The education system in India today is crumbling, and there are different opinions on the reason for its failure. Some opine that the Right to Education Act, 2009 has been a challenge for many schools while others say that the lack of trained and qualified teachers is the biggest concern of all. Some are of the belief that excessive focus on input rather than the outcomes is the sole reason for this collapse. Others blame the low spending on the sector by the government.
From the current spot that Indian school education finds itself in, two things are evident: one, the State has failed to deliver, and two, the Indian society (“Bhartiya Samaj”) has found solace in passing the buck to the State.
Education and the community
Fra Paolino Da Bartolomeo, an Austrian traveller who spent his years travelling in India from 1776 to 1789, writes a fascinating account in his book ‘Voyages to the East Indies’. He writes of a schoolmaster in Malabar who “receives every two months, from each of his pupils, for the instruction given to them, two Fanon or Panam. Some do not pay in money but give him a certain quantity of rice, so that this expense becomes very easy to the parents. There are some teachers who instruct children without any fee and are paid by the overseers of the temple or by the chief of the caste.”
In a report on the state of indigenous education in the Madras Presidency in 1822-25, the collector of Cudappah explains how children “who are so destitute as not to be able to procure instruction in their villages could subsist in those to which they are strangers, and to which they travel for 10 to 100 miles with no intention of returning for several years.”
“They are supported entirely by charity … not received from the instructor but the inhabitants of the villages. They receive some portion of alms daily at the door of every Brahmin in the village, and this is conceded to them with cheerfulness, which considering the object in view must be esteemed as a most honourable trait in the native character…”
The collector further mentions, “We are undoubtedly indebted to this benevolent custom for the general spread of education amongst a class of persons whose poverty would otherwise be an insurmountable obstacle to advancement in knowledge.”
Both these accounts of our past teach us three critical things that we have neglected in our education system today.
One, despite the acute poverty that teachers found themselves in those days, their primary responsibility was to provide education to children, and it was complemented by the innovative ways the community found to compensate its teachers. At no time was education sidelined for issues such as lack of infrastructure or even inadequate funds – something which we see happening quite often in contemporary India.
Two, the community, instead of blaming the establishment, took the responsibility of teaching its children in their own hands.
Three, the “cheerfulness” with which the community accepted its children speak volumes of the ethos and reverence that education had at that time.
However, it will be foolish to assume that such a system may be replicated in modern-day India as it is; nevertheless, this spirit of contribution, cheerfulness and reverence of the community towards its children’s education should be adopted to the maximum extent with full vigour.
The State, the community and the future
Today, the State has the means of bringing about a change in India’s education scenario. The community, on the other hand, with its feet firmly grounded in the spirit of its past, has the vision to initiate this change. What needs to be done is for the means to meet the vision. This will occur when the community starts teaching its children again – not as a mere tool of sustenance but with a sense of innate responsibility and reverence towards them, with the full backing of the Indian State. The United States, for example, has the Peace Corps, an independent agency of the government, where motivated change-makers immerse themselves in a community abroad, working side-by-side with local leaders to tackle the most pressing challenges of their generation.
India needs to have its own ‘Teach Corps’, a force of volunteers, both young and old, committed to the cause of truly educating India again. As the current Secretary of the Department of School Education, Ministry of Human Resources, Anil Swarup, rightly emphasises, quality solutions can come from the community, but the scale has to originate from the State. To invite the best of minds in the community for at least two years, the State must incentivise, support and celebrate their services. These services should be recognised and cherished, with the community hailing the volunteers as champions who made a difference. The government must go full throttle to invite change makers to lead this vision. It must not wait any longer.
This change, however, like any other, will not come without reservations from certain quarters: the bureaucrats will oppose it, teachers’ groups will thrash it, the judiciary will question it, the State itself will resist it. There are valuable lessons to be learnt from the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship (PMRDF) and Ek Saal Desh Ke Naam, two such well-intentioned instances where this “should be” Sangam could never materialise.
The march forward
True, the challenges are manifold but let us not be bogged down under their weight. Swami Vivekananda famously said, “Give me 100 energetic young men and I shall transform India.”
The time has finally come for these men and women to come forward and take charge of educating India again, and the day has come for the State to nurture and celebrate these agents of change. With the spirit of the past, let us move forward towards the glorious future of an educated India.
The author, Naman Bansal, is a Research Associate at Vision India Foundation working on school education reform. a keen interest in education entrepreneurship.