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Value of Education

with much social and cultural capital re- Educational Regimes in quired to convert educational skills into Contemporary India employment opportunities. Can they and edited by Radhika Chopra and do they get by, in adult lives, with their Patricia Jeffery in collaboration with almost minimal experience of schooling, Helmut Reifeld; especially in a situation where there are many educational regimes and where Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005; schools themselves are socio-economically pp 346, Rs 380 (paperback).

Value of Education

Educational Regimes in Contemporary India

edited by Radhika Chopra and Patricia Jeffery in collaboration with Helmut Reifeld; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005; pp 346, Rs 380 (paperback).


re educational certificates and diplomas “life-enhancing” in that these credentials provide us with better practical advantages such as good jobs and even more intrinsic, non-material benefits such as self-esteem, dignity and abilities to think, question and understand? Or are these mostly “degrees without freedom”? To state differently, can education “improve every life”? Or is it that even with education life is difficult for some people, especially those suffering from multiple socio-economic handicaps? These already marginalised groups usually get “access” to schools that are placed at the bottom of the already segmented educational system – schools that fail to endow their pupils with much social and cultural capital required to convert educational skills into employment opportunities. Can they and do they get by, in adult lives, with their almost minimal experience of schooling, especially in a situation where there are many educational regimes and where schools themselves are socio-economically stratified? Is the “relationship between formal education and adult prospects, between diplomas and labour market opportunities” necessarily secure and snug?

Degrees without Freedom

This of course raises a larger question about values and aims of education in an unequal society like ours. We, therefore, need to consider two opposing possibilities while discussing the potential of education: education can be a social equaliser; education can also reproduce social inequalities. With the aid of powerful arguments and evidence, the book underreview invites the reader to be conscious of both these radical and reactionary potentials of education. Contributors to this volume insist on developing a more nuanced and variegated picture of differentiated educational regimes that

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007 exist in contemporary India, their divergent purposes, and above all their uneven effects on people’s lives and life chances.

Stocked with a number of interesting case studies, the book offers the following major arguments: contemporary India has a differentiated system of education, consisting of a variety of educational regimes within its fold, inculcating in turn widely divergent values. Such differentiation “further disadvantages the already underprivileged” by reinforcing, instead of reducing, existing social and economic inequalities. What forms the real core of the book is the insistence to challenge the assumption that “education has a straightforwardly positive value”, that it is “unambiguously life-enhancing”, and that it is “intrinsically positive”.

At times the scepticism of the contributors vis-à-vis the benign or radical potential of education goes beyond a concern for the gap between aims and actions to raise more substantive doubts about the educational values and aims themselves. A careful reader may even detect a trace of a suggestion, in some parts of the analysis, that education is “intrinsically about divisions and exclusions” rather than “inclusion and integration”. Hence issues of the content and relevance of education, and “its political use as a means of power and control” need to be underlined in the contemporary education discourse.

However, while we consider the analysis excellent, we find some of the conclusions less than persuasive for reasons that we will elaborate later. That the segmented school system provides pupils with uneven quantities and qualities of economic and social wherewithal, with differential bearings on their adult prospects, is a “truism” worth repeating. It is also the case that sometimes the over-enthusiastic “policy speak” of education as an assured “passport to success” smacks of another rather naïve rhetoric that “all good things must go together”. Yet, while it is worth questioning the over-confident presumption that “more of it [education] will bring more benefits to more people and to society at large” (p 15), it is well to ask whether the contributors feel the converse to be true, that is, the less of it is desirable, as more of it will probably further damage the employment prospects and life chances of the already underprivileged. If so, we will again get stuck with an unequal world of knows and know-nots. It seems to us that we still have to rely on the same educational resources, certainly far more improved and evenly distributed than now, to shake the stubborn roots of the current lopsided school system. Simply put, expansion of education among the weaker sections of society may still be defended as a legitimate social aim, acknowledging at once the crucial need to firm up the linkage between formal education and their future employment prospects.

