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West Bengal: Cosmetic reforms

EducationWorld September 12 | Education News EducationWorld

After 34 years of uninterrupted rule of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front government during which era the education system of West Bengal (pop. 90 million) — once widely accepted as the best in India — was run into the ground by CPM apparatchiks and cadres, academics and parents expected major reforms after the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress routed the CPM in the state assembly election of the summer of 2011.

But since then, the ad hoc changes decreed by the incumbent Trinamool government dominated by its mercurial chief minister, has disappointed academics in West Bengal. On the contrary, with Banerjee hell-bent on flushing out communist doctrine and hagiographies from school and college curriculums, there is growing fear of anarchy in the education sector.

Shortly after the Trinamool Congress government was installed in Writers Building, Kolkata in May 2011, Banerjee constituted a 19-member school syllabus reform committee under the chairmanship of Aveek Mazumdar, former assistant professor, department of comparative literature, Jadavpur University. One of the first recommendations of the Mazumdar Committee was to debunk Soviet communism and declare its founders Marx and Engels non persons in the history texts of higher secondary students, a suggestion accepted with alacrity by the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education Examinations (WBCHSE).

And the latest decision taken by WBCHSE and education minister Bratya Basu on July 28 is to liberalise the higher secondary exam syllabus, and encourage grades inflation so that 700,000 students who write the council’s class XII board exam “secure high marks’’, and are not at a disadvantage compared with students from CBSE, CISCE and other state board affiliated schools when applying for admissions in Central government colleges. To start with, the higher secondary examination in 2013 will span only 13 days, against the 26 earlier. “We have now framed the routine in such a manner that students will be able to wrap up written tests within 13 days, considering the wide range of subject combinations,’’ says WBCHSE president Muktinath Chatterjee.

Moreover in July, the Mazumdar Committee also recommended omitting the stories of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894), famous Bengali writer, poet and journalist and temporarily withdrawing the poetry of Sukanta Bhattacharya (1926-1947) from the Bengali K-12 syllabus on the grounds that their prose and poetry is old-fashioned and difficult for students to grasp. The opposition slammed this recommendation describing it as “politically motivated to malign history”.

Well-known educationist Sunanda Sanyal who resigned as head of the School Syllabus Committee last November, also criticises this proposal. “Students in class XI and XII should learn and read stories of Bankim Chandra, otherwise those signing up for the Bengali honours programme in college won’t be able to cope with the curiculum,’’ he warns.

Adds Prithwis Mukherjee, professor of management at IIT-Kharagpur: “The prose and poetry of Bankim Chandra and Sukanta have played a significant role in the growth of Bengali language, and society and students should be aware of their contribution.’’ However, the Mazumdar Committee recommends the more contemporary writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lalan Fakir, Premchand and Kartar Singh Duggar. “We want the syllabus and textbooks to relate to modern literature. If textbooks are unconnected with contemporary life, they become devoid of context and encourage rote,’’ argues Mazumdar.

But ad hoc changes and tinkering with syllabuses hasn’t impressed the dons of academia in West Bengal. Describing the reforms as “cosmetic,’’ Sukanta Bhattacharya, associate professor, department of economics at the University of Calcutta comments: “To meaningfully improve the quality of education in West Bengal, the state government should recruit new teachers and improve the infrastructure of institutions. Replacing a poet or writer by another is not reform. There hasn’t been any recruitment in state government colleges since the Trinamool Congress assumed office.”

“Change is always better than stasis and fiddling with marks and exam durations is an indicator of openness to change. But if reforms stop there, they won’t have much impact,” adds Prof. Mukherjee.

A timely warning. But it’s doubtful if anyone in the ruling Trinamool Congress is listening — especially not chief minister Banerjee who likes to do all the talking.

Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)

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