A Thought Bomb On The Existing Education System? - A Review*
“Feeling torn between disparate disciplines is the best possible thing. It is a mark of genuine liveliness and curiosity”- Saikat Majumdar
The book might appear to be slim and suggest an easy reading, because of Saikat Majumdar’s lucidity of expression but like his other non-fiction, Prose of the World (2013), it is differently, yet intensely thought-provoking. This creative-nonfiction is not a surprise, for Saikat Majumdar has made his mark as a writer of two novels, including the widely acclaimed The Firebird. College engages us in a creative philosophical discourse, in its analysis of the ArtScience education in the country. The strength of the book lies in its narrative style, which persuades one to revalidate his precepts and observations with the experiential reality. To put it briefly, it opens up space(s) for other discourses.
College… has not been a smooth reading for me. As a researcher, professor and a parent of a twenty-two-year-old, on the threshold of his profession just graduating from an Engineering college in the country, the book has constantly made me evaluate my personal experiences. After reading through this thought-bomb of a text, intensely packed with ideas of contra-disciplinary methods of teaching-learning as against the provincial monolithic approach, I strongly felt that the book would win empathy from any educationist struggling with the mill-on-the-run system of education in India. However, my first reaction after reading the book was, - ‘Could this thought-bomb actually affect the think-tanks at UGC, AICTE? Could this possibly bring about a change in Higher Education? Could this relate theory with praxis, or more so upgrade the syllabi and teaching in technological institutions in subjects like Electronics and Telecommunications, in tandem with the processes of modernization, every six months or more frequently?’
Saikat Majumdar’s College … is split into eight chapters, well linked with each other, like a flowing stream of ideas, moving from detection of the problem to a close comparative analysis of the same, to ideas related to the solution of the problem. As a Calcutta Xavier’s graduate, having completed his higher education in American universities, having taught at Stanford and now back home in Ashoka, Saikat Majumdar with his wide experience as a scholar and academic has meticulously taken up the issues relating to the choc-a-bloc education policies in India, occasionally referring to the western universities also and their positive aspects and pitfalls. The first two sections, titled “The Clerical” and “The Promiscuous”, use a creative-critical approach to the craze in the country for institutions like IITS, and he sharply points out that, “the prospect of reading for an Honours degree in St. Stephen’s in Delhi or Presidency in Calcutta does not quite come close to a seat in one of the coveted IITs.” The instance of Alankar Jain, the student preparing for IIT Entrance in Kota, reminds me with a lot of pain, of the 10+2 years of my son’s career. Surjo had the promise of being a professional violinist, for he was already playing at public forums. He was writing regularly in the “Voices” in The Statesman, TTIS, writing his stories, and at the same time making patches for Sci-fi games like Mass Effect, designing software, which were readily accepted by American gaming companies which pooled in young Asian brains for the expansion of their industry, and offered them money in credits. It took us quite some time as parents to understand from where his pocket money came from for his visit to malls in South City, Kolkata. I also remember vividly, while I was in Stanford myself as a Fulbright-Nehru, visiting Faculty, where my friendship began with the author of the text, how my son had remotely controlled my laptop issues, from time to time. We as parents did not know what to do with this 18-year-old. Whether he should take up Science or Arts was an issue of debate. As Saikat Majumdar incisively points out, the popular craze for technological education finally won the debate. So, he was sent to one such institution, after a lot of brain-washing, career counselling and after his refusal to appear for JEE or IIT entrances vehemently. The mother had to put up with complaints from the mentor regularly, for the next three years, for he was never in his classes but always in the Students Cultural Centre composing music, which from the institution got him his reputation as a musician matched with software skills. His almost zero attendance in classrooms, however often landed him in deep trouble. Events management alongside with musical compositions taught him to develop interpersonal and intrapersonal skills which Majumdar writes about in the section on the “Souls of Disciplines”, quoting Howard Gardner’s analysis on different types of Intelligence.