Different Educational Regimes

Several chapters in the book carefully portray and analyse a number of parallel processes, currently active in the education sector, that add further to the already segmented education system: sorting and streaming of children into government and private schools; marginalisation of the children from weaker social groups within the public school system; governmentpromoted privatisation of public education; informalisation of education through the establishment of “alternative” schools; the “ghettoisation” of schools for linguistic minorities (for example the Urdu medium schools) and so on. In an illuminating paper on the rapid growth of private unaided schools in rural UP, Jefferey et al skillfully analyse several new forms of school segmentation surfacing alongside the old ones. It is some time now that the middle classes have “watched the decline of the average government school with indifference” and withdrawn their children from these schools in favour of private schools. Just at a time when the poor and the previously excluded lower caste children havestarted to avail themselves of subsidised schooling, the latter has begun to decline in quality. The private secondary schools on the other hand in the study district of Bijnor serve mainly the elite section of the population, as palpable through “very restricted social mix” of many of these schools.

Moreover, new forms of “private education” are evident such as enhanced roles of tutorials and coaching institutions and the consequent irrelevance of the school as a centre for learning. Impetus for further privatisation of education seems to be coming, rather strangely, from within the official domain itself. Some of the more direct forms of privatisation within government and aided schools, Jeffery et al point out, include the decline in an absolute sense in the number of government funded teachers; the private appointments of teachers in these schools on temporary contracts at low rates of pay; charging of illegal fees from pupils; sub-contracting the publication of textbooks by the UP government to

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

private publishers and so on. Thus the state’s steady withdrawal from secondary schools signals something more than a “hands-off” policy; it suggests, according to the authors, a readiness to encourage “private interests within the public system” – a kind of government-sponsored privatisation.

There are other forces (and strange mixes) of marginalisation and coercive assimilation at work within the fold of the government-run education system. Government schools ostensibly promote inclusion of marginalised social groups into formal education. But dalit and adivasi students’ experience of school, their encounter with their teachers within the school setting sometimes entail, as Subrahmanian revealingly discusses in her study of selected government schools in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, “marginalisation of local knowledge systems”, devaluing of abilities and inclination towards manual labour, and coercive homogenisation into dominant middle class values. Teachers, almost all upper caste, “…exhibited serious forms of stereotyping with respect to dalit and adivasi children’s educability…they were uniformly regarded as academically weak simply because of who they were” (p 72). Surely, dalit parents are appreciative of state policies that promote educational opportunities for their children, even when the quality of schooling they receive is modest. Yet their children’s failure to secure jobs even if they manage to complete formal schooling suggests “the weak inclusivity of formal schools”. In contrast, EGS schools fare better in this respect, being more successful in promoting “community ownership”. Subrahmanian casts doubt on the professed equity and equalising effects of education when she talks about the deeply lingering effects of caste in the study area thus: “…caste largely prescribes how far children’s school chances might go, as well as their life chances thereafter” (p 79).

The linkage between school chances and subsequent life chances has been explored again in a totally different setting of club schools in urban slums of Kolkata – the “less than equal schools” located at the margin of the differentiated educational regime (Balagopalan). The Shikshalaya Prakalpa for Kolkata’s deprived urban children was launched apparently “to save [their] childhood” – a policy attempt that suggests, according to the author, a “tendency to naturalise a modern bourgeois childhood as the norm.” Under the scheme, some of the existing local clubs have been transformed into temporary schools. These so-called club schools run with the involvement of local community and nonprofit organisations, work for a few hours a day and are attended by local children and adolescent labourers on a daily basis, who show “unflinching enthusiasm for attending the club school” even after their long working hours in small workshops. The community teachers of these schools with some training but not much academic skill are more of community members than teachers. Indeed, both students and teachers are reluctant to call such a school a “real school”. Yet, as the author astutely observes, these working children, acutely aware of the distinction between their “workshop identity” and their identity as “schooled subjects”, are happy to be in the school and with their teachers, learning perhaps only very basic skills. This nominal form of utility and adult prospects does not detract form the argument that such education experiments justify the state’s establishment of alternative schools with less qualified, low paid, untenured teachers, legitimising “a two-tier school system”.

