Written by Ankita Banerjee.

January 17th 2017 marked the first anniversary of Rohith Vemula‘s death. It brought to the limelight questions of caste discrimination in education, the importance of person-hood and clinical depression. But most importantly it opened the grounds for debating how the socio-cultural fabric of education has consistently and substantially failed Indian students.

Disturbing reports of students in higher education committing suicides have become daily news.  Students are reeling under anxieties of loan repayments, the stress of examination and the uncertainties of a handsome pay package at the end of an arduous journey. This constitutes a critical juncture where we ought to reflect upon the question: why do students push themselves on this path? How long are we going to be satisfied with the medical reports citing “depression” as the cause pushing the students to take their lives?

We need to assess what value to assign to education. The critique of the colonial system of education in the 20th century rested on it being excessively focused on manufacturing resources fit for the job market. As a response to this, the transformative potential of education was identified by the national leadership, in its capacity to build ‘national character’ to counter the hegemonic dominance of colonial rule. The systematic and sustained effort in this regard is borne out by the educational work of two canonical figures of the time – Tagore and Gandhi.  While the latter sought to make education more accessible to the children of India, the former brought them closer to nature and to their real selves in his ashram vidyalaya infused with a spiritual ambiance.

A century later we are still grappling with dominance, albeit of a different nature as we have come to assign only material value to our degrees. Success is measured by the propensity of the student to attain material prosperity once out of the university campus.  A careful observation of the scenario would reveal the all-encompassing presence of the ‘market rationale’ in the realm of learning. The way universities advertise themselves in newspapers is a clear instance that captures the trend to perfection. An illustration is cited below:

Shobhit University stands for going beyond the established standards and nurtures technocrats and managers so that they have a global vision and insight in their chosen fields, and are globally employable in merging areas with special focus on 21st century professional requirements

The goal of university education is reduced to employability without any mention of building individuals or ensuring personal growth. There is no denying that employment is important but the instrumental relation of education with it is disturbing. This is especially because what is missing in the picture is a general sense of appreciation, let alone sympathy for those who would want to think of it differently. The label of  ‘a failure’, ‘a coward’, ‘a loser’ are labels readily available and easily assigned to those whose promising lives, hopes dreams and aspirations are extinguished through suicide. Such phenomena do not arise from nowhere but are products of a society deeply rooted in bias, in meaningless competition, in intolerance, and at worst – apathy.

I use this space to reveal the possible links that a certain kind of education and a particular understanding of it has with the idea of well-being. A sustained erosion of humanitarian values becomes an essential pre-requisite of a system of education that emphasizes scientific and technocratic specialization at the expense of a deeper understanding of social systems, languages, and cultures. An incorporation of these in the curriculum arguably, would automatically teach the pupil a certain set of values and would not necessarily require the inclusion of moral ethical education separately to inculcate values of sympathy, appreciation, and tolerance for diversity. These are crucial for a difference ridden society to function and to curtail tendencies of violence born out of intolerance. There is a certain aggression discernible in the ways in which information – which also plays itself in the guise of news nowadays – is shared. The system that thrives on information overload, its instantaneous transmission, consumption and dissemination (facilitated by the use of advanced technological tools and devices) has made us more informed, more aware but this has come at the expense of being educated.

Amassing information without critical reflection and questioning, priding in the ability to be citing facts and figures in their statistical accuracy does not reflect the capacity to have fully grasped the implications that it has on society, as well as on ourselves. The process is blatantly discriminatory in terms of its accessibility – it excludes those who are either not well versed in using technology or who are not affluent enough to afford the access to it. In either case, they are left behind in the race to accumulate rather than assimilate, to know and not learn.

As a student of history, I seek solace in the past, in the ideas of a man who wrote and spoke ardently about education, Rabindrantah Tagore. He showed us that the transformative potential of education lies mostly in its content and methods.  It teaches us to embrace the whole, the permanent and the real through sacrificing those that are partial, transient and unreal. Through this, we would find happiness and not simple pleasure. An ideal to strive for perhaps while browsing through the grimness of newspaper headlines, but the poet offers a gentle reminder – ‘if no one responds to your call, walk alone… walk alone’.

Ankita Banerjee is a Doctoral Candidate at the King’s India Institute at King’s College London. She is a recipient of the Tagore Centre Studentship. Image Credit: CC by Indian Education/Flickr

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