By the time I entered high school, my family had slipped from lower middle class to absurdly poor. I was poor in the sense that even Medha Patkar would have called me that. At 16, when I entered college, I was malnourished and in clothes that will embarrass Kanhaiya Kumar. (I was a year younger for my batch due to a clerical oversight and not precocity.) I wished to become a writer, but I was not stupid enough to think a literature course will help. I chose literature for a dishonourable reason.

The administration of Loyola College was confused because my highest marks in the board exams were in math and computer science, yet I wanted to enter a stream that had by then become a refuge for boys with learning disabilities. I could not tell the college that my reason was that I would have to work part-time to feed myself and pay the fees too, probably, and I could wing my way to a literature degree, a feat I was not confident of pulling off in math. Eventually, I did get by without ever seriously studying Chaucer or Shakespeare, about whom I wrote many impressive essays in exams. Now and then, I sold Primus Kabsons stoves and Eureka Forbes products in showrooms, and Funskool toys door-to-door, and milked college festivals for speaking and writing cash prizes. I did not attend my convocation because I did not consider it worth the hard-earned 200 I had to pay to attend.

There were thousands like me who were harmed by the religion of higher education. I should not have been forced to pursue a piece of laminated paper. At 16, I should have been free to work for a newspaper or a film company, instead of wasting three years listening to rustic professors who could barely speak English trying to teach me the greatness of some simpleton British writers who would have been in unmarked graves if their country’s brutal merchants had not colonized the world.

Oh yes, education is about acquiring knowledge. I will inevitably come to that.

I have followed, with my rightful amusement, the ongoing protests of students against a fee hike in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Most of them, I know from experience, spend thousands of rupees on various fees not to gain knowledge, but to collect a degree or to escape the tough world outside their campus. In essence, their fight against the government is to pay half the ransom and not the whole ransom. They should instead be fighting to pay nothing at all. What they should be fighting for is the abolition of farcical higher education.

The most humane reform modern India can make is to ensure that a college degree is not a qualification for non-technical or non-scientific jobs, or even for any aptitude test, including the civil services exam.

A written test and a series of job interviews are not a perfect assessment of a human, but still a far superior form of ascertaining a person’s abilities than a piece of paper about him. In fact, for jobs that do not require preloaded technical knowledge, it should be made illegal for corporations and other organizations to demand a college degree, as this is a form of economic and social discrimination.

Politicians and other luminaries who have emerged from poverty should, instead of fabricating degree certificates, campaign to end the farce. This will liberate millions of youth; suddenly the formal job market in the private and public sectors will be open to a class of Indians who are innately smart but did not buy membership to a club that is controlled by the elite.

A few years ago, Japan contemplated ending humanities courses altogether. I don’t believe India should ever do that. If we set aside the farce of degrees, there is great value in a formal arts and philosophy education. My complaint is only against the veneration of higher education.

As part of the JNU protests, a group of Dalit students claimed that higher education is their revolution against “Brahmin hegemony". They were humanities students, and they were wrong. Their higher education is, in fact, their co-option by “Brahmin hegemony". All revolutions against the elite that involve imitating the elite fail. You don’t fight Brahmins by glorifying what they have created; rather by destroying it. As a literature student, what I learned is that half of humanities is a veneration of a wrong analysis of the world by rich Caucasian men and the mentally off-kilter.

Also, the poor are conned by prestige. The nature of prestige is such that it ceases to exist when the poor demonstrate that they can achieve it. That is why the refined affluent who express their concern for the poor students of JNU do not send their own children there. Instead, they will buy them an unsurpassable education in the US. Shouldn’t everyone who believes in equality deny their own children a huge head start?

There is a moment in the TV series, Silicon Valley, when a character loosely based on the venture capitalist Peter Thiel is giving a talk.

Tech VC: College has become a cruel expensive joke on the poor and the middle class that benefits only the perpetrators of it.

Ex-Hippie in the audience: You are a dangerous man, spewing ignorance.

VC: I’m just saying people should trust themselves more than a system that happily churns out unemployed debtors and provides dubious value.

Hippie: The true value of a college education is intangible.

VC: The true value of snake-oil is intangible as well.

Hippie: Fascist

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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