The dilution of policy commitment to quality schooling and even overt or tacit support for a double- or multi-track system of governmental education is further demonstrated through a gripping study of the “languishing Urdu medium schools in Delhi”

– “one of the historical centres of Urdu culture” (Vaugier-Chatterjee). A “lingua franca” and a part of the country’s common cultural heritage at one point of time, Urdu has been rendered a minority language due to a process of “ghettoisation of Urdu in a linguistic as well as a social sense”. The policy neglect of Urdu medium schools has wider ramifications; it is the madrasas that are primarily responsible for preserving and promoting Urdu. However, madrasa education has largely remained outside the scope of both state intervention and patronage (Winkelmann). Since the madrasa – the traditional religious educational institutions of Muslims – has turned into the “major receptacle of Urdu education, this further cuts Urdu off from non-Muslim speakers”, causing an unfortunate “retreat (of Urdu language) from the secular education fold”, adding further to the process of polarisation within the education system (p 112).

The running thread of the core argument developed in the book, namely, the idea of multiple models and realities of schooling within the school system is illustrated again through two interesting ethnographic studies of school life in elite boys’ boarding schools (Doon school – MacDougall, and a sainik school in Maharashtra – Benei). Copies of the western-style public school system, these schools are a training ground for regimentation, order, conformity and discipline, respect for authority, and even for manufacturing citizenship and a sense of national identity, as also for construction of an artificial “masculine, genderstereotypical, public sphere”.

In a touchingly sensitive ethnographic analysis of gender-based discrimination in selected government elementary schools in Madhya Pradesh and the possibility of radical transformation of these biases, Page painstakingly delineates the myriad factors that intervene in the space between professed policy goals and actual educational outcomes. One of the major factors responsible for the frustration of goals to radically transform existing gender values, she argues, was the “lack of local enthusiasm for the vision of enhanced female public sphere participation”.

But even within this general gloom and pessimism about using school as a site to challenge social inequalities and more specifically as a site for transition of young girls into active adult lives, Page gives moving examples of a handful of conscious and concerned teachers who saw the value of education for everyone and truly believed that education could “enhance” every life, who carefully nurtured the aspirations for enhanced female participation both in school and in public spheres thereafter.

The discourse about educational regimes does not of course remain confined in the book to the examination of the school based system of learning alone but extends across analyses of systems of learning existing outside the school system, such as the ustad-shagird learning tradition (Hameed); the book also deals with themes such as aspirations of educationally disadvantaged young women in urban slums (Thapan) and divergent schooling choices made by parents for their children and the underlying values and social reasoning that guide such family strategies and decisions (Chopra). Indeed, focusing on schooling choices made for the siblings within a particular Punjabi family, Chopra skillfully demonstrates how family schooling strategies are linked to the larger story of global migration.

Education as Empowerment?

There is quite a bit of disagreement, as several contributors of this volume forcefully argue, over how far disadvantaged

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007 social groups are able to translate formal education into economic fortunes or at a deeper level to use it to “challenge established structures of power” (Jeffery et al: 256). While acknowledging in principle, and with some qualifications, the potential of education to empower and improve the position of previously excluded groups, the core argument in the book treats formal education as a “contradictory resource” that opens up certain opportunities for these groups while closing some others. In an insightful essay examining the effects of increased formal education on educated young dalit men in a district in Uttar Pradesh, Jeffrey et al express pessimism about the capacity of school education to empower dalits. The authors suggest that school education may have led to their modest emancipation “from caste oppression”, may have helped them to develop a sense of dignity and self-confidence, but in terms of converting their skills into secure jobs, these young men have not had much success; they have often joined the ranks of the “educated underemployed”.

We hear the echo of similar scepticism about the emancipatory potential of the education system in a fine analysis, set in anindustrial township of Chhattishgarh, of schooling decisions of the new working class, “itself deeply divided between an aristocracy of public sector labour and workers in the informal sector” (Parry). It appears as though education is a “bad investment”, a “negative resource”, and hence spending on education is “wasteful of family resources”. It is quite a short step from here to suggest that education is disempowering.