As Majumdar points out in the chapter “The Contra-disciplinary”, “… Mathematics and the Arts come together to embody this model of ArtScience education with greater richness – the contra-disciplinary always has a rhythm, no matter how counter-intuitive its surface… .”. Following his analysis, it is not difficult to understand Surjo’s love for computers and music, which were considered problematic for his parents in the existing educational system in the country. Saikat Majumdar’s analysis also wonderfully explains why certain musicians and percussionist stalwarts, are actually good in Mathematics. They have to be, to understand and execute the half beats, three-fourth beats, different offbeats and measurements in their brain while at the same time using their bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence, in performance. Among the well-known practitioners I could mention a musician friend Shri Subhajyoti Guha, the percussionist, who studied Applied Mathematics in Jadavpur University, before completely switching over to his chosen passion and profession. Guru Ashish Sankrityayan, the dhrupad exponent, is a double M.Sc in Physics and Mathematics, before he embraced dhrupad singing as his passion and profession. As a musicologist and musician, his scholarly articles bridge the gap between theory and praxis, Music and Philosophy, where Physics and Mathematics are an integral part of the discussion, along with Music and Spiritual Science and the acquiring of cognitive and prana skills for vocal training.
Yet, it would also be worthwhile to mention, that very few colleges and universities in India have Music as a discipline for the degree course. And even if they do, the best practitioners of Music generally stay outside this Education System. Dr. N.Rajam, who was the dean of Music in B.H.U, is a rare example and an exception to this prevailing clusters of mediocrity, one finds usually in the Music departments of an Indian university. At best they could be musicologists and not musicians per se, for their promotion too like other disciplines depends on the number of papers published in UGC recognized journals and PhD theses. Another rare example is Ashish Sankrityayan, whom I mentioned, and who after a long struggle with red-tapism, and political issues in the education system has been able to introduce a Dhrupad course in the Bhopal University curriculum by affiliating his Dhrupad Kendra to the University. Yet, a maestro like him too has to go through the processes of I would say “mediocritization”, if he would have to offer his candidature as a professor in the government scale of pay in a university. His knowledge and skill as musician in this country yet remain to be recognized fully, though he maybe well-known in European countries and elsewhere in the world for his musical talent and scholarship. In one of our conversations, Ashish ji clearly mentioned that he will train his daughter at home, himself. Well-read in Literature, Science and Fine Arts, he can be the best teacher for his child for her primary and secondary education, while she can take her pieces of paper from the Boards in private. However, not everyone is as privileged as the child to have such a talented parent as her father and a noted dancer as her mother!
I also call to my mind a young music student in a central university, where I taught for some time. Partha Sil, an exceptionally talented flautist in the making comes from a village in West Bengal. He had no money to buy flutes for playing, so he in his own initiative took to learning from various sources how to make bamboo, and other different kinds of flutes himself. His research as an undergraduate student was absolutely his own personal endeavour, which will carry him a long way. Saikat Majumdar, writes about the pool of talents in our country. And it is really a shame that as educationists we are grappling with a lopsided education system, which does not allow much scope to the teacher and the student to expand and make the teaching-learning process a rich experience. Among institutions, IIST, Bangalore, which has a tie with ISRO, though only offering specialization in Astrophysics is possibly the only institution, where young talents can be directly involved in research from the undergraduate level itself, if they are genuinely gifted. EFLU, Hyderabad is a research university, where I do have friends as professors, who are against odds, doing a good job in areas of Translation and Cultural Studies. Many of the students who take up these courses come from variant backgrounds like History, Fine Arts, Sociology and Literature. There is to some extent a contra-disciplinary process of teaching and learning in the universities in South India, compared to the academic institutions elsewhere in the country. The seminars and conferences too which I have attended, have a direct connection with reality in this part of the country than just being an intellectual and oratorical exercise which one finds in these forums generally. I have recently evaluated a wonderful thesis on Nakashi Scrolls, by a very popular and reputed artist in Hyderabad, Laxman Aelay, who designed the Telengana logo, and is also a social activist. In the rest of the country, this is very rare. Combining research with teaching in most cases in India has been individual endeavours. IRIS (Research in Interdisciplinary Studies) Jaipur, by Professor Jasbir Jain, had to close down for the lack of funds. Government organisations, like Institute for Advanced Studies, Shimla and Pune, CSSCAL, are purely research organizations offering research facilities and degrees. However only a privileged few can avail of the research facilities as universities with few faculty members in State Universities disallow leave.
