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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Opinion | Why the country’s new plan for education is smart

We need no longer lose millions of childhoods to a poor analysis of the meaning of intelligence

Every time I see a new underpass, I get a bit emotional. An underpass does not win elections. Why do politicians do these little good things? Why do bureaucrats do their jobs? The loudest Indian lament is that the government is lousy at its job; but the greatest mystery is why some good things happen in India in the first place.

You may say an underpass generates illicit cash down a whole chain of practical men. I am a big admirer of self-interest as the most influential force of good, but still I don’t think greed is a complete theory that fully explains the origins of good deeds. Maybe, like many other things in India, nobody fully knows why they do what they do, even when it is good. The mystery lingers not only in small things, like underpasses, but also in some major policies. The country’s new education policy, for instance.


National guidelines, for the first time in over three decades, to transform how Indians learn has such a long arc and its impact so widespread, that it does not affect the career of any professional politician or bureaucrat. There are evidently some cultural motives in the policy, but they do not run too deep. The guidelines are a reminder that the instinct of most humans, including Indians, is to make their tribe better.

Here are some reasons why I like the new education policy:

The vernacular-speaking Indian’s quarrel with the English language is easing: Among the significant recommendations of the policy is that the medium of instruction for primary school children be their mother tongue or the regional language where the school is located. While this is not mandatory, it may appear, at first glance, to be an extension of that tiring war that provincial politicians and cultural figures wage against English. But I see this as a truce, and even a concession of our culture hawks that English is too useful to be denied to students beyond their early formative years.

The suave Westernised Indian has receded in public life, and the non-English speaking Indian is rising. Even so, the guardians, champions and beneficiaries of Indian culture have faced a problem—their cultural wares, languages especially, have not been of use to the young. Without being of material use, a cultural colonizer will merely get physical territory and not people’s minds.

After how many years of being useful to a society does a foreign language become native? Maybe Indian cultural figures are beginning to accept an answer—“around now". That’s what I see in the feeble and ambiguous recommendation to use regional languages as a medium of instruction in primary schools. What is left unsaid is the inevitability of English beyond that phase.

The eclipse of English in early education is actually a good idea for a majority of Indian students. In the lives of upscale kids, English is in the air. As a result, it becomes their dominant language. But a majority of Indian children struggle to pick up English in the “good" schools where their ambitious parents put them. As a result, they struggle to grasp the basics of all subjects, as we witnessed with “slum children" in our own school days.

India accepts the true meaning of “vocation": When I was a boy, “vocation" meant something bleak that students who failed in science and maths did with their lives. In reality, a vocation is what a person is best suited to do, and what one truly wants to do. The most extraordinary aspect of the new education policy is the respect it accords various intelligent activities like carpentry and plumbing, and their being ushered into the mainstream.

I am reminded of the bad luck of some boys I grew up with. They were great mechanics but were made to feel dumb and useless because they could not spell “mechanic" in English or take a “rhombus" seriously. We have lost millions of childhoods to a poor analysis of the meaning of intelligence and education. By bringing “vocation" into the mainstream, India has, at least in theory, taken an opportunity to liberate itself from the dark ages of colonial education.

Until now in India, what was considered formal school education was separate from what was considered vocational. The new policy attempts to change that. I see the introduction of computer coding in primary school not as something esoteric, but as something that is in line with the merging of education and “vocational training".

The liberation from education: The proposed flexibility of college students to leave college midway, pursue a job and return to resume education is not only intelligent, but also one of the most humane ideas India has tried. Unlike the influential middle class, most Indians have a bad start to their lives. Their families and finances are unsteady. They give up the idea of college or suffer through a three- or four-year entrapment in pursuit of a degree. Giving them the freedom to step out of college when circumstances demand, and later pick up from where they left off, will transform millions of lives.

But what would have been truly courageous of India is—as this column had once argued—to altogether remove the requirement of a degree for non-technical jobs and all aptitude tests. Millions of young Indians who do not wish to pursue knowledge are trapped in meaningless education, wasting the best years of their lives, purely to obtain a piece of paper. If the young are gainfully employed and they receive love for the actual work they do, instead of pursuing charlatan degrees, cultural hawks may note, half of all activism will cease to exist.

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

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