both in terms of numbers and preparedness. Most of our teachers are unaware of curricular demands on them and see learning as the capability to repeat what is written in the textbook. This is because many of them are untrained and most of the trained ones have had very bad teacher education. This demands an immediate programme of in-service teacher education. Unfortunately in-service teacher education is totally discredited by the massive programmes like the District Primary Education Programme and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. We need to understand clearly the reasons why our attempts in the past failed. We should refrain from discarding the very idea of in-service teacher education based on our experience of lacklustre implementation of ill-conceptualised programmes in the past.

Three, we need urgently to sort out the mess that is pre-service teacher education today. The debate on this issue has to go beyond duration of B.Ed. courses and who can and cannot teach there in. We have to reconceptualise teacher education which is coherent with our vision of education and educational quality. At the moment there is a wide gap.

Four, at present we have reasonably good curriculum framework. However, it is already about 9 years old and there is no harm in reviewing it. But that review process should neither be motivated by political agendas like bringing in unfounded and ill- understood ancient cultural elements nor by aligning school curricula with higher education and research needs. Every educationist worth his salt understands that rationale of school curriculum rests on building foundations of being human and participation in democratic life. If it is geared to preparing people for IITs, IIMs and goalposts defined by IITs elementary education will lose relevance in life of most of our children and will also fail to reach those very goalposts.

Five, we need a massive programme for education functionaries right from headmasters to the State-level administrators to understand education, educational reform and build conviction that the government can actually do it.

And finally, we should free education from the whims of the all-knowing demigods called IAS officers. We urgently need Indian Education Services. It could be started with select academics and IAS officers, but finally has to become an independent cadre geared to educational needs of the country.

One understands that the above analysis points to massive changes. But then we have an old, malfunctioning system to repair; no one should imagine that it can be done by mere slogans or cosmetic changes.

Very quick comments on religious conversion

September 8, 2014

Rohit Dhankar

Some religions are traditionally proselytizing religions. Islam and Christianity are aggressively so. [‘Aggressive’ here means “having or showing determination and energetic pursuit of your ends” and not necessarily physical aggression.] Their scriptures, histories, and religious leaders agree with that; however, their common believers may not. Some religions have been traditionally non-proselytizing. Hinduism (if that qualifies as a religion) has been so. But right from the attempts of Arya Samaj in 1920 people have been trying to ‘convert’ Hinduism itself to a proselytizing religion; initially with the names of ‘shuddhi’ or ‘ghar-vapasi’, but now also in the full-fledged sense of the term. The Hindu zealots now differ only in capability to effect conversion, not any more in wish to do so.

Conversion with conviction is part of the personal autonomy of an individual and can neither be banned not be morally condemned. Attempts to convert people of other faiths through intellectual persuasion and helping form convictions is, again, part of liberty of through and expression; and so is a perfectly legal and moral act in a democracy.

Conversion through deceit, emotional blackmail, lure of any kind and force is certainly morally condemnable and legally punishable.

The motivation to convert others to one’s own faith might be attributed to several things. In Islam and Christianity it is a duty of a true believer to spread the good word to ignorant people, of course, for their own good, as their religion being the only true religion. [Recently in Vatican III the Roman Catholicism has officially recognized that religions other than Christianity can also be true religions. But whether that recognition reduced the enthusiasm of the Church for conversion is yet to be seen.]

Religion has always been closely connected with economic and political power. Therefore, much of the desire to convert others also comes from non-spiritual and very worldly motives. In my personal view almost all attempts to convert spring from such motives.

All people who try to convert others to their own faiths either live by a bag of false beliefs (either due to intellectual deficiencies or delusions), or are plain hypocrites. Or both.

The act of conversion on the part of the proselytizer is an act of spreading falsehood and delusion; therefore, involves epistemic violence. Necessarily involves emotional violence and disruption in human relationships. It is an act of acquiring power over the other.

The act of conversion on the part of the convert is an act of loss of self-confidence, taking leave of independent judgment and submission to the other’s will. It is a degradation of humanity; however, most people will not agree with this. To establish it one needs a more detailed argument.

Therefore, all who are interested in dignity of human being, secular state and democracy should be very concerned with all attempts to convert. Religious conversions have had very profound impact in human history and will have very profound impact on the future of human species. At present though the idea of conversion is a morally accepted idea, still it should be debated. It should not be, and cannot be, dealt with legalities.

It is a battle of wits between those who recognize the dignity of humanity in its autonomous judgment and those who want humanity to submit to a false set of dogmas. Therefore, it has to be dealt with analysis, exposer and critique. It has to be defeated intellectually.

