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Many miles to go

P. Guha-Thakurta
An education institution does not become ‘elite’ because it charges the highest tuition fees, or if its students study in air-conditioned premises or if every student has a laptop or personal computer. A truly elite institution teaches its students to understand reality and to appreciate the world around them. It imparts not mere information or knowledge but a bit of wisdom as well. It becomes an elite institution because of the superior quality of its pedagogy and because it strives to attain the highest standards not just of teaching but of education in the broadest sense of the word — that is, the complete and holistic development of an individual’s personality so that he/ she becomes a sensitive human being.

To become productive and efficient is one part of the goal of education. To become aware of what is happening around you is another. These are but two small aspects of the whole. Education is supposed to make you sensitive. A sensitive person is one who is aware of her/ his place in society and strives to contribute to its progress. This is easier said than done. To be able to achieve such a lofty ambition, a person must be willing to sacrifice — to be willing to give up a certain amount of personal benefit in favour of gains to a larger number of people.

The well-known American writer Ayn Rand believed in the "virtue of selfishness" — in fact, this is the title of one of her books. Born Alissa Rosenburg in 1905 in St. Petersburg, her parents’ properties were taken over and they were hounded out of Russia after the 1917 revolution. Anything close to communism was anathema to her and she went to an extreme to promote the cause of capitalism in her writings. But free market enterprise too has an underbelly. Education, for instance, if left entirely to market forces would deprive many among the poor of the right to learn.

Certain education institutions claim their students are being taught to become true citizens of the world. These institutions contend that they train young people not merely to survive but prosper in the newly-emergent competitive, globalised work environment. However, such claims are usually advertising hype and little else. It is sometimes said that certain non-resident Indians are out of touch with what is happening in the country of their origin. Those who are even more ignorant and naïve than such NRIs are RNIs or the resident non-Indians who are far removed from the real India, which has more than its share of the poor and illiterate.

Too many people have forgotten the old imperative of ‘simple living and high thinking’. But those who run the rat race in the hope of being classified as successful by a section of society can end up feeling empty and unfulfilled and without a sense of satisfaction for all their achievements. Good education leaves you hungry for more, for education is a life-long process. The day you think you know it all, you might as well be dead and gone.

Many young people who have the privilege of studying in so-called elite education institutions are not aware of the fact that one out of three individuals in this nation of more than a billion people doesn’t know how to write or sign her name. What never fails to strike a foreigner the first time she sets foot in this country are the amazing contradictions and the sharp inequalities in Indian society — an injustice which is regarded as almost natural by some Indians. As a report prepared in April 2004 by US financial services bigwig Goldman Sachs observed: "India is often characterised as a country of contradictions. This idea is exemplified by the popular phrase that India accounts for close to a third of the world’s software engineers and a quarter of the world’s undernourished."

In 2000, the proportion of the population of India over the age of 15 with no education at all was as high as 44 percent — though it was an even higher 72 percent in 1960 — compared to 18 percent in China, 16 percent in Brazil and one percent in Russia. India’s school dropout rate at 53 percent is the worst in the whole of south and east Asia. This is mainly because elementary and primary education in the country is very inadequately funded. An important reason, though not the only one, for the high dropout rate is the inability of local government authorities to provide a nutritious mid-day meal for students in primary schools.

A 2003 report of the World Bank had pointed out: "Social progress in India has been uneven. Education indicators have improved markedly… For the first time since independence, the absolute number of illiterates in India declined between 1991 and 2001. Literacy rates, particularly for women, went up, enrollment rates of primary-age children rose and the gap in the enrollment ratios of boys and girls narrowed." In other words, while the picture is not uniformly pessimistic, as a nation we have a long distance to travel before we can expect to be accepted by the rest of world as a developed country.

Some states within the Indian Union have shown the way — after Kerala, states like Mizoram and Himachal Pradesh have achieved considerable success in spreading education. But the situation in some of the larger states, especially those in the Hindi heartland, is pathetic. India is the youngest nation in the world. Its future depends on its youth. But Indian society has not been able to spread the benefits of development evenly. Our foremost educational institutions churn out doctors, engineers, computer professionals and managers who are comparable with the best in the world. A large percentage of the students who have studied in them, prefer to leave the country and work in developed nations. Talk to them about ‘brain drain’ and they will promptly reply that it is better to go abroad instead of letting their brains run down the drain. As for educating the poor, the less said the better.

(Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta is director, School of Convergence, New Delhi and a journalist)

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