The value of undergraduate education for ‘Other’ students: Sanjay Kumar

Guest post by SANJAY KUMAR.

We are a tired party after two days quick hike up to the base of IndraharPass in the Dhauladhar range. Half of the students are visually challenged, the other half have been painstakingly guiding them over tricky stretches of the trail. The bus for Delhi is three hours late. We are stretched over our carry mats, reclining on backpacks, on the pavement behind a row of buses at Dharamshala bus stand. The issue under discussion is Atheism. It hasn’t taken long for visually challenged students to split into firm believers who pray regularly, occasional/opportunist believers, agnostics and atheists. Arguments are both experiential and theoretical. During one particularly intense exchange an occasional believer asks a firm believer, “If there really is a God who is omnipotent, good and takes care of every one, then tell me why has he made us so that we can not see?” It is an old normative argument against the conception of God. Presumably Darwin turned atheist arguing similarly with himself after witnessing the pain of his infant daughter due to an incurable illness. Closer home, revolutionary Bhagat Singh gives a liberal juridical version of the argument in ‘Why Am I an Atheist?’ Believer’s reply is spontaneous, in a matter of fact way. “You know what, I find myself really fortunate in being visually challenged. Due to this I got a chance to study. Had it not been for this, I would have been selling sweets from my father’s push cart in our small town.”

Realities of life in a country like India have to be piercingly brutal for a talented young man to think that it is mainly through his physical disability that he got access to a decent education and moving out of a life of poverty. This note is intended to bring some consequences of such reality to the recent discussions on Kafila regarding education at Stephen’s College.

Education is so integral to any conception of human well being that discussions on it invariably occur in the form of generalized, value laden statements and claims. A good education should be a joyful learning, it is a realisation of students’ potential, it has to be a path to the world of creativity and freedom, teachers should be inspiring, etc. are some of the assertions every body is supposed to agree with and claim. That the real world of institutionalized education is experienced, evaluated, and made use of very differently by students from different social, economic, bodily and social-psychological backgrounds is rarely discussed. To put it bluntly, discussions on education occur mostly in class neutral terms, while its reality is class divided and dividing. There is in fact, a double obfuscation. While the divided and dividing nature of institutionalized education actually frames all discussions on it, the discussions themselves are rarely self-aware of the part of reality they are based upon. Narrow contextual bases get amplified to justify universal claims.

Thane Richard’s comment on an anonymous post by students of St Stephen’s College has led to a flurry of responses and counter posts. Before proceeding it may not be out of place to set some context, as I see it, to his observations and assertions. A claim in his otherwise well argued piece has been accepted by almost all respondents to his note.

That is, his claim that most of his friends in St Stephen’s college sharing hours of chai and butter toast in college café went on to do a second four year undergraduate degree after three years in college. None of the students I have taught (I teach physics) in college wanted to do that. Some of the best physics students from college go for a second undergraduate degree from Cambridge University. They get admission to the third year of Tripos there, getting two years’ credit for three years of learning at St Stephen’ college. Which according to them is fair enough, because science Tripos at Cambridge are among the hardest in the world. Many other students have got admission to graduate programmes, including direct PhDs in the most sought after of the US universities, despite not having done sixteen years of education like their US peers. A more recent trend is students going for graduate studies in France and Germany, while many others go for graduate research programmes of reputed research institutes in India. In my assessment, these students pursuing further studies have as much grounding in the subject as ‘good’ students from ‘Western’ universities. On average they would have lower problem solving skills and exposure to research. However, these are not the sort of shortcomings for which they would even think of spending four years for another undergraduate degree. I am making no claim at all about the contribution of college teaching to their learning. Students would be the best judges of it. I only wish to emphasise that most of them are fairly smart people by any reasonable standard. For an Indian student to do a four year undergraduate studies in the US/West, his/her parents must be fairly wealthy. Most such students in fact leave India right after school, rather than spending any time in Indian colleges. Thane’s friends in college café must indeed be a special and unique group, or he missed something entirely.

Students from affluent, English educated and elite family backgrounds are often the most articulate, confident, and hence visible. A significant proportion of students in the college, perhaps even the majority, are in fact from middle, lower middle, poor, provincial, small town or rural backgrounds. Many of these students communicate, think and learn mainly in some Indian language, with English being a distant second language. An important fraction of physics students I mentioned earlier are from such backgrounds. What do three years of life in a college like St Stephen’s and University of Delhi contribute to the intellectual, cultural, and social psychological evolution of these students? What strategies do they adopt to deal with stress, and grasp opportunities available in a college like St Stephen’s? Is college fair to their potential? How effective is undergraduate education in incorporating them into elite networks? Anyone of these questions separately requires independent study and analysis. My comments are based on my limited observations.

