Shashi Warrier | All’s fair in love and school…

My friend Murthy dropped in without warning on the morning of August 15th. I was in the garden raising the flag on an impromptu pole fashioned out of a length of bamboo when his car drew up at the gate. “Happy Independence Day!” I said, letting him in. “Early in the day for you to be visiting!”

He didn’t reply. Indeed, he seemed uncharacteristically morose and beaten down. I led him in, and, because it was too early for something stronger, made him a cup of coffee. He sipped listlessly at it until I asked him, “What’s the matter?”

“It’s this New Education Policy,” he said with a sigh. “It’s… It’s troublesome!”

“I thought it’s better than the old one,” I said. “That’s what I read in the papers.”

“You shouldn’t go by the papers,” Murthy said. “Some get it right but most of them don’t. There are just enough different views in the media to keep you confused all the time… And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, mind you.”

After a moment’s thought, I decided he was right about being confused but couldn’t understand why he felt it was a good thing. “What’s good about confusion?” I asked.

“Confusion means diversity,” he replied, finishing the coffee and putting the cup down with a bang. “It means you have many different opinions and so you have difficulty making up your mind. We need to have opinions from all stakeholders. It’s only fair that they’re all out in the open. Fairness, you know, it’s the very essence of our democracy.”

Just then the doorbell rang, and on the doormat stood my professor friend Raghavan. “Happy Independence Day!” he said, sticking his hand out for me to shake.

“You too!” I said, and led him into where Murthy was staring moodily at his empty coffee cup. “More coffee?” I asked Murthy, and he nodded, his eyes still blank.

When I returned from the kitchen with the coffee, Raghavan and Murthy were glaring at each other across the occasional table, and their hostility was almost palpable. Murthy’s blue mood and Raghavan’s good cheer had both given way to anger. “What’s up?” I asked, placing a cup in front of each of them.

“He’s talking nonsense about education, that’s what!” they said in unison, each pointing at the other.

“How can you defend an education policy that produced generations of people who can’t think critically?” asked Raghavan. “What has that policy done for the country?”

“Oh, it’s done plenty!” Murthy said, rising a little. “Look at its foundations. Free and compulsory education for children upto the age of 14. A ‘child-centred’ approach to education, and a network of state government schools are sufficient to take care of all children. Students in these schools in most states get lunch as well, so they get at least one balanced meal a day. With this policy, we can reach 100 per cent literacy for teenagers — all healthy — in just another decade or two. Once the children can read and write, they can progress. There’s a common entrance exam for children wanting to do medicine or engineering, so there’s a common platform for progress without running around. And, finally, there’s equal opportunity in education for everyone, especially women and backward caste people, people who might have less access to education.”

“Right!” said Raghavan, with equal heat. “And look at where it’s got us! Children who are used to being spoonfed information instead of asking questions, with no training in how to think critically! So when they emerge from colleges with their degrees, they’re uniformly unemployable.

“It’s not just that,” he continued. “There’s an industry of crammers who teach children how to memorise efficiently. Robot factories. Have a look at the city of Kota in Rajasthan and tell me that’s a good thing!”

“Look, you can’t blame the policy for that!” said Murthy. “There’s too much pressure on the system. There are problems implementing the policy, but you can’t say the policy is mistaken!”

“What about the policy of letting children move on to higher classes in school without exams?” asked Raghavan. “So when they hit the first real examination after ten years of school, less than a third get through without ‘grace marks’. Two out of three children with ten years of schooling are unfit to study further!”

“Equal opportunity for all!” said Murthy. “That’s the foundation of a democracy!”

Raghavan was about to respond when his cellphone rang. “Oh!” he said to the caller, “I forgot! I got caught up!”

The caller was his wife, to remind the absent-minded professor that he had dropped in to return a book. By the time he fetched the book from his car, it was time for him to leave. I saw him off and returned to Murthy, who had settled back into his gloom.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“The minister doesn’t like the new education policy,” he said. “That professor friend of yours doesn’t understand.”

“What?” I asked.

“Well,” he said carefully, “whenever policies change, opportunities change. It takes time for the system to stabilise, and the people who manage it suffer in the meantime. Why change a system based on fairness?”

I understood he was talking about changes in the ways officials collect bribes, but didn’t want to say so. “You said something about confusion,” I said. “Don’t people need to think critically? Don’t they need to look at different opinions and figure out for themselves what’s good for them?”

He looked up at me in surprise. “Why do they need to do that when they have the government to do it for them?” he asked.

Next Story