On higher education in India: Saattvic responds to Thane Richard

This is a guest post by SAATTVIC

Hi Thane,

I recently read your piece for Kafila, which was subsequently reproduced in part in the Hindu. I studied economics there as well, batch of 2006. I subsequently went on to read for an MPhil in Economics at Oxford.

Good on you for writing that piece. It raised lots of questions about our education system, and I agree with a lot of what you wrote (and share the same dismay at the dictation sessions from one particular professor you referred to).

There’s just a few things that I’d like to say, but before I say them let me say that none of this comes from being ‘nationalist’ or ‘patriotic’ in the slightest – just as you spent three years studying, working and paying taxes in India, I spent five studying, working and paying taxes in the UK, and I would like to believe that doing so has given me a bit of a world view of these things. Moreover, my area of interest is education economics, which is what my research focused on.

1. ‘Useless’ Indian Liberal Arts Degrees

The presumption that students in India do ‘useless’ liberal arts degrees only to go and do ‘proper’ ones abroad is only partially true, in my view. The DU Economics programme is actually quite rigorous, when compared to undergraduate programmes across the world (and I’ve had the benefit of looking at a few of them). Case in point, I went straight on to do an MPhil, Anisha Sharma (batch of 2007) and Gaurav Khanna (2008) went on to do an MSc in Development and Karan Nagpal (2009) went on to do the MPhil, all at Oxford. In my experience, a lot of foreign universities think that all Indian courses are the same, when in fact they are not. The DU course is WAY better than other economics courses, and those of us that went through it (especially the ones that got the revamped course – the batch after you and beyond) are quite well equipped to handle the most challenging Master’s programmes the world has to offer. There is a perception that needs to change in foreign universities – most people who end up doing the second BAs end up topping their programmes, because a lot of it is way to easy for them.Another problem is that US universities just will not admit you to a Masters of PhD programme unless you have 16 years of education. At the end of an Indian BA, we have only 15. So, for a lot many people, the second BA was just a time filler to cross the 16 year threshold to get into an Ivy league PhD programme. If you conduct some research into the people who went on to do the (two year) Cambridge BA, you’ll see that a very large proportion of them end up in the US. In fact, I’d be willing to wager just about anything that once the new 4 year system takes root in DU, the number of graduates going opting to do a second BA will fall drastically. You will see a lot more direct admissions to Masters and PhD programmes abroad.

2. Teaching Quality

I can tell you, honest to God, hand on heart, that I wished and prayed that I had the St Stephen’s faculty with me at Oxford teaching me the MPhil material. I once had a professor spend half an hour deriving the rules for integration by parts each time he had to use it – he couldn’t bring himself to remember the absurdly simple formula. I’m all for stoking intellectual curiosity, but I found that the aversion to memorising anything was a bit silly, especially since some things make your life a lot easier if you can remember them. It’s like saying I don’t remember that two times two is four, but I will derive it each and every time I need to use it. It is great to know how to derive things, but then it is much more efficient sometimes to just remember things with the knowledge that you can derive it if you feel like.The teaching at Oxford was terrible, to put it mildly, and that made me realise that the faculty at St Stephen’s actually made quite a fist of teaching stuff that was, in essence, unteachable. In fact, the long, discursive, essay type papers were always the most drab at College, and the third year was full of them. I’m sure you heard while you were at college about KRC’s microeconomics lectures, Grewal’s Macro lectures, and so on. They were some of the best teachers I’ve had the fortune of being taught by – and the faculty at Oxford has some pretty big names.

The problem, as I see it, is more that the material is extremely dry for some papers. Moreover, you might have seen how much marks matter – there are enough career options in the UK or US for someone who attains an upper-second division, but not in India. It is imperative that you score as well as you possibly can. So everything you do in College is geared towards scoring well – that is why Mr. Dictation chose to dictate, because he knew what gets you marks. And even a restructuring of the material will not solve this problem. It’s a well known problem in economics, isn’t it? Signalling. When it is impossible for prospective employers to gain an adequate estimate of a candidate’s ability (like they do in the US through interviews) due to a massive pool of applicants, grades become a convenient sifting mechanism. Which means as a student you HAVE to play the system. As an aside, the same Mr. Dictation transformed into an amazing teacher when he was teaching the technical section of another paper in the second year.

