Education: A beautiful tree—reflections on sustainability, rights and responsibility

In October 1931 Mahatma Gandhi made a statement at Chatham House, London, which created a furore in the English press. He said, "Today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and left the root exposed and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came with his programme - every school must have so much paraphernalia, buildings and so forth. Well there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British administrator which show that in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people.”

Gandhiji could not, at that time, respond with statistics to the controversy that followed but subsequently researchers and writers went into the records, mainly British, to reconstruct the history of education in the 18th and early 19th century. The picture that emerges from the research work in recent years is, in light of the above, a resounding confirmation of what Gandhiji said in London. We now learn, with almost a sense of disbelief, that a large part of the country did have a sustainable education system, as late as even the early years of the 19th century, and that this was systematically demolished over the next 50 years or so. The present education system is, in effect, a legacy of the colonial rule. This system has perpetuated the notion that traditional societies were seeped in ignorance, superstition and rituals for thousands of years and lived a life of abject poverty which was caused by an extreme form of social discrimination and exploitative socio-political systems. So deep has this notion seeped into our collective consciousness that it colours the belief of both the providers of education as well as of recipients and aspiring recipients in our society.

Factual records gleaned from the notes of British officials in Indian provinces testify to a reasonably good education system operating in the country, and one which was sustainable. Contrary to the prevailing view among the educated classes in our country, the Indian education system at the end of the 18th century compared more than favourably with the system in England about the same time. In all respects—be it the number of schools and colleges proportionate to the population; the number of students; the quality of teachers; the financial support provided from public and private sources; the high percentage of students from the lower castes, and the range of subjects taught—the Indian system of the time was in a better position than the British. We need to appreciate these facts, not with the intent of glorifying the past or to condemn colonialism merely but to help us sort out our goals and strategies today.

I draw upon Shri Dharampal's book. The Beautiful Tree, (Biblia Impex, Delhi, 1983} extensively to demonstrate this. Shri Dharmpal, a noted Gandhian and historian, has done extensive research in India and abroad and draws mainly from British records of 18th and early 19th centuries. He draws heavily from the reports and writings of English officers (not historians) like Thumas Munro, John Bright, William
lam, William Digby, Dr. G.W. Leitner and others.

In 1812-13, Thomas Munro reported that for areas of the Madras Presidency "every village had a school". Later as Governor of the Madras Presidency he reviewed reports to estimate that "there is one school for every 1000 of the population".

William Adam, a former Baptist missionary turned Journalist, in a report in 1835 observed that every village had at least one school and that there seemed to be about 1,00,000 schools in Bengal and Bihar in the 1830s.

G.L.Prendergast, Bombay Presidency council member stated in 1821 “that in the newly extended Presidency of Bombay "there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more."

In his report on indigenous education in the Punjab, Dr. G.W. Leitner, one time Principal of Government College, Lahore, and for some time acting Director of Public Instruction in the Punjab, stated that "there was not a mosque, a temple, a dharmasala that had not a school attached to it." These observations made in 1852 show that the spread of education in the Punjab around 1850 was of a similar extent to that in Bombay.

The Madras Presidency and Bengal-Bihar data concerning the background of the taught and the teachers presents a kind of revelation. The data is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, which give the ''impression that education of any sort in India, till very recently, was almost exclusively restricted to the twice born among the Hindus and, and among Muslims, to those of the ruling elite. The actual situation was different, if not contrary.

In the districts of Madras Presidency and two districts of Bihar for which data is available, it was found that children from communities termed 'Sudras' and the castes considered below them predominated in the thousands. In the Tamil-speaking areas of Madras Presidency, 'Sudras' and 'AtiSudras' comprised 70-80 per cent of all school going children. Among the Oriya-speaking areas of the same Presidency, the percentage of children belonging to these two castes was 62 per cent, in Malyalam-speaking areas it was 54 per cent, and in Telugu-speaking areas it was 35-40 per cent.

There   were 11,575   schools with 1,57,195 children in Madras Presidency and there were 1,094 colleges. Nearly 25 per cent of all children used to go to school and a large percentage of children studied at home. The number of children doing home schooling in Madras district alone was 26,446 while in the city 5,523 children were going to school.

The situation in India with regard to education in 1500 (and it should be remembered that it is a greatly damaged and disorganised India that one is referring to) does not in any sense look inferior to what existed in England then; and in many respects Indian schooling seems to have been much more extensive. That the number of children going to school actually declined during the British period is revealed by one data of the Malabar area. Between 1822-1825 there were 11,963 boys and 2,190 girls going to school. Of these girls 1,122 belonged to Muslim families. In 1884-85, when the population had almost doubled, the number of Muslim girls going to school declined to only 705 while the population of Malabar had increased two-fold.