A number of research studies on adolescents and their schooling suggest, on the other hand, that while making their investment decisions, parents often are not sure of their children’s educational performance and their economic fortunes thereafter. Yet a majority of them consider high school completion important for their children’s adult prospects and hence spending on the same a risk worth taking. Surely, persistent unemployment of the educated youth may lead to their frustration and even loss of freedom. But can we then declare that the enterprise of education is futile, or more strongly, even counterproductive for some sections of the population?

The distinguished political economist, Albert Hirschman talks about the three theses of futility, perversity and jeopardy that have been drawn on throughout the history to debunk or overturn movements of “progressive” ideas and policies.1 The futility thesis holds that reformist attempts will be abortive; they will fail to make a dent and will leave things largely unchanged. According to the perversity thesis, any purposive social action to improve some aspects of the political, social and economic conditions will produce, via a sequence of unintended consequences, the exact opposite of the objective being pursued. The jeopardy thesis contends that the cost of the proposed change is too high as it imperils some previous achievements of the past.

Valuing Education

Of course, it is naïve to expect that educational skills alone will lead to inevitable progress, without adding any qualifications about the school quality or the crucial importance of other structural changes. At the same time, however, we are disinclined to believe that a project for educating the poor is foredoomed to fail. This is not to deny that purposive reformist social action such as this does occasionally have undesirable effects. But even while acknowledging the uncertainties and intervening forces that could weaken the linkage between educational aims and outcomes, we wish to underline and hold on to the centrality of education in enhancing human life.

By no means do we wish to obscure the failings of the government school system in enhancing, in a number of cases, the life chances of its mainly underprivileged student population. Neither do we deny that education for the poor is often of poor quality and therefore needs urgent improvement. But recognising the need for quality improvement is not the same as doubting, dismissing, or devaluing the importance of education for the already disprivileged. There is solid evidence that the value of school education is widely appreciated by parents and children across the entire social spectrum.

Such sentiments are also echoed in Rampal’s fine narrative of how participants in the adult literacy programme in a district in Bihar started “revaluing” education and how a demand for education was perceptively articulated especially among the disadvantaged. As Rampal claims, “…this value ascribed to education may be seen as one expression of the “agency” of people struggling to fight deprivation and powerlessness arising out of poverty” (p 237).

There are obviously no great expectations about any grand transformations possible through education, but aspirations are tempered by reasoned judgment, reflecting in turn a notion that education has the potential to enrich every life. Undoubtedly, systemic and structural changes (e g, changes in ownership of productive assets) are required to bridge the gulf between educational goals and actual outcomes, as the editors rightly remind us. But in our view, a shadow looms over their exercise, as the book focuses mainly on education as a “contradictory” or even a “negative” resource. That education could be a positive resource especially for the poor (indeed education-related advantages rarely escape the notice of the upper and middle classes) gets a short shrift in the book, barring in a handful of essays. That educational resources are crucial for the underdogs of society to challenge the very biases (and less than benign aims) of the existing school system remains under-mentioned in the book. Taking the liberty of paraphrasing E P Thompson, we tend to argue, however, that “the victims of educational deprivation must enter the arena of education”.2

Admittedly, the arena of education that we are talking about is segmented, offering uneven life chances to its myriad participating groups. Yet ironically these differentiating and diverging regimes somehow converge to produce a suffocatingly dominant regime of “passive learning” and “parrot-teaching” evident in a large number of schools, elite or plebeian, catering to brahmins or dalits, the mediocre or the meritorious. It is this distortion of a public vision of education across the board that all our children – well-heeled or indigent

  • are victims of. Parents, teachers, the socalled educationists and policy-makers are all under the grip of such a poverty of imagination regarding the values and aims of education. The recovery of education’s emancipatory potential from the tight grip of such a distorted yet dominant regime is the task we owe to all children
  • moneyed and moneyless. In addition to providing interesting new perspectives to analysing the country’s myriad education regimes, the book will hopefully engage and interest its readers in critically examining the pernicious effects of the dominant education regime.
  • EPW



    1 Albert O Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction:

    Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, Harvard

    University Press, Massachusetts, 1991. 2 E P Thompson’s original comment is as follows:

    “The victims of power politics must enter the

    arena of power”. ‘Outside the Whale’ in The

    Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, Merlin

    Press, London, p 30, 1978.

    Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

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