Cram, don’t think

The message from 15 years of education in my country – first at a top-notch school and then at one of the best known colleges in India – was:

Facts are more important than thought and imagination; that it’s more important to know the answers than think critically; that exams are more important than knowledge itself. Some may say that in college the majority of us chose the convenient way out and they are right.Our system of education, even at the undergraduate level, does not encourage us – in fact, gives us every opportunity not to think independently, critically, creatively or analytically.

via The Hindu

Mahatma Phooley’s Thoughts on Education

In this post I will reproduce the letter written by Joteerao Phooley (मराठी: जोतीराव फुले ) (in the modern times his name is written as Phule instead of Phooley as he himself wrote) one of the great reformers in India. The letter was written to the Hunter Education Commission for “opinion as to the system and personnel employed in the lower schools of the Educational Department” in 1882. Though the suggestions were largely ignored by the commission they give us an insight to the state of education and its possible remedies during that era. But when one reads the letter, one can relate immediately to the present state of education in the country, all the possible issues that one will think of are covered: the overarching presence of divisions in the society (caste, religion, gender), teacher training or rather lack of it, textbooks, syllabus, scholarships for the needy, school drop-outs, school inspections, school management, structure of fees, distance learning, privatisation of education etc.

This reminds of of a quote from Seymour Papert in Children’s Machine: Rethink of School in Age of Computers which suits very well what I am going to describe.

Imagine a party of time travelers from an earlier century, among them one group of surgeons and another of school- teachers, each group eager to see how much things have changed in their profession a hundred or more years into the future. Imagine the bewilderment of the surgeons finding themselves in the operating room of a modern hospital. Although they would know that an operation of some sort was being performed, and might even be able to guess at the target organ, they would in almost all cases be unable to figure out what the surgeon was trying to accomplish or what was the purpose of the many strange devices he and the surgical staff were employing. The rituals of antisepsis and anesthesia, the beeping electronics, and even the bright lights, all so familiar to television audiences, would be utterly unfamiliar to them.

The time-traveling teachers would respond very differently to a modern elementary school classroom. They might be puzzled by a few strange objects. They might notice that some standard techniques had changed and would likely disagree among themselves about whether the changes they saw were for the better or the worse but they would fully see the point of most of what was being attempted and could quite easily take over the class. I use this parable to provide a rough-and-ready measure of the unevennes progress across the broad front of historical change. In the wake of the startling growth of science and technology in our recent past, some areas of human activity have undergone megachange. Telecommunications, entertainment, and transportation, as well as medicine, are among them. School is a notable example of an area that has not. One cannot say that there has been no change at all in the way we dish out education to our students. Of course there has; the parable gives me a way of pointing out what most of us know about our system of schooling: Yes, it has changed, but not in ways that have substantially altered its nature. The parable sets up the question: Why, through a period when so much human activity has been revolutionized, have we not seen comparable change in the way we help our children learn? (emphasis mine)

In this letter one gets a window in the past, regarding the practices of education in that era. It is as if we are time-travelling to the past, and we can indeed relate to most of things that Phooley says. If one were to write a diagnosis and possible solutions for the problems of education present in India, many of the sentences from the letter can be taken as they are, and they will fit in the current scenario. This letter presents shows that Phooley had a deep understanding of the educational system that he was trying so hard to reform. The educational experience that Phooley had was wide ranging, as he started the first indigenous school for girls, then went on to open the first “an indigenous mixed school for the lower classes, especially the Mahars and Mangs”, along with these he was “also been a teacher for some years in a mission female boarding school.”

In the first part of the letter he quotes extensively from Slavery (मराठी: गुलामगिरी). And sets a stage upon which the systemic way in which “Brahmin thraldom” is in place. I do not know if he is talking about Marx when he says:

A well-informed English writer states that our income is derived, not from surplus pro ts, but from capital; not from luxuries, but from the poorest necessaries. It is the product of sin and tears.

He questions the policy of the Government

Upon what grounds is it asserted that the best way to advance the moral and intellectual welfare of the people is to raise the standard of instruction among the higher classes?

And at times becomes very dramatic to describe the dire situation at hand!

I sincerely hope that Government will ere long see the error of their ways, trust less to writers or men who look through highclass spectacles, and take the glory into their own hands of emancipating my Shudra brethren from the trammels of bondage which the Brahmins have woven around them like the coils of a serpent.

The next section is in particular about the state of primary education in Bombay Presidency. Joteerao has hold of relevant statistics in this regard. He laments the absence of schools for the lower classes in general and identifies in general the cause of misery as the general lack of education.

A good deal of their poverty, their want of self-reliance, their entire dependence upon the learned and intelligent classes, is attributable to this deplorable state of education among thepeasantry.