3. Lack of intellectual curiosity

A lot of research has been done on the subject of learning cultures in the east and the west. If you’re interested, I’ll find you some articles. Eastern cultures value rote learning and reverence for the word of the teacher a lot more, while western cultures value intellectual curiosity and questioning above all else. Both systems have their merits and their drawbacks. The drawbacks of sitting in class and being dictated to are wholly evident to you. But when I went to Oxford, there were several times where the whole questioning thing became a bit much. There were students who would not let classes proceed unless they were satisfied with one particular point – where their misunderstanding was due to not remembering a concept or step along the way. Sometimes they would ask questions based on the material in class, and answering those questions would require reference to more advanced material that we had not been exposed to. Yet they would not accept a ‘you don’t know enough to be able to understand this yet’ as an answer, but would keep questioning.While I am in no way advocating rote learning (in fact, I was one of its staunchest opponents in my time at College), I think there is a need to understand the historical context that gave rise to that culture. And let me tell you, if you study the history of education in India, a lot of it derives also from the system that the British imposed when they were here. Change is welcome and badly needed, but I think change may be destructive unless moulded to historical and cultural contexts.

On another note, I’m quite jealous that you managed to go on one of those college trips – I somehow never managed to do so.



24 thoughts on “On higher education in India: Saattvic responds to Thane Richard”

  1. A graduate from a Indian institute (sciences), I feel offended to read the 3rd point in an otherwise well written article. While it is likely true that formal education here traditionally stood against intellectual curiosity (which tradition hasn’t?), it is just not ok to defend it! I think Thane’s point is completely valid there, and we need to call a spade, a spade.

    1. I agree with you Vaibhav. Spades are spades. Ask any of my classmates at St Stephen’s and they’ll tell you how many times I raised this very issue with lots and lots of frustration.

      I am not defending a formal education system that relies on rote learning. I am merely trying to contextualise it. While it is true that our system errs too much on the side of rote learning, western systems tend to de-emphasize it too much, and it leads to inefficiencies sometimes. Sometimes, and ONLY sometimes, rote learning is an easier and more efficient way of acquiring knowledge.

      My reasoning is that rote learning and critical thinking (at the knowledge acquisition level) are two ways of learning – we need to identify where our way comes from and move towards a nice balance. It is wrong to think that the west has it all figured out – they have their problems too. We must figure out the ideal system and then work to move towards that.

      I’d ask you to re-read what I’ve written:

      While I am in no way advocating rote learning (in fact, I was one of its staunchest opponents in my time at College)

      Change is welcome and badly needed

  2. I loved Thane’s previous article. I like this one too and here’s some support to a point this made.
    Questioning everything is good, but not in the class. I had this experience while taking a course on economics and sustainability in Columbia University. Students at Columbia question everything they did not understand, which is the best part of this institution. I myself do that too. But, not when you don’t know enough to be able to understand that concept/answer yet. It was frustrating whenever the entire class which was otherwise comprised of beautiful discussions was obstructed and stalled because of too much questioning!

  3. An Interesting piece of response, with somewhat clear answers to the questions raised by Thane and admitting the seriousness of issues wherever not possible to do so. A thing for which i must appreciate the writer is his style of explanation avoiding flowery language and concentrating properly on the issues raised and discussed so far.The writer clearly explains with proper reasons the question of attending an extra undergraduate degree abroad. In another instance the writer explains with the reason the necessity of dictation by a professor connecting it with the grading and scoring in exams in Indian employment context, which is also satisfying.

    The writer holds legitimate right to compare methods and quality of teaching in Oxford with that of St. Stephen’s for he attended classes in both. However, A danger is almost evident in the tone of comparison, as the reading between the lines indicates that the writer occasionally,if not often, assumes both these are representative of the level of higher education in their respective home states. In fact i read such a tone in several articles published here related the topic under discussion. The Truth is, colleges or universities in India matching the St. Stephen’s standard in providing education are much less in number than generally assumed here in the forum ( i don’t’ know nothing of UK).

