Dumbing down a pliable workforce

Democracies are not sustained by obedient productive units in so-called knowledge-based economies. But that is precisely what the new National Education Policy envisages

August 10, 2016 02:11 am | Updated September 20, 2016 04:35 pm IST

Illustration: Surendra

Illustration: Surendra

“Public policy,” according to Douglas Gomery, “is the making of governmental rules and regulations to benefit not one individual but society as a whole. It asks, what is the best way to conceive and evaluate policies aimed at the public as a whole and its various subgroups?” We are in the last leg of such a government-led exercise in education policy making. Therefore, it is pertinent to think about what >basic assumptions our proposed National Education Policy (NEP) 2016 uses. When he advised the Turkish government on its education reform agenda a century ago, John Dewey said working out the particular actions and steps to be taken in the reform process is possible only if the government is clear about what social purposes education is supposed to serve, and what educational aims it wants to achieve. Without clarity on these two, it would be a fumbling reform fated to be abandoned at the advent of the next new idea without achieving any results.

C. Winch echoes Dewey when he argues that if a public education system does not have clearly debated and articulated educational aims, it operates on covert aims. And that gives opportunity to the powerful sections of society to direct the system for their own benefit. The marginalised sections, thus, lose faith in the system.

Lack of clarity in articulating aims could also be an evasion exercise, as R.F. Dearden argues, so that while everyone is involved in the particular reforms, the direction is left to the chosen few.

Social purpose of education

Therefore, >a proper analysis of the aims of education in the draft NEP 2016 becomes imperative. Only then can we fully understand particular recommendations and proposed initiatives in it. The claim here is not that stated aims always determine education. It is rather that understanding covert aims is necessary to get a full grasp on action that the policy recommends. I have made an attempt to understand the aims of education in the current draft in the light of the earlier (and two) National Policies on Education — NPE 1968 and NPE 1986.

A quick analysis of the NPE 1968 and NPE 1986 reveals that the social purpose of education in both documents is closely connected with the national goals, or nation-building as some like to call it. The national goals are those of an economically prosperous nation that is democratic in character, culturally rooted but aware of shortcomings of its own culture, well-integrated internally and secure from outside aggression. They envision a pluralistic society in which equality, justice, liberty and dignity of all citizens are guaranteed. Social cohesion and fraternity among citizens is seen as an important social goal. The policy and social ethos are based on secularism and scientific temper. The NPE 1968 emphasies human resource development, or economic aims of education, but keeps in mind the potential of education in creating a democratic society. The NPE 1986 lays relatively more emphasis on individual independence.

Both the earlier policies though list the social purposes as mentioned above under the “role of education”. They are also very clear that to achieve these social purposes, education has to develop certain qualities and capabilities in learners. Only citizens with those capabilities can achieve the defined social purposes. These capabilities of individuals, or proper aims of education, include democratic values, open-mindedness, an appreciation of Indian culture, critical thinking and a sound base of knowledge that help them become active and contributing citizens. The aims or capabilities to develop in learners are connected with the social goals or vision of society.

The new draft NEP 2016 is substantially different in its vision of society, social purposes, understanding of aims of education and their articulation. It is neither overtly undemocratic nor overtly sectarian, but a close reading between the lines gives a very debatable picture.

Confusion about national goals

The first striking difference is in the vision of society. The draft NEP 2016 is almost obsessed with the “fast-changing, ever-globalising, knowledge-based economy and society” (KBES). It sees these changes as god-given and no critique of them in terms of impact on human life and well-being is attempted. For the policy, it is a fact that the forces that bring these changes are unseen and unchallengeable; therefore, all that is left for India is to go with the flow and ‘cope’ with it.

The document does mention social concerns, disparities, issues of social justice and democracy, etc.; but its eyes are fixed on what it calls “knowledge economy” and a cohesive society with a certain cultural hue. That culture is not to reinterpret or challenge or search for alternatives to the KBES, but only to wave a flag of a different colour to say, “look, we are here too”.

The authors of this document are conceptually confused about national goals (for example, in the creation of a just and equitable society), an education department’s or system’s targets (for example, to bring all children to school) and educational aims (for example, to inculcate values of justice and equality in the learners). They all are put in the same category of ‘Educational Objectives’. That in national policy gives a feeling of being directed by incompetent people, if nothing else. What the policy draft lists under ‘Educational Objectives’ are mostly targets of the education system. Educational aims are scattered all over the document, and one has to collect them together in order to understand them.

The collected aims fall under four broad categories: employable skills, cultural heritage, values and knowledge.

The thrust of the policy is clearly about employable skills. Recommendations concerning skills dominate every section. It is understandable that if society is seen as KBES, then the most important task for education is only to prepare people who can be employed in it. The aims also make it amply clear that the skills are to cope in this system, not to challenge or modify or even to lead it.

Cultural heritage is seen as the culture of ancient India. Though there is mention of cultural pluralism, diversity and tolerance, etc., what is described at one place is only ancient India’s contribution to the world of knowledge. With the authority of Sri Aurobindo there is also a hope and desire that the rest of the 21st century will belong to India, whatever that might mean. There are no overt statements that might bring the charge of sectarianism, but no indication of any other culture is given; the characteristics that are listed are ones claimed for ancient Indian culture.

Interpreting the ‘responsible citizen’ Almost everything is mentioned in values, from justice and equality to punctuality (a KBES value, perhaps). However, a close reading of the passages where these values occur, leads one to notice qualifications where citizenship and freedom are mentioned. The education under this policy will endeavour to “produce” “responsible citizens” who use “freedom responsibly”. If one reads this in the light of an overwhelming emphasis on employable skills, knowledge for KBES and a complete absence of critical thinking (mentioned twice in passing), then the citizen who seems to be desired is one who is largely amenable to the state and political power, who has full faith in the state’s goodness, and accepts the social structure. There is no place for a citizen who feels responsible if the state and society perpetrate injustice on large sections of society. No place for a citizen who makes a noise, agitates, and opposes government actions and policies. It is a citizen who is more concerned with social cohesion, peace, and is tolerant towards the state.

The knowledge as envisaged in the policy draft is almost completely the one required for KBES. That is the knowledge to be imparted to deal with a changing skill environment and life-long learning of skills, to prepare for the workforce and to be productive. The knowledge which is to be generated is that which is applicable in employable skills. Indian traditional knowledge seems to be the only exception as it is needed for an awareness of cultural heritage.

The knowledge which is required to understand the world, natural and social, to understand human life, to appreciate human achievements in aesthetic fields, for sheer intellectual delight, etc. is not indicated at all, as every single mention of knowledge is also associated with the knowledge-economy or knowledge for skills.

Knowledge to gain insight into human existence, to enter the complex ethical world, to make independent judgment and to decide what is worth living and dying for has no place. The knowledge to decide when to support and appreciate a state and the government, and when to resist and oppose it, is not required. In short, the knowledge to become a rationally autonomous being and still be completely embedded in the whole of humanity is conspicuous in its absence.

In conclusion, one can say that it is a policy to gear education to producing pliable citizens who work as the government says, believe it, obey it, produce but do not think and do not question. It is a policy to craft an education system that is to dumb down the citizenry. It is time for India again to remember that a just and functioning democracy squarely depends on citizens who can think clearly and critically, and who can act on their convictions in the face of risks. Democracies are not sustained by obedient productive units in so-called knowledge-based economies. However, that is precisely what our new NEP 2016 envisages.

Rohit Dhankar is Director, School of Education, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and Academic Adviser, Digantar, Jaipur.

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