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Rohit Dhankar

An article titled “A lesson in hidden agendas” written by me was published in The Hindu on 26th March 2016. Mr. Parth Shah of Centre for Civil Society and a great champion of so called school choice has written a rejoinder to that article, titled “Ideology Masquerading as Research”. This note is a response to Mr. Shah’s rejoinder.

The central objection to my article that Mr. Shah has is stated clearly, that the article “is a case study in ideology masquerading as research”. Further down Mr. Shah repeats his ideology argument or the term ideology nine more times in his less than 600 word rejoinder! Therefore, it is appropriate to make an attempt to understand this term ‘ideology’, even if it takes some effort and space.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) distinguishes two kinds of concepts of ideology, (and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy makes similar point in somewhat different language). One kind, it calls “liberal concepts of ideology” and broadly defines them as “an action-oriented system of beliefs” on authority of Daniel Bell. The SEP notes “the fact that ideology is action-oriented indicates its role is not to render reality transparent, but to motivate people to do or not do certain things”. Other kind of concepts of ideology it calls “Radical concepts” which can roughly be characterised as “… ideology, far from being a science, … or any set of action-oriented beliefs … is rather inherently conservative, quietist, and epistemically unreliable. Ideology conserves by camouflaging flawed social conditions, giving an illusory account of their rationale or function, in order to legitimate and win acceptance of them.”

Mr. Shah seem to be taking ideology in the second, radical and pejorative sense. It may give him a momentary satisfaction to dub my article as an ideological attempt to “camouflaging flawed social conditions” etc.; but he should know that this concept of ideology comes from the Marxist tradition. And in that tradition it is argued that “ideology exists to protect … social conditions from attack by those who are disadvantaged by them. Capitalist ideologies give an inverted explanation for market relations, for example, so that human beings perceive their actions as the consequence of economic factors, rather than the other way around, and moreover, thereby understand the market to be natural and inevitable.” (Emphasis added) It could be easily shown that Mr. Shah’s rejoinder to my article is doing exactly that.

I, however, will take the term ideology in the first sense where it is “an action-oriented system of beliefs … to motivate people to do or not do certain things”. This could be read as a neutral definition of the term, and could work for or against disadvantaged people depending on the content of those beliefs. In this sense my article is certainly to motivate people to do something—protect and improve the public education system; and “not to do certain” other things—to handover our education system to private profiteers. There is no masquerading as something else, nothing hidden, the article is plainly to argue this point, be it ideological or otherwise.

I am taking this position openly because if ideology is understood in this sense (liberal sense) then no research can give any direction for policy making without taking help from ideology. Research, in its best form, is wedded to ‘epistemic truth’; and epistemic truth alone can never give you direction for public policy without help from political values. Political values can be said to be coming from ideology. Therefore, ideology is a necessary system of action oriented beliefs and values that can use research as a tool to determine education policy. It is ideology that is the master, research is only a sub-serving tool. Mr. Shah uses an ideology that favours the market and profit making at the cost of public education, I use an ideology that favours public education and wants to guard the society from wolfish profiteering tendencies in the public education. We both are ideological in this sense, but I believe my ideology is for greater common good and his ideology is for market forces, and clams that market forces enhance greater common good.

Mr. Shah’s charge of “ideology masquerading as research” is committing the category mistake of describing my article as ‘research’. It is not, repeat—not, a research article. It is an ethical and political argument made in favour of public education and against handing over education of our children to market; it concludes “[t]he tirade against the PES and RTE is a classic case of giving the dog a bad name with intention to kill it, so that a wolf of their choice could replace it in the name of guarding the house”. The article only uses some claims from research studies, in itself it is an ethical and political argument; and uses democratic principle as the bedrock of the argument. And Mr. Shah should know that policy issues and large scale educational reform issues are essentially ethical and political. Research is nothing but an information gathering tool in such decisions. Therefore, nothing is “masquerading as research” here. It is the ethical position that the ‘ideology’ (if I am allowed to use the term) of democracy demands and supports.