    The third point in the above article,i find, is the most important one inviting a serious discussion. Although rote learning,dictation and other such teaching methods can be historically and culturally linked to the reverence a student holds for his teacher and to the after-effect of British colonialism, time has come now for revisiting of such thoughts. The big reason is that even the so called dictation by a professor and the claimed constructive and critical appraisal of his notes elsewhere outside the four wall is strictly limited to Campuses such as the St. Stephen. The major chunk of the remaining colleges and campuses in urban and rural atmosphere are even nowhere near to offer such an intellectual climate and to produce an intellectual attitude in students. Both the Intellectual climate and attitude are very much interrelated to each other. The former needs a combination of qualified and passionate faculty,rich resources (can discount AC rooms & world class toilets but not books and other sources of knowledge) and a stimulating environment for debate along with supporting family leaving children with their ambitions and interest. This will eventually produce the intellectual climate, in turn an intellectual attitude, which is a must to get away with the rote learning.

  4. Nope, this article is why we need to encourage more questioning and intellectual curiosity in the classroom.
    An education is not supposed to gear you towards getting a job. You accept this and embrace it and it’s horrible. And this is not your fault, we are put through an education system that is designed to produce mindless drones, to accept authority and to conform. It’s not healthy for students and it’s certainly not healthy for our democracy.

    What you criticise as too much questioning is critical thinking. You need students who’ll push professors to think about exactly what they’re saying and why they are saying it. Why should DU be held to any other standard?

    Also I don’t buy that east-west divide. Our education is a by-product of colonisation. All that you describe about rote-learning and memorisation and respect, congratulations, you would have made a wonderful “native” officer of the empire. It’s not a cultural thing and to excuse it as such would be lazy, cultural determinism.

    It’s not a good thing that students go study abroad. Why can’t we have the same intellectual atmosphere in India?

    1. Ah! How refreshing. I love this.

      Firstly, if our education system made me a mindless drone, then I wonder how I successfully managed a distinction in the Oxford MPhil, under a system where even professors don’t remember basic formulae… I must have been very very lucky!

      Secondly, you raise a very interesting point about the purpose of an education. I fully appreciate and understand that for several people, the joy of learning is an end in itself. That is why lots of people do PhDs and earn LESS as post-doctoral researchers than they would if they had stopped at the Masters level and taken up a corporate job. Incidentally, I do want to do a PhD too at some point. But I also do embrace and accept the fact that for many people, the point of an education, especially beyond secondary education, is to acquire skills that will let you do a job, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Please explain to my WHY there is something wrong with wanting to earn well and live a comfortable life.

      Third, I’m all for critical thinking. Yes, students need to push professors. I asked so many questions at St Stephens the professors grew fond and wary of me at the same time. What I am saying is, if you re-read what I’ve written, is that in the west, students don’t know where to STOP questioning. It is important to recognise that the goal of a lecture is to impart knowledge and understanding. If a second year undergraduate student is told about Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, it is wonderful for him to ask how the Theorem is proved. But when the professor says that the proof is of an advanced level requiring material that is taught at the Masters level, then the student should accept that answer and not accuse the professor of skirting the issue.

      Fourthly, the east-west divide. I don’t know what your education has been, but if you’d had the chance to experience an eastern and a western education, I’d be willing to wager anything that you’d buy it. And don’t just take my word for it, here’s a lovely article about how the very premises of an education are different in the east and the west. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/01/opinion/brooks-the-learning-virtues.html?_r=0

      Fifthly, it is not good for students to study abroad? Why not? Smart students will want to access the best education, regardless of where it is located, geographically. Studying abroad doesn’t in any way reduce their Indian-ness. If there comes a day when Indian universities can offer the same quality of education, students won’t go abroad. If you’re really concerned, then contribute to public debate by offering substantive suggestions to the powers that be. Come up with suggestions, write an article and send it to the Economic and Political Weekly, or any one of the many many international journals on education http://www.uniraj.ac.in/JOURNALS/edulist.html. It isn’t enough to say ‘X is wrong, why can’t it be otherwise’; if you want to contribute in a meaningful way, tell us how it can be otherwise and how we can get those suggestions to the decision makers.

