Research and Advocacy Wing
Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas
by Pawan Gupta
For the past ten years SIDH, a voluntary organization, has been involved in providing educational opportunities to those deprived of it, in the rural areas of Tehri Garhwal district in Central Himalayas. SIDH started its first school in Jaunpur block of Tehri district, as a direct response to the needs of the community. As a result of its responsiveness to the community many changes have taken place which are reflected in SIDH’s programs. Over the years, SIDH has grown from one to 18 primary and pre-primary schools (in villages where there are no government schools).
During the course of SIDH’s work it was observed that most parents were unhappy with the impact of the present education system upon their children. SIDH gradually began focusing on issues of quality and relevance and exploring the links between micro and macro issues, between education and the larger sociopolitical, cultural and historical context within which it operated. Today SIDH attempts to identify the assumptions underlying the current system of education in the country and is experimenting with alternatives to formal education.
The present study hopes to gain an insight into the relevance of the present education system in the country by examining people’s perceptions regarding education. It has been a tremendous learning experience for the research team. During the research we realized that perhaps our colonial past forced us to be servile for so long, that we have forgotten to speak out what we really think or feel. Instead we speak what we presume, others would want to hear. Our aspirations are molded by the dominant classes and instead of challenging them to change their ways we tend to imitate them. Therefore it is difficult to find out the real needs. A question asked one way may give a certain kind of response, while the same question asked in a different manner may evoke a response quite contrary to the previous one. These contradictions and conflicts need to be examined sensitively, keeping in mind the historical reasons for such behavior. This study not only examines the contradictions and conflicts but also throws light on how aspirations and attitudes are molded by modern education. If the responses are examined deeply then the sharp contrast between the responses of urban, rural; male, female; and illiterate, literate reveals many significant issues.
The idea of the research project was to find out what people thought about education. So the obvious area of exploration was their definition of a good school and other questions along similar lines. We had discussions with varied groups from both rural and urban areas along these lines. The initial responses were not unexpected. They have been recorded by other research projects that have restricted themselves to matters of access like enrollment and dropout rates (and their reasons); infrastructure needs etc. Had we also left it at that, even then, it would still have been a valid research project. Our findings and recommendations, in that case, would have been restricted to the problem of access. But we probed further and in the course of this pursuit we stumbled upon the contradictions which is perhaps the lot of a society mesmerized into imitating without questioning. These conflicts and contradictions reveal that it is not access but relevance, which is a major concern of the people. It is quite possible that the problem of access will be resolved to a large extent if we make necessary changes according to the real needs of the people. This is possible only if the people are heard sensitively keeping in mind the fact that Indians, by and large, have a different way of responding. They are not as forthright as their western counterparts. If deeper examination is not done the conclusions could be quite contrary to what is actually being said.
For us this study was a very humbling experience, because our findings in a way only confirmed what Gandhiji knew without having undertaken such elaborate exercises more than 80-90 years ago. The heartening thing was that our so-called ‘uneducated’ women and men still speak the language of Gandhiji. This study brings out the clarity of thought and lack of dilemmas among the rural, low income, and illiterate groups, compared to the urban, high-income, literate groups. Perhaps, the sentiments of the people or ‘community’, need to be taken seriously by our policymakers.
In considering the findings of this study, it is clear that people are not happy with the present education system in India and its exclusive focus on imparting information. They want a value-based and economically relevant system just like Gandhiji did; one which will be a means toward making their children responsible and useful members of society. Yet, as the study indicates, there is immense social pressure to continue sending children to schools, regardless of the quality of education received. Why have Gandhiji’s ideas on education be given so little attention and not seriously implemented in independent India? Why is it that most parents failed to make a connection between the results of education that they desire to see in their children and the kind of schools which are going to lead them there? Significantly, there was little comment on the qualitative aspects of schools such as the curriculum and pedagogy. People agreed on the need for change yet they did not have any positive suggestions on how to improve the system.
Gandhiji often talked about the difficulties of trying to change the system of which one is a product, as well as of the paralyzing effects of modern education and State-domination on the ability to envision alternatives. The close links between dominant ideologies of ‘development’, ‘progress’, market economics and modern education makes it very difficult to defy conventions and work toward alternatives. In fact, the dominant system is so pervasive that the alternatives that exist are isolated and can never become the norm. Yet, as Gandhiji believed, it is still the responsibility of individuals who have a sense of perspective and are able to see the larger picture, even if they are a part of it, to continue to fight the tide and provide examples of the possibility of alternatives.
We fought and overthrew foreign domination but it remains in a different garb. Physical domination is no longer necessary – the control of the mind and sophistication in technology make it possible to exert even greater influence without physically dominating the country. Education plays a vital role in influencing the mind, which is confirmed by this research. The contrast between the answers of women and men on the one hand and the ‘illiterates’ and the ‘literates’ on the other are most revealing. Professor U. R. Ananthmurthy had once said, “Thank God for illiterates of my country. It is they who have kept India still intact and alive.” We could also say so after this experience. Perhaps it is good that we have a high rate of illiteracy, not only because we will then have less people, in Prof. Saran’s words, to be ‘exorcised of false learnings’ but also because we will have more resources to learn from. The highlights of this study are some profound and simply articulated suggestions by rural illiterate women.
We feel there is a flaw in the design of most research studies: the researcher tends to exclude his/her own class from the research sample. This could be because of the focus on ‘objectivity’ in the western scientific paradigm or because of our colonial past which excluded the elite from the majority. It is normally the more advantaged people like us, who conduct most of the research and it is not surprising that their findings and recommendations are very much in alignment with the world view of the powers-that-be. Perhaps this is because we who conduct these studies have false notions of our own superiority and a superficial self-confidence, and are not aware or willing to examine our own biases and our past. Hence the research often leads to conclusions which collaborate the views of the ruling elite. In this study we often had this problem. Our own guilt and prejudices kept creeping in unnoticed and only an honest self examination, which was both disturbing and painful, helped us overcome the hurdle. We are indebted to Dharampalji whose books and essays helped us to constantly introspect, which was essential for gaining the insight, which we have tried to bring out in this study.
It is generally believed that the issue of access is more important than quality, but the two are entirely different issues. On a journey, it is more important to check whether we are going in the right direction, before we start counting the number of miles we have covered. If the direction is wrong then we will surely end up perpetuating our initial mistake. Therefore the issue of quality and relevance must be given priority. It is in this context that SIDH decided to make a systematic inquiry about the perception of the community about the present education system and also their expectations. This would enable SIDH to work towards making education a tool for social transformation.
Many of the findings in this study challenge the inherent assumptions behind the 18 core indicators identified under the Education for All 2000 Assessment exercise being carried out globally. The country reports are to be presented in Dakar, Senegal in April 2000. This study hopes to draw the attention of the policy makers to the issue of relevance in education instead of only focusing on the quantitative aspects of education.