Privilege, opportunities and ‘merit'

The success of our policies of reservation should be judged not by their focus on provision of opportunity but on whether they deliver equality of outcomes.

May 29, 2011 11:09 pm | Updated 11:10 pm IST

The spate of recent suicides by Dalit students studying at leading educational institutions calls for introspection. Affirmative action to promote education and employment for historically non-dominant groups is practised in many parts of the world and achieved through targeted recruitment, preferential selection policies and quotas. File Photo

The spate of recent suicides by Dalit students studying at leading educational institutions calls for introspection. Affirmative action to promote education and employment for historically non-dominant groups is practised in many parts of the world and achieved through targeted recruitment, preferential selection policies and quotas. File Photo

The spate of recent suicides by Dalit students studying at leading educational institutions calls for introspection. Affirmative action to promote education and employment for historically non-dominant groups is practised in many parts of the world and achieved through targeted recruitment, preferential selection policies and quotas. Special treatment for women and people of African origin in Scandinavia and South Africa respectively are examples. However, the issues are not only complex but also clouded by one's personal background and emotively charged by one's politics.

Intelligence and populations : Recent research has challenged the prevalent dogma related to human intelligence. The unitary concept has given way to an acknowledgement of the pluralistic nature of intelligence. A realisation of the reduced role of heredity and the increased impact of nurture has changed perspectives. The role of environment in explaining the differences in the intelligence of population groups finds much greater acceptance. Our inability to assess the diverse aspects of intelligence accurately at a single point in time using particular instruments is acknowledged. Psychometrically measured intelligence is only one of the many contributors to social outcomes. It accounts for less than a quarter of scholastic and occupational achievement.

It is well recognised that schooling itself impacts on intelligence scores, which are heavily influenced by the quality of teaching. There is a realisation that social circumstances outweigh test scores in predicting future performance and that differences between racial and social groups are better explained by environmental variations. There is increasing recognition of the fact that the human brain is extremely plastic, has a remarkable capacity to change and that new connections are constantly being made based on experience and learning. Many researchers would argue that most tests of intelligence measure past learning rather than the potential for scholarship. Tests of aptitude face similar criticism. Current entrance examinations for Indian universities are essentially screening tools to reduce the number of applicants rather than to test intelligence or aptitude. They favour those who have mastered rote memorisation and have past exposure to exercises in pattern recognition. In fact, sceptics would contend that most tests, which document the inequality of intelligence and aptitude across social and racial groups, do so by intent and design.

Opportunity and class : The Constitution clearly recognises the need for social justice and has many provisions to produce an egalitarian society. However, this dream remains on paper. Social class seems to determine destiny and is decided at birth. Social circumstances, rather than talent or hard work, determine outcomes. Income inequality has worsened and the climb up the social ladder has become steeper. School leaving results are more closely tied to parental income than ever before. Nevertheless, academia and professional organisations seem to prefer and perpetuate class privilege in their recruitment policies.

Equality of opportunity does not happen in societies as grossly unequal as found in India. The barriers preventing the ascent of the underprivileged have grown higher, while the safety nets provided by rich parents that prevents even the dimmest of privileged children from slipping have grown stronger. One's educational qualifications, or lack thereof, determine socio-economic outcomes, health and longevity. Socio-economic privilege and deprivation transmit inequalities in life from one generation to the next. The “cycle of disadvantage” results in intergenerational transmission of poverty and deprivation, while the “cycle of advantage” results in continued benefits and privileges. The concept of social class identifies inequality; caste is often a proxy for class in the Indian context.

Intersecting odds: The combination of class and caste is toxic with an exponential increase in difficulty for those at the bottom of the ladder. On the other hand, being on top of the class and caste divide provides unimaginable benefits. Over-coached but mediocre applicants from private schools win over bright but underprivileged students from substandard institutions, despite the fact that the latter's achievements are personal triumphs against high odds.

Universities and institutions of higher learning are, by their very nature, elitist. They take students who have benefited from 14 years of schooling and give them a period of what has been described as a transformative experience. Students who have not been exposed to good schooling are massively disadvantaged, a situation which does not vanish as they walk through the hallowed portals of our universities. Pursuing a quest for knowledge, mastery of abstraction, self-discovery, development of creative and intellectually rigorous thinking and understanding practice are daunting tasks for those from less privileged backgrounds. While lowering university entrance grades may give a leg-up for many disadvantaged students, it also throws them in the deep end. Young people who have succeeded against odds, instead of being proud, sink into despair and feel intimidated by the confidence of their better-educated and privileged peers. Some stagger from examination to examination, increasingly demoralised. Others drop out or become angry with their institutions for failing to provide support. The indifference of the faculty, most of whom come from a privileged class and caste background, adds insult to injury. Discrimination, both subtle and not-so-subtle, continues to plague their career and life. The focus of university programmes on the elite and the blindness of the faculty to the need for additional support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds often seal their fate. In fact, it is a miracle that many of the less privileged actually make it through our universities.

Political rhetoric and ignorance : The poor performance of students selected through affirmative action is often equated with a fall in educational standards. The loss of opportunities for those who have traditionally enjoyed privileges rankles and infuriates. Their subsequent frustration spawns arguments against reservation policies. The fact that only the privileged minority benefited for decades from subsidised education at many of India's leading educational institutions is often forgotten. The lack of opportunities for the majority, the lower castes, in these temples of learning is dismissed. The relationship between privilege, opportunity and so-called merit is disregarded.

The impact of reservation policies, viewed from specific social and economic backgrounds, can be considered unjust for particular individuals. However, national guidelines, which focus on issues facing the vast majority, are justified in fostering education and employment opportunities based on social justice for the less privileged.

The way forward : Programmes which uphold affirmative action should focus on not only providing equal opportunities but aim for equality of outcomes. The underprivileged from the lower castes and the adivasis have to fight against odds to make it. Educational opportunities must start long before entry into universities if they are to have any real impact. The issues are much more than just about schooling. A child who has newspapers, books, television, computers and internet access at home is already privileged, irrespective of his or her schooling. While the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is an attempt in the right direction, it has a long, long way to go to provide the kind of opportunities available to the ‘upper' class/caste children.

Many reports have documented the fact that the only countries that nurture talent, regardless of class, are those where there is equity in incomes and lifestyles. The Nordic countries do best, because the social ladder is short and easy to climb while the social penalty for slipping is much less. The U.S. has the least social mobility and the steepest ladders, making the “anyone-can-make-it” American dream a myth for a significant proportion of the population.

There are many highly successful examples of reservation producing quality students and professionals, while maintaining standards of teaching and practice within institutions of higher education in India. The health system in Tamil Nadu is also an example of the success of such a strategy. Such successful affirmative action is undergirded by continued support of these students throughout their training. Such empathy is only possible with a strong belief that equal opportunity for all will result in equal outcomes across racial and social groups.

The concept needs to be supported by a commitment from the institutional administration and faculty to support those who have made the minimum necessary grade required for academic success through the course, provide an environment which encourages individual growth and attempt to overcome the pernicious effect of long-term deprivation. Support, counselling and mentoring are crucial. Many students from institutions that have provided these have gone on to compete internationally. Successful institutions are motivated by social uplift rather than political considerations. These institutions recognise that “merit” is often more about available opportunities rather than ability or aptitude. The country needs to provide reservation and quality education for its deprived castes and classes and support them through the entire process. The success of India's reservation policies should be measured by equality of outcomes.

(Professor K.S. Jacob is on the faculty of Christian Medical College, Vellore.)

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