  5. While it is likely true that formal education here traditionally stood against intellectual curiosity (which tradition hasn’t?)

    Some reference would be helpful. For your information, even within our “intellectually uncurious” tradition, there is a rich legacy of philosophy — Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Muslim…How do you think that happened? Where do you think thinkers like Nagarjuna, Sankara, Kumarila, Madhusudana Sarasvati, Sriharsha, Sureshvara, Haribhadra, Gangesa, Jayanta Bhatta — to take a few names at random — came from? A miracle? How do you think Indians (in India or elsewhere) even now do research? Another miracle?

    Neither is questioning or intellectual curiosity unknown elsewhere in the “East.” Do a little web search: you’ll be surprised. Look up the achievements of the Arab and Jewish philosophers. Look up the incredible achievements of Al-Biruni, regarded as one of the greatest scholars of all time. This was a man who knew Khwarezmian, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Berber. He made contributions to Mathematics, Astronomy, Geography, Pharmacology, Mineralogy and Indology! His work on Indology is a classic because it was the first to consider intellectually the question: What approach should be taken when analysing a society which is different from one’s own? Should one dismiss customs which don’t make sense to us as being “savage”? These are issues that anthropologists routinely wrestle with but Al-Biruni was aware of these issues more than 1000 years back and proposed a way of dealing with them that was not surpassed until relatively modern times. His Kitab Al-Hind remains a classic nearly 1000 years after was written. And this was a man who lived in the area which is roughly modern Afghanistan.

    Intellectual curiosity never died in the “East” or the “West” — not in India, not elsewhere either.

    Sure, there are problems with Indian education and we need to set them right. But we don’t do it by perpetrating stupid myths about our own past. For your information, rote learning is not unknown in the West — again, a little web search will enlighten you.

    1. Suresh, while I agree with everything you have written, I’d like to point out a small subtlety here. Formal education is usually concerned with the stage of knowledge acquisition – all the examples you refer to occur at the stage of knowledge expansion, the stage AFTER acquisition.

      The fact is, most of the philosophers you have referenced would have had to sit down and learn, by rote, the scriptures as children. Even today, if you look at the vestiges of our ancient and medieval education systems, the Quran must be memorised in madrassas, and Buddhist scriptures are memorised in Tibetan monasteries.

      To me, the point your material drives home is wonderful. It goes to show that intellectual curiosity isn’t necessarily obviated with rote learning. It goes to show that critical thinking and rote learning aren’t necessarily two competing forms of knowledge acquisition, but, if designed correctly, can go hand in hand to achieve amazing ends.

      In fact, the wikipedia article on rote learning is surprisingly good, and offers some excellent insights. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rote_learning

      Lastly, let all this not take away from the fact that the Indian education system IS broken in many places, and we DO need to fix it.

    2. @suresh: Sure, I agree with you. Sorry for being clumsy with my presentation earlier … I have been aware of several of the names you mentioned, and perhaps a few more in the context of sciences I work with. Many of them you point are individuals, but in favour of what you said, the more important ones to remember will be ‘schools’ of thoughts. Indeed, there are several, and they are an ‘important’ part of ‘tradition’.

      The immediate impetus of the sentence came from the rigidity of education that seems to plague our school education, often spilling into college education (which I still believe is a spade we need to call a spade) — now I am quite ignorant whether I should blame the surviving colonial attitudes or whether it is the product of ‘tradition’.

      In the above comment, I mostly went with the flow and chose Sattavic’s side in defining the ‘tradition’ (at the same time refusing to agree that it was significantly different from the western).
      But I must add that my impression of the more widespread tradition coincides here with Sattavic’s — and I will use the word impression because my understanding is just that limited — but as far as I believe, the stress on ‘memorisation’ as against ‘validation’ or ‘creation’ of knowledge in most of the stages of ‘education’ was the norm for much of the period in both Indian and western (aka ‘church’) education. In that sense it stood against ‘curiosity’, by defining strict norms one needed to adhere too, and refusing to entertain obvious questions (like on legitimacy of ‘caste’ system with its extremely absurd rhetoric). Several of the schools/individuals you mentioned are perhaps not reflective of the widespread practice? I can’t say, and will be happy to find a pointed reference.