Why did the "beautiful tree" wither away? The answer needs to be explored when we think of strategies of education. Dharampal in his book speaks of "the sophisticated operative fiscal arrangements of the
Pre - British Indian polity, through which substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purposes.....which made such education possible; and it was
the collapse of this arrangement through a total centralisation of revenue as well as political structure that led to decay in education, economy and social life." The fiscal arrangements which directly hit
the support that education received from the community also demolished some traditional public arrangements—such as medicine, feeding of pilgrims and other services. We also must understand that before the early 19th century, when the system started collapsing, there was more or less a uniform standard in education throughout the country. We need to distinguish here between 'disparity' in standards (which is on a vertical plane, more to do with class distinctions) and 'diversity' (differences on a horizontal plane; differences arising out of the need of a particular region or community). In the traditional system there was diversity but hardly any disparity: Different textbooks and sometimes different subjects were taught in different regions of the country. But the disparity in the education system which appeared in the country after 1835—when schools based on the English pattern were first established on a large scale—was non-existent till then.  

Prior to the arrival of English schools, private tuition for children, especially girls, was popular with the affluent classes, but there was not much hierarchical difference between one school and another. Glaring disparities started only when the British, at the invitation of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, started opening English medium schools and giving them state recognition. This move automatically derecognised the indigenous system and created glaring disparities within the education system.

The new schools began the process of alienation from one's culture, country and indigenous value systems, which had far reaching consequences. An alien system which gets state and social recognition serves two purposes. On the one hand, the people lose confidence and the will to sustain their own indigenous systems as it is perceived to be an inferior system. On the other, they find themselves incapable of managing the new system perceived to be superior. This leaves the people completely shattered. They let the old system wither away and the state does not replace the old with the new. Hence they end up having no system at all.

The new system initiating English education in India did not immediately take root. Meanwhile, over the years, people even forgot that they were capable of running and sustaining a perfectly sound education programme. They started depending more and more on the state-run programmes, which they found of little relevance to their daily lives. They lost interest in learning and gradually the Indian society, became more illiterate and less educated—as the English language became the measure for worth in both these'.

A change has set in over the past two or three decades. People have once again become aware of the need to educate their children, in particular the male child. But the reasons for this regeneration of interests are very different from the academic motivation of yore, monetisation of the economy being the primary cause. Education is considered important not only because the aspirations of the community here, as elsewhere, are being shaped by the market and urban middle-class values, but also because white collar jobs and 'education' have' got irrevocably linked.

Where once education had meant freedom and building of interlinkages in social relationships, now it has come to mean the one and only route to jobs. A migrant worker compares the gross income of Rs. 1,500 or Rs.2,000 that he can earn in a city with the potential income in his village and finds the latter to be a pathetic amount. He does not take into account the cost of living—the amount spent on rent, transport and entertainment in a city. The non-monetised economy of the village and its benefits are also ignored, such as the cost of buying grain that is grown in his own fields, the advantages of living close to the family and the like.

Statistical data substantiate that migration has increased in areas where 'education' has spread. People are moving away from their traditional occupations and going away in search of white collar Jobs. Village land lies fallow because the educated youth refuses to work in the field. Aspirations have changed and so have values. The present education system is largely responsible for this mindset and for moulding the thinking in a way that all worth is measured only in terms of money.  

The demand for English as a medium of instruction in the schools has increased sharply with the democratic ethos. What was once accepted as beyond reach is now within aspiration. Education and in particular, knowledge of English, is perceived as a means to getting a job and helping in the fulfillment of aspirations towards the good life of the urban middle class. And the myth that such a lifestyle is attainable, is sustained by the middle classes across the world despite the fact that governments have to drastically reduce their country's work force, especially those under the Structural Adjustment Programme enforced by the IMF and the World Bank. The Army, one of the largest employers, for instance, has cut recruitment drastically, as also have public sector undertakings. Mechanisation, automation and the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) are unavoidable facts of life. And yet, people are seduced by the dream of higher and higher standards of living. Those of us who campaign for universalising primary education (or Education for All), usually argue that without 'education' we would be left behind in the race of 'globalisation', and that we will miss the opportunity. But few of us are willing to consider the crucial question— where are the work opportunities in this increasingly shrinking global village? Are not the opportunities shrinking visibly across the spectrum?

In our work with children, women and men from the villages, and young people who teach in the schools and outside, Society for Integrated Development of the Himalayas (SIDH) has learnt some important lessons. During our interactions with the various constituents and observing the influences and rapid changes that are coming into the lives of ordinary people, we have been compelled to address fundamental questions of 'who is education ultimately serving' or 'what is education'.

In the course of our training programme in gender sensitisation, there is an exercise which we go through. The purpose of the exercise is to sensitise youth towards the gender bias inherent in most advertisements of consumer items. But a spin-off we gained from this exercise was a valuable insight into the mind-sets of the youth, their aspirations and also the complete subjugation of the mind—in which modern post-colonial education plays an important role.

In this exercise we show an advertisement from a popular Indian magazine in which there are a man and a woman, both Indian but dressed in modern western clothes. We ask the participants to then write down their impressions of these two people in the picture. In the course of 15 training' programmes in which more than 300 youth participated, we have seldom come across anyone who has not used the two words—'educated' and 'civilised'—to describe the models in the picture. Of course, they use other words as well but these two words recur as the most common of the adjectives. When we ask them why they described the models as such, a very interesting and revealing discussion begins.