Love jihad: going beyond hype and dismissal

September 6, 2014

Rohit Dhankar

Published in Deccan Herald http://www.deccanherald.com/content/429358/is-love-jihad-real.html

The RSS has been raising the issue of Muslim men converting Hindu women to Islam through marriage in a planned manner as part of their strategy to increase Muslim population in India. They raise this hype under an emotive slogan of ‘love jihad’; an oxymoron of a name if there really is such a strategy. Because jihad is an all-consuming total war against the infidels, has no place for love. What is being referred to as ‘love’ here is perhaps ‘love’ feigned with malicious intentions. So why then the RSS is propagating this misnomer? But then, the RSS was never known for accurate use of language or literary brilliance.

Be what it may, they are bent upon creating a hype around this so called love jihad, and the secularists are simply dismissive it. Some have expressed their view on social media saluting the ‘love jihadis’; and I am sure they must have their reasons for their cheers for them, while others simply invoke the Indian Constitution ─ all adults have freedom to marry whomsoever they want. On one side is the Sangh brigade preoccupied with making a hype of this issue, and on the seculars and political parties dismissing the very existence of any such phenomenon.

Neither of the stances mentioned above help one getting clearer on the issue. If an ordinary citizen wants to sense this war of words, how can one about it? I will outline one commonsense possibility below.

Are more Hindu women marrying Muslim men than Muslim women marrying Hindu men? This should be the first question in tackling this controversy. The evasive responses like publishing lists of well-known Muslim women who have married Hindu men are not effective. Simply because there is an equally long list of Hindu women who have married Muslim men. One needs to ask the RSS and BJP if they have any data to substantiate their claims. So far the only data that we have comes from Kerala where the CM has stated in the assembly: “[A]mong those converted to Islam during 2009-12, as many as 2667 were young women of which 2195 were Hindus … As against this number of young women converted during 2009-12 to … Hinduism were … two.” If we are to take these data as correct, then the instances of conversion through marriage and romance cannot be simply dismissed. Unfortunately, we have no data from UP which is at the centre of the controversy at present. However, RSS can claim that the issue when first raised in Kerala got immediately dismissed. Data came into picture later, we are facing a similar situation in UP. Given the communally sensitive situations in UP, many might buy RSS’ argument.

But does that mean that there is an organised effort from any section of Muslim community? Does that also mean that a systematic forcible conversion is involved? The police investigation reports in Kerala and Karnataka do not endorse any such claim. If the RSS has any credible evidence they should place it for public scrutiny. So far no such evidence is presented. Therefore, their ranting against the Muslim community for their organized effort at present seems to be baseless.

However, there may be people in the Hindu community who may get worried about the phenomena of Hindu women in recognizable numbers marrying into Muslim community. They need not be necessarily communal for holding such a view. Even if there is no ploy or an organized trick, they might think that this phenomena will have long term social and political ramifications against the interest of the Hindu community. All religious communities tend to get uneasy when sizeable numbers of their community members convert to other religions. Therefore, a non-threatening simple expression of the concern cannot be condemned.

Even if such a concern by community may be legitimate, the response from RSS in this case is inappropriate and dangerous. Theirs is not a simple non-threatening expression of concern. If it were, they would have been analysing the socio-economic conditions within Hindu community rather than spreading ill-will against the Muslims. Many of young women might be marrying Muslim men because of high demand for dowry among the educated Hindus. Or maybe the young Hindu women no longer bother about religion and are looking for suitable life partners. Also, there is a possibility that there are not enough educated Muslim young women for educated Muslim men, so they are looking for equally educated life partners elsewhere without any conspiracy and maliciousness. Or it might simply be a matter of Hindu girls exercising their choice in a secular democratic country. None of these factors can become a basis for spreading anti-Muslim sentiment or blaming them.

Till they have solid evidence, then, the RSS will do better to concentrate their energies in reforming their own community. i.e Hindus. They can well begin with doing away with dowry, respecting their women better, allowing them to marry men of their own choice rather than forcing them into marriages with men chosen by their parents.

But the RSS does not seem to be willing to analyse the cultural practices and conventions within the Hindu community itself. Instead they seem to be obsessively driven by the hatred towards the ‘other’ and the desire to consolidate patriarchal control over the young Hindu women. Both these motives can be very effective in a region which already is extremely sensitive on the issue of patriarchal control over all community members and is also reeling under communal tension. The idea of loss of women to the ‘other’ in a community that has a macho image of itself, right or wrong, and has been traditionally sensitive regarding ‘protection’ of women, is highly incendiary. And it seems that is what the RSS is gunning for. The canard needs to be countered by engagement, not by dismissal.