  6. “1.So everything you do in College is geared towards scoring well”
    “2.Which means as a student you HAVE to play the system.”

    These are exactly the points Mr.Richard was trying address in his piece. We as students within the system have long been a part of it, so its time now for us to forget about getting good marks and securing our careers and instead strive towards intellectual curiosity and scientific temper. May harm our present but will definitely brighten everyone’s future.

  7. Just one observation (among the many): as an undergraduate in, what we ironically referred to in class, a Marks-ist system, there’s a definite disparity between fostering critical learning, and “playing the system”. In fact, because of the liberal arts nature of my education, many of us knew even how to play to individual professors’ expectations in the exams. Maybe, this was unfortunate; or, an important lesson in skill diversity. Who knows? The point is: we often configure learning processes in binaries: “Eastern versus Western”, “rote learning versus critical thinking”.
    This binary logic, I believe, is misplaced (another topic of detailed discussion in my anthropology classes).

    One, the idea of rote learning is a throwback not to our glorious past – as many assume – but actually an erroneous exercise of basic level pedagogy. We’re expected to know tables by heart, so much so that when you’re awoken at night, you must know what 13-times-12 is. We emphasise rote learning in higher education because, in our lower years, and especially in our board exams(!) it worked.

    At the same time, it’s neither fair nor feasible to expect critical and interpretive learning in primary or secondary schooling, because of the sheer size of classrooms and the fact that, with students still not grasping basics, it’s important to at least address the literacy problem, while deferring the education one.
    And this is precisely where higher education has to be strengthened: because, not only must it address the transition of students from one framework of thought to another, it must also prepare them for transition to another sphere – be it further studies, work etc. But it’s vital that higher education does not become a means to that particular end.
    I agree that the quality of faculties makes a lot of difference to a student; both Thane’s and Saatvic’s posts highlight that. Even in my college, it was quite disheartening to see the disparity between faculties precisely because certain individual professors did not acknowledge the efficacy or merit of particular ideas and perspectives.
    And at the same time, we also need to foster outside the class thinking, enable students to have access to information and discussions that conventional pedagogy might not have. Libraries, online courses, talks, discussions etc. are as vital in fostering a critical spirit in education and thought as are syllabi.

    As a concluding point: We need students to read voraciously. Only that can replace this culture of rote learning that has been defining our system for too long. We need students to read, to write, to apply ideas, to critique ideas, to blog, to Tweet, to comment. Because, heaven knows, if that’s not a start, I don’t know what is.

  8. ‘And let me tell you, if you study the history of education in India, a lot of it derives also from the system that the British imposed when they were here.’

    You have just highlighted the problem. Having been to school in Britain, it is nothing like modern CBSE. The system is outdated by centuries.

  9. Saattvic, although well intentioned most of your responses stem from a style of reasoning and attaching value that is the the primary negative attribute of your undergraduate and secondary education ( I am guessing this was in India). For starters claiming to get a distinction is only one attribute of academic excellence. Did you publish while you were there? how much and and in what journals? This is not a personal attach on you, but a call to broaden the spectrum of how an education system is qualified as anything.

    I also do not understand your ‘theory of change’ here. The tone is more of a justification for the sorry state of affairs, which are just finer points and make the general argument that “things are more complex, that you think” . Most people reading the previous article also knew that. There is no productive contribution to what can be done. It seems more like wanting to have the last word for a multitude of possible reasons. As a reader one walks away with a “ya whatever” flavor after reading this piece.

    A general point on education and jobs, rote learning and marks do not ensure adequate skill development at all. This a worse solution for an already bad problem. The real issue is between the mismatch of the orientation of the educational system to the labour market trends.

    Getting into the specifics of the article is not really something I want to do- including the level of rigor of the course. I can if you really want. My general point I think is made. “think about, how you think about it”

    1. I did not publish in academic journals, simply because I did not end up in an academic career. I am, however, published twice in the industry journal Competition Law Insight. As far as my MPhil thesis goes, I’d be happy to mail it to you so you can read it for yourself. Moreover, the fact that I got a distinction at Oxford means something outside of an Indian context – they gave it to me because they obviously thought I did well.

