UNCONVENTIONAL IDEAS




We don’t need no educationists!

When I was in the process of setting up The Levelfield School in Suri, a small town in West Bengal, there were many questions I faced back at my town. Some questioned my foolhardiness in leaving a high-paying job to set up a school. People would ask me with superficial politeness, ‘Why did you leave your job and come here?’ But the tone of the question was probing, ‘What’s wrong with you? Did you get fired or something?’ Some were not even probing - their voices were full of sympathy at my supposed misfortune due to which I had to embark on this ignominious journey.

The questions and doubts were not restricted to Suri alone. In Calcutta, where I was pitching to several people to raise funds for the school, people were sceptical about the kind of education I proposed. They would ask me for so-called proof-of-concept, a high-sounding business jargon which asks you to show results even before you set up your business. It’s a classic catch-22 situation. To show results, I need to set up my venture. But to generate money to set up the venture, I need to show results first - magically, without even having the business in place.

I pointed out the absurdity of the concept of ‘proof-of-concept’, and some well-wishers proposed a way out. ‘Is any educationist involved with your venture?’ They asked. ‘Get your ideas endorsed by an educationist, then the investors will get a sense of comfort,’ they suggested. Or better still, get an educationist in your team, or at least get his permission to use his name. Pay him some fees and take him to the meetings with you. Let him vouch for your concept.

There was something repulsive about that idea. Other than the obvious sense of trickery involved in a stage-managed endorsement, there was something else. Initially, I couldn’t put my finger on it.

We all look for recognition. When we receive appreciation, we publicise it. It is accepted practice. There is nothing wrong if somebody you respect praises your work, and you are proud of it, and you display that recognition as a badge of honour. There is nothing shameful about showing your work to the authorities in a field, and ask for their feedback. So what is it that was gnawing at my mind?

It finally dawned on me. ‘Authorities in a field’- that’s the key phrase. Are the so-called educationists authorities in their field? With so many authority figures leading, advising, theorizing - why is Indian education system still so rotten?

The real problem is that we are worshipping false gods. And yes, I wrote god without a capital G intentionally. The educationists are not really experts. They preside over an obsolete system, preaching politically correct truisms. Learning should be fun. The stress on students must be reduced. Teachers should be well-trained. Oh yes, nobody can dispute those - just as much as nobody can dispute the fact that poor people should be lifted out of poverty. But where is the actionable roadmap?

Well, the problem is that, in India, action and education do not go together. How many principals of reputed schools have actually had a successful corporate career to know the demands of modern jobs? How many of them are active users of modern technology? How many really believe that education is really a preparation for life, not an endless quest for degrees?

At the policy level, we have educationists who sit on committees for years, designing syllabuses that become outdated even before they are launched. We have educationists designing obsolete rules for school accreditations which specify how many square meters a library should be, but does not specify what kind of books should be there. We have those experts debating over what is the correct literature for children and finally taking decades to find a few acceptable ones for their English textbooks. Come on - we do not have to start off with Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde. I know people who got started on reading with a Chetan Bhagat novel. That got them hooked on to reading - and over time they graduated to reading better literature.

At the level of implementation, we have venerable principals and vice-chancellors presiding over our august temples of rote-learning, churning out supposedly educated youths without any real-life skills. We have college professors who advise their protégés to go for a PhD, or worse, a post-doctorate degree. Anything to keep you away from real world. We do not need the appreciation of such educationists. We rather need people from real-world setting up schools and designing curriculum. We need successful people from every field to be passionate about education. If we have to change the status-quo, we must not be relying on the old guard.

We do not need no educationists. And we do not need their endorsement.