In Outlook India:
How, then, is education in India doing, 60 years after Nehru spoke of putting an end to “ignorance”—as well as “poverty”, “disease”, and “inequality of opportunity”? No honest assessment could be favourable. The staggeringly high rates of illiteracy, particularly among women and girls, the well-known problem of teacher absenteeism (in many areas it reaches the figure of 20 per cent), the scourge of “private tuition”—all these make the promise of educational opportunity utterly meaningless for large segments of India’s population. At one end we have the shiny success of the IITs, at the other the dismal daily reality of government schools in many urban and most rural areas. Kerala has shown that it is possible to produce virtually universal male and female literacy through an ideal-driven combination of intelligent planning and determined administration; the rest of the nation, however, has been slow to follow the slender southern state’s lead.
These well-known problems, however, are not India’s only—or even her greatest—dangers where education for democratic citizenship is concerned. With the ascendancy of the IITs has arisen a dominant conception of education that is technical, indeed mechanistic, given to force-feeding and regurgitation and suspicious of critical independence of mind. Education, in this picture, is about the implanting of useful skills that will ultimately lead to both personal and national enrichment. It should, therefore, focus on these technical skills and on the rote learning of whatever historical and political information is strictly necessary to deploy them in profitable ways. As Rabindranath Tagore once wrote of schools he knew, “Achievement comes to denote the sort of thing that a well-planned machine can do better than a human being can.” He already saw that the globalisation of the economy was leading to an educational imbalance, “obscuring (our) human side under the shadow of soul-less organisation”.