Our universities are witnessing a great deal of turmoil. Having straddled the world of both schools and universities, as it were, it seems to me that there are a few basic issues involved here. The first is the almost total disconnect in our school system between the curriculum and the reality of this country. School curriculum, for the most part, is totally focused on board examinations. Of course we teach our children all there is to know about physics, math, history and what-have- you. But do we teach them about the bitter caste divide that plagues our country, about the spectre of famine that stalks large parts of our land, about gender sensitivity, about the possibility of atheism as a choice, about the rights and emotional needs of the LGBT community?
Equally important, do we teach them to ask questions, or do we teach them only to passively receive our wisdom? An oft repeated complaint from teachers to parents is: “Your child is extremely disruptive in the classroom. He is forever asking questions!” We do not, because apart from our obsession with board examinations, most of our teachers are woefully ill-equipped to deal with these issues.
Most teachers hide behind the fig-leaf of “where is the time for all this?”, when the truth is that a well-informed and imaginative teacher can easily weave these lessons into the delivery of the regular curriculum. Schools also do not deal with these issues because few schools dare “rock the boat”. What if the parents complain? Of course, some of the “better” schools have debating societies which “debate” these issues. But, as the name suggests, they remain at the level of a “debate”. Once the trophy is won (or lost) the issue is forgotten. And, in any case, how many students do these debates touch? A handful, who, rather boringly, appear for every debate on account of being the school’s “best” debaters, whilst the conscripted audience yawns through the proceedings.
If the teachers are ill-prepared, the principals are even worse off. This is because today, most school managements want “managers”, not “leaders”. I was helping a few schools recently in their search for a principal. In the hundreds of CVs that I saw, there was a monotonous similarity. All of them had the statutory MA and BEd. Some even had a PhD. They all claimed considerable “experience”. Of what? Doing the same routine things over and over again.
Not one had dared to step off the trodden path and explore uncharted territory, professionally or in their personal lives. What kind of leadership will these principals provide? What kind of dreamers and visionaries will they inspire?
And there is all this talk about India being a nation of entrepreneurs and “start-ups”. What does all this have to do with what is happening in our universities today? Lots. From the cocooned world of school, the adolescent finds herself/himself, almost overnight, in the wonderfully unfettered world of university. Here, she/he is swept up in a turmoil of ideas, influences and ideologies. For someone who’s been discouraged from asking questions and forming an opinion, this transition can be a painful one, riddled with minefields. The young mind can too easily be caught up by peer pressure, rhetoric, macho imagery and powerful demagoguery.
I disagree strongly with those who say that university students should not be involved in “politics”. As budding leaders, they have every right to be not only informed, but also involved. But this involvement must come with a deep understanding of the issues at stake — an understanding that is possible only if we “catch ’em young” and train them to think for themselves.
It is also a well-established realisation amongst educationists across the globe that the new world order demands “skills” more than “content” — skills such as problem-solving, creative thinking, team-work, leadership, empathy. In our country, the child is forced to dive into an ocean of content almost from nursery. By class 12, the volume of content is frightening, leaving little time for anything else. Add the pressure of preparing for a multitude of entrance examinations, and any thought of “skills” goes out of the window.
One possible way forward, but one which will require considerable political will and imagination, would be to scrap the current class 10 board examination (which is not taken very seriously anyway) and have the final board examination in class 11 instead. The “Plus Two” system was introduced with the hope that students who were not really academically inclined would opt for the vocational courses on offer and not bother about formal university. Given the Indian penchant for a “degree” and our aversion for anything remotely resembling manual labour, the system never really took off.
Class 12 should then be treated as a “college preparation year”, the curriculum for which could be drawn up in conjunction with universities. This curriculum, broadly speaking, would try and develop all the skills a good university requires of its students — critical thinking, analytical ability, research, reference . In the process, students would develop the maturity to be independent thinkers and take informed decisions. University life would become
that much easier and meaningful. Of course, a lot of the fine print would need to be worked out — but surely we can begin by just debating this issue.