About village he says that

In villages also most of the cultivating classes hold aloof owing to extreme poverty, and also because they require their children to tend cattle and look after their fields.

And makes a recommendation that:

… primary education of the masses should be made compulsory up to a certain age, say at least 12 years.

Citing statistics he says:

Under the promise of the Queen’s Proclamation I beg to urge that Mahars, Mangs, and other lower classes, where their number is large enough, should have separate schools for them, as they are not allowed to attend the other schools owing to caste prejudices.

As regarding the actual suggestions that he makes for the Commission, are worthy to take note of:

With regard to the few Government primary schools that exist in the Presidency, I beg to observe that the primary education imparted in them is not at all placed on a satisfactory or sound basis. The system is imperfect in so far as it does not prove practical, and useful in the future career of the pupils.

Further he has particular suggestions regarding the remodelling of the system. First of all he talks about the almost complete occupation of teacher’s posts by Brahmins and that too untrained ones. These issues particularly relate to teacher professional development. I do not know anything about the colleges for training teachers which were present then. Also he suggests the minimum salary for the teachers “To secure a better class of teachers and to improve their position,”

As to the actual content which is to be taught to the students he is very practical.

The course of instruction should consist of reading, writing Modi and Balbodh and accounts, and a rudimentary knowledge of, general history, general geography, and grammar, also an elementary
knowledge of agriculture and a few lessons on moral duties and sanitation.

And for the villages he says (a studio approach to education!)

The studies in the village schools might be fewer than those in larger villages and towns, but not the less practical. In connection with lessons in agriculture, a small model farm, where practical instruction to the pupils can be given, would be a decided advantage and, if really eciently managed, would be productive of the greatest good to the country.

The textbooks which are lamented about in almost all educational surveys find a mention here:

The text-book in use, both in the primary and Anglo-vernacular schools, require revision and recasting as much as they are not practical or progressive in their scope. Lessons on technical education and morality, sanitation and agriculture, and some useful arts,. should be interspersed among them in progressive series.

As regards to the fees paid by the students he suggests that: “fees in the primary schools should be as 1 to 2 from the children of cess-payers and non-cess payers.” And on important note he also advises on placing a quality control over the schools by inspection, but at the same time mentioning “advisability of visiting these schools at other times and without any intimation being given.” It seems the schools then as they are now are only dressed up when they are being inspected. Also he says

No reliance can be placed on the district or village officers owing to the multifarious duties devolving on them, as they seldom find time to visit them, and when they do, their examination is necessarily very super ficial and imperfect.

Further he says that the number of primary schools need to be increased and provides ways in which these schools can be funded. Though he is very much for the municipalities providing the funding for the schools, but he is totally against the management being transferred to them.

The Municipalities in large towns should be asked to contribute whole share of the expenses incurred on primary schools within the municipal area. But in no case ought the management of the same to be entirely made over to them, They should be under the supervision of the Educational Department.

Also he is particular about the handling of funds as regards to primary education.

The administration of the funds for primary education should ordinarily be in the hands of the Director of Public Instruction.

In the next section he describes the state of Indigenous Schools in the Bombay Presidency.

Indigenous schools exist a good deal in cities, towns and some large villages, especially where there is a Brahmin population. From the latest reports of Public Instruction in this presidency, it is found that there are 1,049 indigenous schools with about 27,694 pupils in them.

And this is what he has to say as regards to the content in these schools

They are conducted on the old village system. The boys are generally taught the multiplication table by heart, a little Modi writing and reading, and, to recite a few religious pieces.

And is particularly harsh on the quality of teachers in these schools:

The teachers, as a rule, are not capable of effecting any improvements, as they are not initiated in the art of teaching. … The teachers generally come from the dregs of Brahminical society. Their qualifi cations hardly go beyond reading and writing Marathi very indi fferently, and casting accounts up to the rule of three or so. They set, up as teachers as the last resource of getting a livelihood. Their failure or unfi tness in other callings of life obliges them to open schools.

This we can say is true for many teachers in our own era. There are a very few who will choose to become teachers, usually it is the last choice, when all other choices are gone. And further Phooley adds for the training of the teachers:

No arrangements exist in the country to train up teachers for indigenous schools. The indigenous schools could not be turned to any good account, unless the present teachers are replaced by men from the training colleges and by those who pass the 6th standard in the vernaculars. The present teachers will willingly accept State aid but money thus spent will be thrown away.

The next section he describes the state of Higher Education in his times.

The cry over the whole country has been for some time past that Government have amply provided for higher education, whereas that of the masses has been neglected. To some extent this cry is justified, although the classes directly benefitted by the higher education may not readily admit it. But for all this no well-wisher of his country would desire that Government should, at the present time, withdraw its aid from higher education. All that they would wish is, that as one class of the body politic has been neglected, its advancement should form as anxious a concern as that of the other.