The second charge Mr. Shah wants to lay at my door is “using classic debating tactic of shifting the ground” on the basis of my statement that public education system needs fixing, and then talking about problems with private schools. This is gross misreading of the article or being too attached to one’s own hopes and positions. I open my article by plainly stating that the Public Education System (PES) and RTE are under attack from certain quarters. Then, to be fair, I note that both PES and RTE may need fixing, but the attacks are still not justified. And then go on to define and refute those attacks. There is no sifting ground here, the article stays course steadily; only it does not fulfil Mr. Shah’s desire, which he cherishes on his own accord, without any indication form my article. All I can do is recommend Mr. Shah to read the article again a bit more carefully.

His third charge is that I “have low respect for the readers who are expected to believe that attack on private education is same as improving state education”. My article expresses no such misgiving at all. It is a refutation of arguments to allow and even help with public money those private schools which don’t even fulfil the norms stipulated by RTE. These schools are being tom-tomed as better alternative to PES on various spurious grounds. I am arguing against those grounds. It is necessary to take false wind out of spurious claims, and that is what I am doing, not at all saying that criticising private schools will improve PES automatically, for that one has to make separate efforts. To use my metaphor, I am in this article only trying to block the wolf’s entry so that the faithful dog gets a chance to survive and revive. This is either a deliberate misrepresentation by Mr. Shah or his failure to read the article properly.

It’s true that even after more than 60 years of independence the government schools are not doing well. But it is wrong to say that the governments attempted reforms properly and with political and administrative will. And Mr. Shah should know that public systems which are providing essential public goods cannot be abandoned simply because they don’t function well, their failure is no argument for abandoning them. We have no alternative but to improving them, including PES.

His next charge on me is that in this article I am attacking people’s choice. I am making an argument in my article that choice is not random uninformed picking up. Choice involves a deliberate well-informed judgment. That requires availability of information, understanding of the criteria for making judgment and freedom to choose. The situation in the market and society at the moment do not show much hope for fulfilling these conditions. If he wants to refute this argument he should show that these conditions are fulfilled or that these conditions are not necessary for informed choice. He is doing neither, simply repeating a market friendly slogan. Second, we do debate choices made by people, even criticise them. Choices made by people on female foeticide are routinely criticised and banned. People’s choices are not always sacrosanct, neither are they always wise. Criticising them does not mean declaring oneself wiser than others, it simply means opening a democratic debate to bring unexamined beliefs under conscious scrutiny. I wonder if Mr. Shah is aware that there may be a conflict between the parental choice and child rights as articulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that there is a huge debate whether parents can be allowed to give any kind of education that they want to their children.

Choice is more than just leaving people at the mercy of capital dominated market. And therefore, private schools have to be regulated. Those which do not meet the minimum norms have to be closed down, exactly as quack doctors’ clinics have to be closed down. And that is not at all attacking people’s choices, it is protecting them from evils of the unregulated market.

Mr. Shah writes “[t]he one idea he does offer to improve state education actually trivialises the problem itself.” Then he claims that I am saying that changing a few clauses in the RTE act will solve the problem of educational quality, and grandly declares me out of touch of reality of government system. What can I say on this? Should I declare him out of touch with printed word? As anyone who reads the whole relevant paragraph will immediately see that it is making an argument against the cries of repealing RTE because it does not specify norms for learning standards. In this paragraph I give examples of many other legislations that are not implemented properly and may have lacunas, and we do not repeal them, we improve them by amendments and try to implement better. Here I am not talking of improving the learning standards by amending the RTE, I am talking of removing the lacuna in the text of RTE. Any normal reader will get that straight, but not Mr. Shah. Careful reading is a cultivated habit, not an ideological posturing.

