Home / Opinion / Columns /  Modi is right: College degrees are overrated

We know that Indians have immense stamina for useless issues. But we may not have realized that it can often drown even the voice of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This, when what he said was sensational. On Thursday in Varanasi he gave a speech to educators who had assembled to discuss the implementation of the National Educational Policy. He said that modern India’s education system “emerged from slavery". And that it’s objective was petty. “The British, in their self-interest, set up a system of education that was meant to incubate a servant class." He said very little has changed since the colonizers left. And that it was time India created more useful people than “degree-holders".

Not having a college degree has been a stigma in India. As a result, many have faked their degrees even when they do not require such certificates in their lines of work. Modi himself has been accused of this. More amusing than politicians faking their degrees is the imagination of graduates that people who did not go to college should not hold important positions. As though being a graduate is an achievement, or proof of intellect or anything meaningful. Isn’t it the easiest thing to be if someone else is paying for it—to become a graduate? But the quest for college degrees is such a sacred Indian practice that politicians usually don’t scoff at it. Certainly a prime minister taking it down is unprecedented.

But is it true that India’s present education system emerged from a diabolic British plan to convert India’s brightest into unthinking clerks? Many Indians believe that Jawaharlal Nehru was the one who began the process of taming the middle-class by creating rewards for procuring certificates of higher education. But he himself may have been co-opted by the British in this sphere, just as he was by socialism and other religions of his time.

When I was reading, The Man Who knew Infinity, a biography of the mathematician Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel, I came across a piece of historical record, a comment by a British bureaucrat that gave a peep into how the British planned to control Indians. It was so dramatic that it sounded like one of those periodical hoaxes that patriots circulate on social media. But it was not a hoax. It was an authentic extract from a Report on Canara, Malabar and Ceded Districts by a British bureaucrat called William Thackeray (not the famous writer) in 1807: “It is very proper that in England, a good share of the produce of the earth should be appropriated to support certain families in affluence, to produce senators, sages and heroes... The leisure, independence and high ideals which the enjoyment of this rent affords has enabled them to raise Britain to pinnacles of glory. Long may they enjoy it. But in India that haughty spirit, independence and deep thought which the possession of great wealth sometimes gives ought to be suppressed. They are directly averse to our power and interest. The nature of things, the past experience of all governments, renders it unnecessary to enlarge on this subject. We do not want generals, statesmen and legislators; we want industrious husbandmen."

As I am a Malayalee and have a cultural obligation to advertise what some colonizers thought of us, at least then, I am delighted to point out that Thackeray also says in the letter, “If we wanted restless and ambitious spirits there are enough of them in Malabar to supply the whole peninsula."

The diabolic hope succeeded. The British suppressed “that haughty spirit" and created “industrious husbandmen". This resulted in a Nehruvian elite and later a middle-class with that peculiar character—unremarkable group thinkers fearful of entrepreneurship. Not long ago, the forces that contributed to this were celebrated as Nehruvian virtues: an obsession with studies, not to be knowledgeable, but to find a job in an office. Nehru invested India’s meagre resources in higher education for the elite instead of universal primary education. This was his underrated flaw, write Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen in An Uncertain Glory.

The poor, who wish to make something of the lives of their children, are sucked into the powerful idea of education because they tend to imitate the rich, who encourage them through the careful use of compliments, reassured that education will only herd the poor into a hutch where the rich hold all the cards.

This is what creates that occasional ‘beautiful Indian story’—a poor man struggles all his life and spends all his money on the education of his daughter, who studies under the streetlight and then finally gets a degree. I used to know many children like this, on their way to degrees. Most of them struggled with what was called “academics". As a result, they went through their childhoods being called stupid. They may even have believed it, even though they were probably very smart.

Modi’s pronouncement is significant in the context of his speech: a new education policy that will bring fields like carpentry, machine repair and plumbing into mainstream schooling for students who are interested in these activities. Also, one of the proposals is that college students will have the option to leave studies midway for a job and return to resume their hunt for a degree. This is humane, given that most Indians get a bad start in life and need to take care of themselves before they can educate themselves.

I wish this had happened decades ago. There were so many superb mechanics and athletes and artists who were made to feel dumb because they couldn’t quite understand a rhombus. Millions of childhoods, spent in pain, and wasted, because some people had a semi-literate idea of education.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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