On deconstructing the terms 'civilised' and 'educated', what emerges are two lists' symbolising 'development' and 'progress', on the one hand, and 'backwardness' on the other. All traditional systems of knowledge, and traditional systems be it food, clothes, architecture, medicine, culture and language come under the second category of 'backward' and all that is 'modern' and urban or western, depicts 'civilised behaviour'. It is interesting that during this deconstruction when we start talking of public figures, they too are divided along these very same lines. The urbane and sophisticated politician, and the top ranking, elegant: bureaucrat are on one side—that of the 'civilised'—and on the other side are the earthy 'grassroots’ politicians and provincial personalities. What is interesting is that honesty and integrity are no criteria for these categories. People known for being corrupt are on both sides. Integrity is inconsequential to 'civilised' behaviour. And this exercise is undertaken not by those who have never been to school but by those who have had at least eight years of formal schooling.

Two entirely different perspectives represent the concerns of the community. One belongs to the more exposed, and better off people in the rural community who are demanding the same kind of education that is enjoyed by the privileged classes in the big cities. This demand has given rise to a mushrooming of the so-called English medium schools in rural areas. They are expensive private schools with non-Indian names like St. Xavier's, St. Joseph's Cambridge or Daffodils. The child is required to wear a coat or a tie as a distinguishing symbol. This improves the marketability of these schools among parents, as well as camouflages the poor quality of teaching they offer. Most unfortunately, the children never get to learn the kind of English their parents yearn for. Yet the number of, such schools is increasing every year.

The second perspective belongs to a group, comprising mostly of women and people who are considered unprogressive. They regard the present education system as reducing choices instead of increasing them and feel that the 'educated' become alienated from land and traditions, leaving them 'neither here nor there'. This group does not have a dominant voice and is perhaps dwindling to a minority now.

It would be interesting here to take note of the World Bank's thinking based mainly on the 'human capital' view of education. Inherent to this view is the belief that 'in many developing countries there are no avenues to learning other than schools. Whereas youngsters in advanced countries can avail themselves of television, libraries, newspapers, neighbours, and educated members of the family, those in developing countries must learn in school or not acquire any human capital at all.' (Solomon: The Quality of Education and Economic Development: A World Bank Symposium, 1986). This view, of course, negates the knowledge of traditional societies and narrows down the definition of learning and education to a very small area, which aligns itself with the human capital view.

Contrary to this is the view held from time immemorial that education is that which brings freedom. Perfect freedom lies in perfect harmony of relationships. Thus we in SIDH defined education as that which gives information about the self, society (including friends and family) and the environment and then helps to build a harmonious relationship among these three elements. Only holistic education has the potential of doing this.

Diversity, equity and happiness go hand in hand just like disparity and competitiveness go together. Education which builds confidence, which encourages diversity and thus works against competition, can help build a world based on the principle of equity and justice—two principles essential for human happiness. Education is that which empowers and brings happiness to the lives of people. The human capital view can never do this, because it treats people as resource, an instrument in furthering the economy. The rights-based approach to education needs to incorporate this view of education and strongly counter the human capital view of education.

Any effort to make education more relevant must look at linkages that education has with the way our lives are being shaped. Education cannot be seen in isolation. The link between the education system and the values it imparts and the dominant world-view it promotes needs to be recognised. The dominant view of education is largely responsible for the present paradigm of development which in turn has created more misery and disparity in the world than ever before and an environmental crisis of unimaginable proportions.

Despite the best efforts of the multilateral donor agencies, in the last 50 years the misery in the developing countries has increased in direct proportion to the support given by the developed world. A few examples: In Argentina in 1970 the percentage of people living below the poverty line was 8 per cent. This increased to 13 per cent in 1986 during the 16 years of SAP. In Chile this percentage in the same period increased from 17 to 38 per cent. A review by the IMF of 19 low-income countries which had undergone SAP (structural adjustment programmes) found that their current account deficits averaged 12.3 per cent of the GDP before adjustments and were 16.8 per cent in the most recent years and the external debt had grown from 451 per cent of exports to 482 per cent (The Economist, May 7-13 1994).

According to the same issue of The Economist "of the $12 b or so which goes every year to buy advice, training and project design, over 90 per cent is spent on foreign consultants." The real harm that is done is the belief that local resources for management and advice are not available thus grievously undermining the confidence of local people in their own abilities. The use of the English language plays a critical part in this. The ethnic majority in every region of the world is excluded by this one act of keeping the language of communication restricted to a foreign language to which only the middle classes now have access.

This matter needs to be considered seriously while talking of education, because education is closely linked to the medium of communication which has to do with language. Do we have the means to ever make an average child in a Third World country as competent in English as her counterpart in an English-speaking country, or as her more privileged counterpart in her own country? Can we ever hope to achieve equality by making the English language accessible to all children in the Third World countries? Or is the balance better achieved by strengthening the diversity of languages?

The development paradigm as well as education policies must strive towards empowering multicultural societies, which is possible only by strengthening diversity and, as a corollary, by discouraging competition and mono-culturalism. Unless we recognise this connection between education policies and the developmental and economic paradigm we will not be able to address the real issues in education policy.

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