Rethinking Education in India

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA            Spring, 2007

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India

            There were 18 cows on the bridge today. No, it wasn’t a stampede. It was nap time. In groups of 3 or 4 they lounged on the sidewalk across the bridge’s entire expanse, which is not more than a city block or so. All the cows and bulls took up posts on the side facing the sun. As I passed in a rickshaw at the usual sedate speed, I observed several of them twitching in a spurious attempt to loosen a fly from its perch on their stretched black, white, or patched hide.

I wish I could draw, because the following cartoon series came to mind: A newly born calf drops from its mother’s womb and looks up warily at her, and then all around, finally spotting a Hindu temple not far away, its fence strung with marigold garlands in bright yellow-orange and crimson. “Thank, God. That’s a relief”, says the calf, droplets of sweat falling from its wrinkled brow.   “This time I’ve come back as a cow in India.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have recently returned from Aligarh Muslim University, in Aligarh, four and a half hours by train from Lucknow. I understand that Aligarh is famous for its lock-making industry but I saw no sign of that, arriving as I did at 8:00pm. I got off the train and found, to my surprise, a tall young man coming straight for me. “Dr. Cas-t-l-e-ton?” he queried. I responded appropriately, without correcting his pronunciation, which was a task aborted by my tongue as he relieved me of heavy bag and backpack. “How did you know me?” I asked. “Oh, they said you were the only woman like you on the train.” Okay, maybe we shouldn’t go there, or maybe he meant to phrase that slightly differently. Suffice it to say he knew which car I’d be on and I was the only European type who got off, or, according to the passenger list, had been riding at all.

Soon, Naveed had transported us by car to one of the extension offices where they hold some ELD type classes and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthere I met my first Nehru look-alike. By that I mean, a distinguished Indian gentleman in the classic Nehru suit and hat, but with the addition of a prominent nose and trimmed beard. So iconic was the experience that I ought to be able to recall his name, but instead I must resort to his business card. He is Professor A.R. Kidwai and in addition to being a Professor in the Department of English, he is also the Director of the UGC, Academic Staff College at Aligarh, which is a partner to the department at the University of Lucknow which hosted my tour as a senior English Language Fellow. One of the other faculty members told me Dr. Kidwai also has a visiting-professor position at Leicester University in UK.

Despite the short duration of both my presentations and the visit, Aligarh proved a revealing forum. I had a chance to talk one-on-one with various professors, both the seasoned and the still enthusiastic. As a result, I must revise my arrogant “better teacher than thou” attitude of previous letters. The system in India, which even their Knowledge Commission admits is a century-old albatross around their respective necks, has succeeded in creating a web of interlocking inefficiency that denies both the professors and the students that full list of options we are so used to. The curriculum, in Literature, is so loaded with texts in some years, that the use of cram notes and publications is almost the only way to synthesize the material sufficiently to pass the exam. And the exam is 100% of the student’s grade, so interactive activities that do not support the exacting nature of those exams are seen as superfluous. One student was brave enough to rise up with a comment/question following my presentation and say that he would like the opportunity to experience an interactive learning approach in the classroom, but with all the reading he has to do, he does not have time. Lecture and cramming are the essential tools of learning in this system.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATeachers bemoaned the fact that students do not come to class, but when the exam is the only measure of assessment and they can learn the material better from a manual than from a professor who may or may not be gifted, the result is often an empty classroom. Hope does emit a few rays on the educational horizon. That same Knowledge Commission has thoroughly lambasted this system, more so even than I, by which one exam, an exam that measures only a students’ ability to memorize, determines their mark and their academic future. The Commission has called for vast reform by which the annual exams would only count a portion, a diminishing portion at that, of the students score. This would force alternative teaching and learning strategies and enable the instructors who bring so much talent and knowledge to the classroom, such as those I’ve observed, to blossom in other areas of pedagogy.

I think that Aligarh, by virtue of the extra time I had with people, has enabled me to see and understand more clearly the walls and webbing facing university faculty. Several instructors told me they have actually developed programs where this different model of instruction is possible, albeit within narrow parameters for a limited number of students. And, though many of them did not know about the Knowledge Commission before I arrived, despite its having been in the press quite a bit, they intend to check it out now and do everything they can to move education in to the new millennia. It’s a good time to do it, given that so many Indians are graduating from university every year.

On my way home from Aligarh, as karma would have it, I sat next to a young man who is an executive with Shell Oil. Until very recently he had been working with Philips, the Dutch firm, and was based in the Netherlands. His new job will keep him in Holland, but in a different town. He spoke of the same concerns about “applied knowledge” that I have raised here. Though Indian by birth, he is getting dual citizenship and, in fact, he said, “I can’t hire very many Indians because they don’t have the skills necessary to do the job.” Many of those skills are the very ones a learner-centered approach, along with frequent dips into Bloom’s Taxonomy, would encourage. How ironic that a young man in a high-level administrative position should espouse the very changes in instruction that I have proposed, and proposed and proposed. His own education, in case you are wondering, was at an institute in India that does rank among the top in the world and wherein he got practice and application at every turn.

Thus, while I have stepped down off my high horse, I retain the pedestal, primarily because every teacher, or person, shouldOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA be willing to take a committed stand on behalf of those they serve. For my students communicative language instruction and interactive content instruction were an unwelcome challenge at first, and something that required scaffolding and an explanation. My stand is for the demands of their future, not just of their free time or an easier and more familiar, but less effective path of instruction.


2 thoughts on “Rethinking Education in India

  1. I am indeed grateful to you for your gracious words about the Aligarh Muslim University. We cherish with profit your rewarding interaction with our English teachers. I wish you the very best.

    UGC Academic Staff College

    1. Dr. Kidwai,
      Those were thought-provoking days for me, surrounded by dedicated teachers who were, in turn, trying to find a path through a plethora of obstacles to their students’ best interests. I learned so much in the process of delivering the workshop. Please pass along my regards.


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