      In a way, one of the points of the article is indeed “things are more complex, that you think”. The reason why this argument needs to be made is that attacks are welcome (and badly needed), but whatever solutions are proposed must be tailored to a specific context, and if you call for change without understanding context you might do more harm than good.

      I fully accept that there is no ‘theory of change’ – I have not offered one, and there was no intention of doing so. I do have lots of ideas about this, which I am happy to share. This was just not the right time or place to do so.

      Rote learning does not ensure skill development – I agree. But they do ensure marks, which are a (very imperfect) signal of ability. This inefficiency is at the heart of several problems the young workforce of today faces.

  10. KRC’s micro lectures made you think he was one of the best teachers you’ve had? Seriously?
    I did pretty well in microeconomics in college. I had to relearn all of it in order to study further. I still think that a lot of my subsequent distaste for aspects of economic theory is because I was never able to overcome the poor teaching and “problem-solving” shortcuts that I was shown as an undergraduate.
    Some of my teachers were excellent, sure. But they had to struggle with a poor syllabus and pressure to teach to the test. That’s the reason Grewal, for example, had to help start up afternoon classes outside the syllabus in order to try and show us what actual economic theory was. Practically nobody came. Most who did were playing him in order to try and get a decent letter of recommendation to Oxbridge.
    I’d also like to point out the elementary error you make in suggesting that, because many people from Econ hons at SSC manage the second BA with ease, that reflects how good the DU/SSC economics experience was. It merely reflects how good the admissions process into Econ hons is.
    Altogether, your arguments don’t hold up. I’ve seen the best students from DU and SSC in some of the better econ graduate programmes in the US. They’ve had to relearn everything, and our tendency to never start from first principles means we’re slower to learn, say, model-building than people from other systems.

    1. Yep. I adored his micro lectures. In fact, the stuff I learnt because of him was eminently useful at Oxford, and more so in my job as an economics consultant.

      Well, I don’t think it was an elementary error at all. In any case, it is very difficult to determine the relative contributions of student ability and teaching to human capital. Moreover, don’t forget that getting admission into Oxbridge is just as tough as getting admission into College – many students who apply from College do not get in.

      Students in grad programmes tend to have to relearn things regardless of where they come from. I had classmates in the Oxford MPhil who had come from an Oxford PPE undergrad background and had to relearn everything. And it’s not like they were the group that performed best in the grad programme, either – that was usually the guys that had a background in mathematics at undergrad. Grad curriculum is just structured in a very different way to an undergrad programme – the level of mathematical rigour is just something else.

      1. It is difficult to detach the effects, but it is quite clear that you, in your post assumed that teaching made the difference, not the incoming human capital. That assumption was needed for your conclusion, and is faulty. In further support, you now cite the problems PPE people had adjusting to the grad programme you are familiar with. The PPE is a similarly outdated course; if you examine instead US graduate programmes, you will see how easily those people do who did their econ concentrations in the US adjust versus those who did so in India. And it isn’t just the math that makes the difference; as I said, the degree to which they started from first principles did, too, especially in model-building applications. The difference between introductory micro teaching in the US, some of which I helped do, and KRC’s for example, is so vast that my head hurts just comparing the two.
        On how difficult it is get into Oxbridge, let me just say that in my year at SSC econ 23 people applied out of 45; 22 got in. (To salve my pride, please don’t ask me which unfortunate econ honours student didn’t.)

        1. On this:

          if you examine instead US graduate programmes, you will see how easily those people do who did their econ concentrations in the US adjust versus those who did so in India.

          and this:

          let me just say that in my year at SSC econ 23 people applied out of 45; 22 got in.

          Surely the samples that you are considering are not representative in both cases. The set of graduate students at Harvard or MIT — even just the US students — is hardly representative of the US graduate student population as a whole. (I apologize if you base on your conclusions on more representative data.)

