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Anurag Behar’s article on the new educational policy 'A plea to educators at the cusp of a seminal shift in education' on 12 August in Livemint raises some very important and serious concerns and is therefore, deserving of attention. It points to a growing rift between framers of the policy and its critics and creates a false binary between arm chair intellectuals/academics who theorise and field workers/practitioners (who find solutions). Behar’s concern too is largely with either/or positions on the NEP as a result of which, a situation of global acceptance and rejection of the policy (supporters versus opponents) has emerged.

Behar’s frustration stems from an impatience to witness the unfolding of what he perceives to be progressive educational reforms, however, the manner in which he has gone about it, could be self-defeating. Differentiating between educators who can offer constructive critique and ‘those’ who have been reacting negatively to the policy, he suggests that the latter group’s ‘peeves’ come from apprehensions of a loss of personal power, or setbacks to commercial interest or even from a commitment to opposing the political party in power at the centre. While he does not clarify, which of the different critiques belong to which category of peeves, it is disconcerting to see that instead of understanding what the objections are he chooses to dismissing those raising objections. His assertion that “on the NEP they need to act as educators, not politicians" is deeply problematic. While it is true that “A powerful political party cannot be harmed by opposing an education policy, it would be equally naïve to believe that powerful political parties do not have a clear role/goal in framing education policies to create certain kinds of nations and its citizens. Given this knowledge and recognition, delinking policy from politics is wishful thinking as policies and their implementation do not happen in a political or social vacuum. That this policy has been formulated by a political dispensation with an aggressive Hindutva agenda and which has the political might to implement it is something that Behar cannot fail to recognize. Central to his argument is the ‘principle of charity’, an idea borrowed from philosophy as a rhetorical device. He argues both inadvertent and motivated interpretations of the policy are possible, which may be antithetical to good education. An energetic use of the “principle of charity" from philosophy may be an effective counter to this. This means drawing the best and the strongest possible interpretation of a text and putting one’s might behind implementing that interpretation quickly, thus setting things on a course that would be hard to tamper with later. However, he must see that the critique is about fundamental flaws/gaps in the policy and not (yet) about its implementation.

Since his impatience is with the critique, let’s briefly look at the ideas that are being contested. The policy portrays a distorted understanding of Constitutional values (replaced by banal ideas like service, courtesy, sacrifice etc.), accepts uncritically all things Indian, de-contextualises and disregards the impact of covid-19 on the poor, especially migrant labour and children, is silent on caste/religion, reveals a superficial understanding of multi-disciplinarity, offers multiple exit points while ignoring what that means for the marginalised, proposes early introduction of vocational education, puts forward policy on language, exhibits an inclination towards privatization, permits foreign universities to set up shops, emphasises external exams, learning outcomes, and over-emphasises the acquisition of foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, thus running the risk of adopting a minimalistic approach to learning, and most importantly, the undermining of the Right to Education, 2009. The bottom line underlying all these provisions that are being critiqued are their negative implications for the disadvantaged, marginalized, and historically oppressed social groups in society. The central question being asked is whether the idea of education being proposed perpetuates existing differences in society so that unwittingly only the privileged continue to have access to certain kinds of education and others continue to drop or opt out to step into menial jobs? And when a few among the disadvantaged / marginalized continue at all, is it largely due to charity and philanthropy rather than due to a dignified right?

Behar’s query on whether it is prudent to oppose an entire policy over a few disagreements begs the answer: “Well shouldn’t that depend on the nature of those disagreements?"

However, he fails to recognise that even the most charitable use of this principle has to be rational and not indiscriminate.

Given the fact that the Indian society is sharply divided and hierarchically structured with caste, class, gender, religion and ethnicity determining multiple identities and social locations of people, it’s only natural that everyone will look to a long-awaited educational policy for its vision of social reform. One would imagine that it is the responsibility of those involved in education to help people understand how societies are structured, various political, social and economic contradictions therein and one’s own location vis-à-vis them. We know too well how education can and has been used as a political tool to silence dissent and normalize structural inequalities. Schools, curricular spaces, pedagogic practices and assessment procedures are all contested spaces and need to be critically examined. Since education policies and government programmes have greater implications for the socially marginalized, they should be open to public scrutiny and debate. If there are serious concerns being raised about the policy, one needs to reflectively engage with them. That would be the true meaning of principle of charity: recognizing that critiquing something is necessarily an attempt at engaging and dialoguing. Given the pluralistic and stratified fabric of Indian society, calling for unconditional support in implementation by invoking the principle of charity as a one-way street is both undemocratic and dangerous.

(The author is professor and dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Views are personal and do not reflect Mint’s)

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