Limiting debate to 500 characters

Published in THE HINDU, 21st July 2015,

Rohit Dhankar

In April, Minister of Human Resources Development Smriti Irani described the decision to invite the public to discuss the new education policy on the government site MyGov as the “first ever attempt where an average citizen of the nation gets involved in policymaking, which has otherwise remained the preserve of a few”. The government’s move is to be appreciated, for in a democracy more participation from the people in policymaking makes for better policies — at least in principle.

However, the website limited comments to 500 characters and to an already provided list of issues. This partly censored opinion generation could at best generate only fragmented and disparate views, and contradictory recommendations from the public. While contrasting views are a sign of a healthy democracy, they still need logic and arrangement — in other words, a reasoned argument — if they are to be useful for the purpose of a broad-based discussion on education.

Second, significant arguments could not be presented in the impossibly tiny space of 500 characters — a fact that can be seen when we look at the comments on the site. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the very design of inviting public views in this manner favoured fragmentation.

Age of fragmentary wisdom

But this is the age of fragmentary wisdom. Society is being pushed to believe that thinking means throwing in pieces of ideas here and there, much like what is done on Twitter. These ideas, however, make sense only in a particular context. A discourse created out of such fragmented ideas only makes for half-baked arguments. The policy deliberations being conducted by the present government, whether by design or due to a lack of understanding, are nothing but such a fragmented and fuzzy cloud of ideas, Twitter-age wisdom.

A general contextual background of our culture and polity is missing. The assumption that we can see our cultural, social, political and economic needs in the same light is wrong. Tweeting makes some sense but it always remains at the level of piecemeal opinion. It creates an illusion of sharing opinions, but the real arguments behind the opinion and the intent of the participants remains opaque. Providing a context is vital to build a coherent argument and gain consensus on important issues such as education.

Policy, according to the Oxford dictionary, is a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organisation or an individual. It is used to generate specific activities or actions, and it is also used to judge the acceptability or otherwise of particular suggestions and recommendations.

The MHRD hopes to derive such a policy framework from a series of deliberations it has planned. MyGov declares that the Ministry has formed a group whose objective, it states, is “to formulate a new education policy for the country through an inclusive, participatory and holistic approach”. In addition to the ‘discussion’ on the website, the Ministry plans to have nationwide consultations on the basis of a “pre-defined questionnaire survey form”. The group that has been formed, though, is a mystery — its members are unknown to the very public that is supposed to give its opinions on the new policy.

Faulty methodology

There are at least two serious problems of methodology in formulating policy in this manner. One, Twitter-style opinions need to be interpreted accurately, but the interpretation has been left to the same mysterious group mentioned on the site. Interpretation requires a framework of general ideas, which has not been discussed with or revealed to the public. Therefore, these opinions are open to manipulations to suit pre-decided policy guidelines. This means that a small, chosen group’s preset decisions may be legitimised through an ineffective public discussion.

Two, with no basic guiding principles of consensus-seeking, it will become what John While, a noted philosopher of education, calls “the HCF problem”. The whole exercise will generate a list of vague and bland recommendations that crowd out contested social justice and equity issues — simply because they are contested and no easy consensus is available on them. And, therefore, the real concerns of society remain under-emphasised or totally absent.

The 13 themes chosen in elementary education make very interesting reading in understanding the scope and intent of deliberations. Each theme is introduced in 200-odd words and a list of questions given for deliberations. Most questions concern the nitty-gritty of functioning and do not necessarily have much to do with policy.

For example, in one of the questions, opinion is sought on how technology can be used to ensure real-time availability of teachers. The formulation of the question makes it clear that the issue is not whether technology should be used but how it should be used. If the question concerned the ‘whether’ aspect, it would have opened up issues such as trust, autonomy, responsibility and dignity of teachers, all important factors. But by sticking to the ‘how’ aspect, it has already decided that teachers should be strictly monitored and threatened with punishment. Thus, ‘whether technology should be used’ for this purpose can be a genuine policy issue, as it involves general principles, but deliberating on ‘how’ is a technical question that has little to do with policy and more to do with implementation. Most questions are of this nature.

It is significant to note that many already decided policies are hidden in the introduction of the themes. For example, the theme on examination reform at the school level states that “examination reforms will change the teaching-learning processes and improve learning outcomes”. This could have been an important issue to discuss whether ‘examination-led reforms’ can be successful, or whether they will encourage ‘teaching to test’ and therefore further jeopardise education for critical rationality, and so on. Isn’t one of the biggest problems of our education system the fear of examinations? But here, examination-led reform is taken as an article of faith.

I am not arguing against a public discussion of education policy; nor is my argument against deliberating on the details of issues of educational importance. Both are equally necessary to take decisions on educational policy in a democratic country. The problem is that leading questions and pre-decided themes limit the possibilities of an in-depth and fair discussion.

At present, Indian education is being pulled in three directions. One, education is being aligned with the need for economic growth. This emphasises practical skill-building and preparing an adequate workforce. The second pull is towards education for democracy and social justice. This emphasises a critical understanding of society, politics, economy and the value framework needed for a more equitable and harmonious society. The third pull, becoming stronger by the day, is towards aligning education with a certain perspective of Indian culture and history. This lays emphasis on enlarging the space in curriculum for Hindu heroes, scriptures and practices. All three pulls underline different approaches to understanding the needs of society and polity. For example, the economic pull, while emphasising marketable skills, will underplay issues of political critique and social justice. This may lead to an efficient but docile workforce and encourage consumerism. On the other hand, a sole emphasis on education for social justice, without taking care of the capabilities required to earn one’s livelihood, may lead to what the Kothari Commission Report called “armies of unemployable graduates” who will fail even to achieve social justice. And an emphasis on a partisan understanding of Indian culture and history will lead to a fragmented and strife-ridden society, which will jeopardise economic progress as well as democracy and social justice.

The government’s emphasis on Twitter-style conversations indicates a refusal to engage in any sustained discussion. By opening up the narrower issues for public debate through predefined themes and leading questions, the strategy pre-empts any discussion on real policy issues, thus leaving decisions in the hands of a chosen few. An illusion of open democratic debate has been created but the public mind has actually been bogged down in minor details of little significance.


2 Responses to Limiting debate to 500 characters

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Rohit dhanker,

    Limiting debate to 500 characters doesn’t mean that anyone will give their comment only in 500 words. there are many other ways through which anyone can give their views like personal interaction with Smriti irani. According to my personal observation any person can meet with Smriti irani


  2. rdhankar says:

    I have made several points:
    1. Limiting to 500 characters.
    2. Posing questions in am manner that obscured the fundamental issues and brings to the fore narrower fashionable issues.
    3. Making assumptions that are accepted without debate.
    4. the issue of questionnaires and interpretation of answers in a closed group.

    any researcher worth his salt knows what happens in coding answers and drawing conclusions from large amount of data. The methodology can heavily influence the outcome. The real debate, f it ever happens, will be on the draft policy. and at that time the present methodology will be used as ‘public opinion’ while that opinion will be constructed by motivated people through an unreliable methodology.

    I am not as sure as you are regarding Ms. Irani meeting everyone and also ‘listening’ to those whom see meets.


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