Majumdar mentions in “Gen Ed Section”, that “the crowning achievement of disciplinary depth is the most crucial component of a successful liberal ArtScience education. – It is something that comes to full life in the final years of college- the essential transition from the consumption to the production of knowledge.” Interestingly enough the disciplinary depth is not always obtained from classroom teaching. When the syllabi for professional degrees like Electronics are still geared to inventions in the nineteenth century, students have the tendency to yield to frustration. Hashish and ganja find a ready market in and around technological institutions. Yet those who do not yield to this despair have to self-teach themselves. Thanks to internet videos and to Linda.com, which have indeed come to the aid of many students who are looking for avenues when so blocked by outdated syllabus and teaching skills. So, the “crowning achievements” could be in youngsters developing entrepreneurship skills through inter/intra-personal skills and other intelligences in Gardner’s theory. Yet, sadly enough the outdated syllabi and teaching in practical disciplines like Electronics, ruins the possibilities of the young brains aspiring for research or having the acumen for research. It not only kills their appetite for further knowledge but leads them sometimes to pathways of despair or accepting the “techno-clerks” jobs in foreign companies.
In one of my weekly train journeys from the mufassil university, where I am teaching now, to my hometown I had chanced to meet a senior manager in IBM travelling back like me from his hometown to Kolkata. A computer science M.Tech from IIT KGP, and a Management degree from IIM, Joka, in his days had earned him a coveted job in IBM leading to top positions where he is now. But the failure of technological education in India in CS or ETC, now lands the students who graduate from IITs, and other technological institutions with sales jobs with a monthly pay of around Rs 19k per month which is not even sufficient to meet their house-rent in cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore. Foreign companies noticing the poverty of knowledge in the Indian Technological institutions do not wish to invest in India anymore. At most they offer sales jobs and turn the Indian brains into “cyber-coolies”, who are made to mechanically work for the companies needs for almost 16 to 17 hours a day, sufficient to ruin their health, psychological as well as physical. If one were to probe deeper into the disorders in the cultural psyche of our nation where we have the increasing rate of cybercrimes, suicides, rape-cases, etc, the reasons lie right here. Recently, some companies do not even offer any salary in the training period, as professional education fails to meet the standards of achievement. The young graduates have to unlearn the course they had bought at a price of some 12 or more lacs of rupees which gave them a chit of paper at the end of the four years programme. They begin as sophomores again in the companies where they join to pick up their trade, and their parents bear the cost of their food-lodging etc, till the company offers them a handsome pay to take care of their needs. In such cases consumption of knowledge actually begins with the practical field of work. So far production of knowledge is concerned, India is largely dependent on Korea, China, Taiwan for the inputs. Majumdar writes on this issue in his early sections discussing how the Silicon Valley in India is actually unproductive in the sense there is no new invention, but dependence on the neighbouring Asian countries for every part or chip, for production.