Mr. Shah’s unfounded tirade continues, he accuses me of quoting from a research report “students in private schools are less likely to belong to low caste groups…which means that they are less inclusive.” And then inferring on this quote’s basis that “the repeated claims of better learning in private schools are unfounded.” And asks grandly “How does that follow?!” Well it does not, not at all, not from this quote; and no one claimed that. This paragraph in my article quotes two studies for two different purposes. One is a claim that the researchers “find insufficient evidence to claim that children in private schools outperform those in public schools in India… better data are needed”. No better learning in private schools follows from this. The lines Mr. Shah quote are just an additional punch to show that they are also non-inclusive to boot. Again he is accusing me for his own misreading!

Then Mr. Shah says “India Human Development Survey shows that students are more likely to be ‘beaten’ in government than private schools.” And goes on that form this it cannot be demanded that they should be closed, rather that they should be given time to improve. Good enough. And then comes the million rupee question: “If government schools should be given time and resources to do better, why private schools not be given the same opportunity.” Should we equate government schools and private school then? Should we equate slow progress in eradicating culturally accepted corporal punishment with non-compliance in infrastructure and teacher qualification norms as per RTE? The government schools should be given time and resources: 1. because it is the constitutional duty of the state to provide good education to every child, and the state under the greed and pressure of profiteers cannot be allowed to absolve itself from that duty. Private schools have no such duty. 2. Because public education system is the only mechanism to reach the last child. Private education neither wants nor can do this job. 3. Because education requires development of democratic values and social concerns in addition to marketable skills and private schools cannot do that. 4. Because the state funds are public money and the state schools are public property, it is the same owner. Private schools are owned by individuals and taxpayers’ money cannot be given to them for their own benefit. 5. Because state schools are duty bound to admit every child. And private schools are not. 6. Because even if they are not performing too well at the moment they are not out to cheat the public by false promises; and private schools are. The private ventures cannot be built on public funds, therefore private schools cannot be supported by the government money.

This question of Mr. Shah brings his ideology out in the open, and it is the second kind of ideology, not the benign one I have used in my argument earlier.

Then Mr. Shah as per his own admission finds a gem. He thinks that he has clinched the argument. He quotes part of my argument in which I claim that “PES conceptually can be better if managed well” in inculcating democratic and human values, “while the private system has it in its DNA” that it cannot inculcate those values “as it has to make profit on fees. For low-end private schools to do better on this count is impossible even in theory.” I say this after making an argument that to make profit at low fee, the private schools necessarily have to indulge in unethical practices of cheating the teachers, cutting corners, monopolising business of textbooks, school uniforms, transport, etc. Children studying in such atmosphere and listening to their parents discussing these issues, seeing the conditions of their teachers are socialised into a certain kind of ethics, which is unhealthy. Low fee charging private schools have no way of getting out of this problem as long as they want to make profit. Now, this argument may be wrong or right. But it is not said that it is based on research. It is a speculative argument on the basis of amount realised from the fee, possible school expenditures and possible profit margin. Mr. Shah accuses me of saying that it is based on research. I don’t claim that at all. What is based on research in this argument is that “The teachers” in many such schools “are paid less than minimum unskilled labour wages legislated by various State governments”. Rest of the argument is normative and speculative. However, it is a sound argument, not easy to dismiss. And this argument comes to refute the private lobbyist claim that per-unit cost for learning achievement is less in the private schools. This is a spurious and untenable claim as does not count the hidden costs.

Since I argue in this manner Mr. Shah thinks that he has an irrefutable argument in his punch line, which goes “[m]ay be Mr Dhankar should tell that to Mr Azim Premji whose for-profit business pays for his ideological battles”. I think Mr. Shah himself should communicate this gem of an argument to Mr. Premji. As far as I know, Mr. Premji understands the difference between business ventures which are legitimate places to make profit (like WIPRO) and education where he is not trying to make any profit at all (for example APF schools and the University).

There is one claim of his with which I am in complete agreement: “ideology trumps people”, certain kinds of ideologies don’t even allow people to read properly. And as far as my limited understanding goes, it is necessary to understand a position before one can fruitfully criticise it. some ideologies makes people forget this basic point.