          Neither does the fact that 22/23 students at St Stephen’s got admission say anything about the ease or difficulty of getting into Oxbridge. If you add the students from less prestigious colleges, you might get different results. But then few from those colleges would apply to Oxbridge, I suppose. And that itself tells you that the SSC sample is most unrepresentative. My condolences incidentally :-)

          In any case, drawing conclusions about the Indian education system from the performance of graduate students (a very special category) can be misleading if only because the vast majority of students do not enrol themselves in a Masters or a PhD programme.

          There are serious issues with the Indian education system, to be sure. I’ve already said in another comment that we can live with our university education being inferior to that of the “West” but I don’t think we can tolerate the poor quality of our public school education any longer.

          Not only does the public school education system fail the very groups that we elites all profess to want to help but it prevents intermixing between the different social groups. I studied in a private school and I don’t think I ever saw a Dalit student there. Probably one or two Muslims. For the most part, everyone was “people like us.” I have little doubt that such is still the case for most middle and upper class students and that is something of which we should be deeply ashamed.

  11. I appreciate the fact that you’ve tried to add some nuance to what was, arguably, a somewhat generic critique by Thane Richard of liberal arts degrees in DU and the rest of the country. However, while Thane seemed to use his experience with an Econ degree to then make broader claims, you exclusively focus on the Econ aspect to rebut some of his assumptions. While I do think that is useful (it makes the problem and the potential solution more specific) it misses the forest for the trees.

    Nonetheless, extending your method of more specific analysis, here was my experience with my History degree in Stephens (2010).

    The good stuff:
    First off, it is not a dry course at all. I was challenged and amazed by the immensely fascinating content, (perhaps structured poorly), the breadth of history covered in 3 years, and the exceptionally high (I’d equate it with some of the PHD classes in the States) level of text and theory that were included.

    My batch got lucky to get some really fantastic adjunct professors- they were young, and committed, and enthusiastic. They managed to communicate complex concepts effectively, engage us in tutorials, while also making sure that we knew the more ‘exam-oriented’ stuff.

    I came across some of the brightest students I’ve ever met till date: Not only were they well read, focused, and hard working, they were critical thinkers, good at non-academic stuff, and generally just great to learn from.

    The bad stuff:
    Most professors were completely unable to explain the concepts and theories underlying the historical narrative. We were reading immensely complex texts from the entire gamut of frameworks, from realist, to Marxists, to critical theorists, to subaltern – without even the vaguest understanding of what theses concepts were. It is not until I took a theory course in my masters degree in the states, that I find myself reflecting on the history texts and understanding them 3 years later! Why in the world weren’t these concepts explained to us? Essentially, the professors lectured to the most ‘knowledgable’ students, the ones with academics as parents, or the ones with prior knowledge of all these issues from outside the classroom. I wasn’t asked to be spoonfed, but some context?

    The environment outside the classroom was competitive in the oddest way. Conversations were based on who could throw up bigger names, bigger words, and the fringe-est stuff. Societies were the epitome of this kind of discourse.

    I’m not going to elaborate on this, it’s been said before: the place is debilitatingly patriarchal.

    The office bureaucracy many of us want to break things.

    I guess I could go on, but the point is, how much of my experience is universal through other degrees and other colleges in DU and in India? Also, my experience in the States has been fantastic. I can read a hundred articles of people trying to ‘contextualize’ the indian education system vs. the west, of bringing in the complexities of caste, class, gender, and colonization, but it doesn’t change this key fact: I have learned more in one year of study here, than three years of study in Stephens, and I believe this experience to be largely universal. Why?

    “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
    – Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

  12. I have learned more in one year of study here, than three years of study in Stephens, and I believe this experience to be largely universal. Why?

    Could it be that it is precisely the three years of study at Stephens that acted as a base from which you could learn quickly and extensively in the States? Would you have learned as much, or as quickly, if you did not have that foundation? You forget that you are comparing a *graduate* program in the States with an *undergraduate* program at Stephens.

    It may be an imprecise analogy but it is somewhat like building a house. It takes a long time to lay the foundations but once that is done, construction takes little time. And that is precisely why our lack of quality publicly provided primary education is such a scandal. I keep repeating myself…

    Of course, as I have already stated, this is not to say that everything is right about undergraduate education in India.

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