About the general education in India he says:

Education in India is still in its infancy. Any withdrawal of State aid from higher education cannot but be injurious to the spread of education generally.

He furthers this by adding that the withdrawal may be partial.

A taste for education among the higher and wealthy classes, such as the Brahmins and Purbhoos, especially those classes who live by the pen, has been created, and a gradual withdrawal of State aid may be possible so far as these classes are concerned; but in the middle and lower classes, among whom higher education has made no perceptible progress, such a withdrawal would be a great hardship. In the event of such withdrawal, boys will be obliged to have recourse to inefficient and sectarian schools much against their wish, and the cause of education cannot but suffer.

Phooley also has concerns regarding privatisation of education, which we are facing now.

Nor could any part of such education be entrusted to private agency. For a long time to come the entire educational machinery, both ministerial and executive, must be in the hands of Government. Both the higher and primary education require all the fostering care and attention which Government can bestow on it.The withdrawal of Government from schools or colleges would not only tend to check the spread of education, but would seriously endanger that spirit of neutrality which has all along been the aim of Government to foster, owing to the different nationalities and religious creeds prevalent in India. This withdrawal may, to a certain extent, create a spirit of self-reliance for local purposes in the higher and wealthy classes, but the cause of education would be so far injured that the spirit of self-reliance would take years to remedy that evil.

He says that the Government schools are much superior to the private ones, one does not know whether this claim will hold in the current times, though for Higher Education this may be generally true as to get admitted to Government run colleges and institutions is much harder than private ones. But whether the reason is same for that one does not know, comparing the salaries that are paid in international schools as opposed to the Government schools the balance is upturned.

The superiority of Government schools is mainly owing to the richly paid staff of teachers and professors
which it is not possible for a private schools to maintain.

The content of what is taught in these schools is again brought under scanner as in the case of primary education:

The character of instruction given in the Government higher schools, is not at all practical, or such as is required for the necessities of ordinary life. It is only good to turn out so many clerks and schoolmasters.

And one wouldn’t agree more with what he says about the matriculation exam:

The Matriculation examination unduly engrosses the attention of the teachers and pupils, and the course of studies prescribed has no practical element in it, so as to fit the pupil for his future career in independent life.

Also he is very much for printing of textbooks by the Government, which will encourage “private studies”, thus opening up possibilities for distance education and lead to “diffusion of knowledge in country”:

The higher education should be so arranged as to be within easy reach of all, and the books on the subjects for the Matriculation examination should be published in the Government Gazette, as is done in Madras and Bengal. Such a course will encourage private studies and secure larger diffusion of knowledge in the country. It is a boon to the people that the Bombay University recognises private studies in the case of those presenting for the entrance examination. I hope, the University authorities will be pleased to extend the same boon to higher examinations. If private studies were recognised by the University in granting the degrees of B.A., M.A. &c., many young men will devote their time to private studies.

Further he has to say regarding the scholarships being granted to the students

The system of Government scholarships, at present followed in the Government schools, is also defective, as much as it gives undue encouragement to those classes only, who have already acquired a taste for education to the detriment of the other classes. The system might, be so arranged that some of these scholarships should be awarded to such classes amongst whom education has made no progress.

On this issue he further adds:

The system of awarding them by competition, although abstractedly equitable, does not tend to the spread of education among other classes.

In the final section he mentions the state in which “educated natives” are left who are not able to find public service, as most of the education that they are imparted with is “not of a technical or practical nature”.

The present number of educated men is very small in relation to the country at large, and we trust that the day may notbe far distant when we shall have the present number multiplied a hundred-fold and all betaking themselves to useful and remunerative occupations and not be looking after service.

Also in the last lines of the letter he recommends the spread of female education.

In conclusion, I beg to request the Education Commission to be kind enough to sanction measures for the spread of female primary education on a more liberal scale.

Thus the letter ends and Phooley states his status as:

Merchant and Cultivator and
Municipal Commissioner

To read the letter in retrospect about 130 years later, one cannot but help to relate to the status quo in many aspects of education in general which Phooley describes, thus reminding one of the time-travellers of Papert. One theme which runs through the entire letter is that the people who are already on the higher class of the society, are the ones who benefit most from the educational reforms, and this is detrimental to diffusion of knowledge in all strata of the society. As regards to the content of what is actually taught in schools, absence of practical knowledge, quality and quantity of teachers, prospective jobs, the quality of textbooks one would recommend almost the same things even today.

The complete letter is reproduced below. A PDF version of the letter is available here.

Continue reading