Interestingly enough the only Indian company which produces a home-made mobile is Micromax, which on being Indian, is often condescended by Indian consumers themselves. Speaking on the consumer psychology, Indians would rather go for something with a French or American name as brands or branded products even when it comes to casual wear, rather ignorant of the fact that India actually has its own indigenous production of clothing industry and exports materials to the West. The university Jackets with the Stanford emblem are made in India, which I had picked from the Stanford Bookstore on the campus. To recollect further, in one of my visits to US, I had walked into a casual wear shop in Penn State, with a Taiwanese friend, where we were accosted by a condescending Francophone, as “people from the third world, too poor to buy our stuff!”. My friend, a professor of English and Cultural Studies in National Kaohsiung University, had swung around and pulled a few ladies tops from the rack and pointed out in deep anger, “Here! See ‘Made in Taiwan’, here, ‘Made in India’, here, ‘Made in Korea’”, which were sufficient for the Francophone to take to his heels. Yet, instead of being proud of something we possess, the general consumer in India, would rather opt for Pantaloons and Westside. We need more Fabindia kind of entrpreneurship for winning over the domestic market and luring the western market, where consumption of knowledge in Fashion Technology Institutions can lead to production of knowledge. I do not wish to cite the example of Sabyasachi Mukherjee here, for his products only cater to the very rich in the country and to the NRIs cravings for indigeneity.
Before I come to the last two sections in Saikat Majumdar’s text, let me take up Gardner’s theory of Intelligence. Saikat Majumdar, paraphrases affirmatively the various kinds of Intelligence required for a balanced education system in the section “Intelligence”. There is an interesting discussion in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), where Yogananda and Rabindranath Tagore discuss the precepts of education. They had both opted for the spatial, musical, Body-Kinaesthetic and all the other forms that Gardner mentions in their idea of the ashram education. While Yogananda had primarily focused on primary education, Tagore had adopted the same for all three levels in his ashram. Commenting on the concept of an ideal educator, a Tagore scholar, Sunil Chandra Sarkar opines that he must be a philosopher, poet, mystic, social reformer, scientist and a veritable man of action all rolled into one. He would have “to take into account all types of men and their aspiration, all facets of human personality, all levels of man’s experience, all fields of endeavour and achievement.” (Purkait:17). Tagore, according to Sarkar fulfilled all these qualities. He was definitely, first and foremost a poet. Yet, sensitive to the pressures of his day, he lived in a ferment of a dynamic world which attempted to grapple with the roots of Indian tradition along with ideas from the West. Tagore’s concept of “heterogenous homogeneity”, allows for the contra-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary education. My mother, a post-graduate from Visva Bharati in the 1950s could study Literature along with Fine Arts where her major was in Literature, and Fine Arts, was a non-credit course. However, Visva Bharati now as a central university bound by the UGC norms, does not offer this facility to its students any more. One has to choose either Literature or Fine Arts. Interestingly enough the new Choice Based Credit System introduced by UGC, to certain extent allows for the contradisciplinary programmes, within Arts and Social Sciences or pure sciences. However, the combination of Physics with Philosophy is still unthinkable in the Indian scenario in Central or State Universities. Private universities like Ashoka and FLAME and the recent others could possibly take the lead to break the hackneyed system.
Coming to the last two sections in Saikat Majumdar’s book, he writes about the combination of research and teaching. While one has to publish or perish in the existing UGC regulations for promotion, the university system does not allow for research. While IITs do offer lucrative funds for individual research, Central and State Universities rarely do so. I recall my number of trips to Bikash Bhavan, the Administrative Block for Higher Education in West Bengal, when I got the Fulbright Fellowship, to move the file from one table to another, in order to get the permission for leave with pay. The ordeal itself would make a scholar think twice before he/she opted for a fellowship abroad for further research and teaching. And I also had to sign a bond that I would serve the institution unfalteringly for the next three years, with no more travels abroad, or pay back every penny for those four months, which I had to in course of time. The Major Research and Minor Research Projects which the professors can opt for through a selection procedure used to work earlier. These days, obtaining a project itself involves piles of paper work, and the funds are not easily forthcoming. There is also a UGC Travel Grant, for attending seminars and conferences. Though the UGC papers promised me a full reimbursement, far back in 2011, when I was working in a college affiliated to Calcutta University, the funds never arrived till date. And in the Central universities there has been an embargo, which disallows funds for travel to foreign countries for participation in seminars. These are some of the sad realities of the Indian Education system, which actually discourages research. Within the institution also the vice-chancellors these days, most often political nominees are rarely supportive to research.