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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Global, local or in limbo?

Travelling through the streets of any large city, one finds billboards screaming the promise of ‘world class’ education combined with a pledge to ‘create global citizens’ or ‘future ready’ graduates. Many of these promises and pledges come from schools carrying the tag “international”. They show pictures of happy pink-cheeked children smiling against a backdrop of spacious lawns or well furnished playgrounds; some show children performing activities ranging from playing the guitar to working on an airplane model, or interacting with a well groomed adult playing the role of teacher.

Much before FDI in higher education became a reality, or even a hotly debated proposal, the international had seeped into elementary schooling. And arguably, it goes even farther back than most of us care to or are equipped to look. For years and years, we’ve had inputs from abroad coming into schools, whether in the form of textbooks that were clones of western readers, or pedagogy styles that had been tried and tested abroad, the design of schools and classrooms, or—at the simplest level—in the kinds of uniforms we have seen fit to adopt into our schools. There’s been no dearth of ‘foreign inputs’ into our education system.

Systems of education have been imported, and investments made, if not directly, indirectly, into the business of schooling. In colonial India, each colonizing power brought with it an army of missionaries. Even those that had no “colonial presence” in India had a missionary presence. And the missionaries brought with them systems of schooling, governed by a philosophy and run with funds that were largely from abroad. In the initial days, even those who implemented these philosophies of education—the nuns and the priests—were foreigners. Until, that is, enough ‘natives’ were converted and co-opted into the orders. While to their credit many of these institutions did take and learn from local contexts, the overarching framework was European. The “Senior Cambridge” which morphed into the Indian Council of Secondary Education, at one time had direct links with Cambridge University. And then there were the handful of “International” schools that offered the International Baccalaureate. Now this group has been joined by the IGCSE, a British system of school certification, while the IB itself has recognized many more schools in India.

What has this meant for our system as a whole? On the one hand, it has made it easier for our children—at least those who have access to the best western clones—to fit into a globalised economy and a global urban culture. This is more and more true for the new elite institutions mentioned at the beginning of this article—their children have access to facilities on par with upper-crust schools in the West, and thereafter are groomed to enter an awaiting corporate culture. These schools are ‘feeders’ in a sense, to Western-type higher education models and indeed, many end up going abroad to enter college. But on the other hand, the system has also generated a large class of misfits whose schooling has been of little relevance to their immediate contexts and has in some cases fed aspirations that cannot be fulfilled in the spaces they are confined to.

Extrapolate this to higher education, where the focus on ‘internationalisation’ has meant mainly being able to feed the global economy—and right now, that translates into creating enough warm bodies with just enough education to handle the lines and lines of code that have to be written, debugged and tested to automate the information society. It has meant outward looking, foreign focused curricula, and a not-so-gradual erosion of areas of study relevant to our own needs.

The recent debates on education reform, primarily the National Curriculum Framework 2006, took a good long look at the needs of the country and how we could make schools sites of individual and social transformation. The changes suggested, apart from curriculum reform, had to do with changing the way we thought about education outcomes. Just as community schools everywhere have always done, what is taught in schools must relate to the child’s immediate environment and from there radiate outward. In the long run, this should not only bring in a high degree of connectivity between school and its context, but also help children develop a sense of rootedness while simultaneously broadening their outlook.

The hundreds of small ‘alternative’ schools across the country are doing exactly this. They aim to develop a strong sense of caring about community and local linkages through a variety of projects within and outside the academic curriculum without sacrificing quality in terms of the rigour of learning. They set their educational priorities and learning outcomes based on a bottom-up approach—what do the children know, where do they come from, what do they need to know most, and how can it be imparted without threatening their identities in any way? Superimposed on this is of course a broader understanding of the world we live in and all the content that goes to feed into that understanding.

There is no question that the western model of education has, over the decades, created a class of alienated individuals who despite their best intentions feel more foreign than Indian, or whose Indianness is defined by foreign expectations. It’s meant that their dreams have been fuelled and built on frames that define success and failure in terms not entirely our own. It’s meant that in order to meet those criteria of success, the context had to be changed, so that it resembled more closely the context from which those frames had been imported.

This is not to deny that there are advantages of education as we have known it and institutionalized it. It has given us the means to build bridges with other countries, perhaps though, on terms not always in our favour. It has given us an infrastructure of sorts, both in a material and non-material sense. It has allowed many Indians to become global citizens and many of them, having discovered themselves in the process, have come back to undo some of the things that their education has mis-done. But these efforts have been patchy and like the ‘alternative’ schools, have had a limited—and always contested--impact on the system as a whole. And in the meantime, the hangover of history has taken its toll. It has resulted in a terrible unevenness in the reach and quality of education across the country, apart from the fact that the process of alienation has continued.

So the question to ask ourselves now, when there is so much talk of foreign direct investment in education, is—what are we going to do differently with these foreign labels that will create an impact on our education system? Is it simply a matter of importing or transplanting structures from abroad, so that the product can be ‘bought back’, much in the manner of ‘100 percent export-oriented manufacturing units’? Or is it going to more deeply entrench the disconnect between what is studied and what is lived, what is seen and what is heard of, what is possible and what can only be dreamt of? Is it going to make us feel even more foreign in a place that is supposed to be home?

(This article first appeared in Edu-Care, a forum for education concerns, published by Centre for Learning, an alternative education organisation, in Hyderabad, March 2007)