College education is a much deeper and intensive experience for students from non-affluent/elite backgrounds, for the simple reason that they have much more at stake. This education is an opportunity to access a world of knowledge they can not get to otherwise, given their family and school backgrounds. Also, it’s a latch on the cog-wheels of social mobility in society, and they have little else but this education to move ahead. My sense is that a regular routine with well known expectations and predictable results is of much utility in their pursuit. Attendance, assignments, lab reports, and exams are the crux of the routine of college life. St Stephen’s college meets this requirement well, more than any other college in the university. Critics of college often call it a school, and given the alacrity with which college administration intimates errant students’ parents about their deeds, the charge is not misplaced. Holding lectures and tutorials regularly however, is not a sign of school like dis-empowerment of students. It is just sensible work-ethic.

Language of instruction is an important issue inside class rooms. St Stephen’s college prospectus announces that the medium of instruction in it is English; no office notices are ever put in a language other than English. Yet, in a typical liberal arts class up to ten percent of students may be writing their examinations in Hindi medium. It is to the credit of the college that in recent years certainly it has not used the language weapon to weed out non-English speakers at the time of admission interviews. I know for sure that at least in science courses, interviews have been held in Hindi, with students not facing any penalty for their inability to communicate in English. Some teachers are known to make special efforts to pull Hindi speakers on board in their lectures. The over all academic push is towards learning to write and speak in English, and many non-English speaking students do feel that after three years in college they pick up enough of the language which they think would be of great use to them in future. Class room discussions which almost invariably occur in English, on the other hand can be terribly alienating not only for students writing their exams in Hindi, but for most others for whom English is not the first language. These students would perhaps prefer concentrating on one speaker (i.e. the teacher) rather than try to make sense of ten speakers from ten corners of the class room. Some students do reach the point of self confidence where they feel that their ideas are sufficiently important for them to be bothered about their accent or ‘improper’ language use, and these students would join any discussion, but proportion of such students remains rather small. Class room participation by itself is not a universal good, its form perhaps is more important.

A big chunk of college students’ time is spent outside class-rooms. St Stephen’s college is one of the few colleges that have well structured and functional extra curricular student societies. Outside the enforced world of class rooms and examination halls, these provide opportunities for autonomous engagements, and are potential arenas for learning social skills and gaining cultural capital relevant for social mobility. These however also have high entry barriers. For instance, I do not think that before the recent initiatives of the current staff advisor to Shakespeare Society, a non-English speaking student has ever been part of the cast of the main annual production. Perhaps there also is a functional segregation, with students of non-elite backgrounds getting confined to some societies, and mainly doing routine administrative work, rather than engaging and creative work.

On the whole, in my opinion, college at present does not follow a policy of discouraging non-elite background students. It’s higher than normal fees are prohibitive for students from poor families. I know some students who have not joined college, or decided against staying in its residence because of high cost. On the other hand some of the institutional structures in college may in fact help such students both in gaining expertise in chosen disciplines and in their aim of social mobility.

Issues of serious concern arise from the context of higher education in the country. Foremost is the violation of democracy, and rights of students. The significant presence of students from non-elite backgrounds in a college like the St Stephen’s is an indication of great social churning. Many erstwhile deprived groups have gained sufficient economic resources to fund their children’s education. With many state governments deciding to teach English from primary classes, and the so called ‘English medium’ private schools appearing even in city slums and villages, English language as a great marker of hierarchy in modern India is undergoing some fundamental and interesting changes. These changes are occurring in a society with deep democratic deficit. Some of the most successful examples of social mobility and elite incorporation of non-affluent groups through education have occurred in Western liberal societies, whose democratic commonsense of honouring rights of individuals, even children, is way ahead of India. Students have a right that their classes be held regularly, libraries provide them adequate access to books and journals; public institutions of higher learning violate these rights wantonly. Students have a right to be treated decently as adult citizens. However, given the class and caste background of administrators and teachers, humiliation of students is not uncommon. As a simple rule, lower the socio-economic background of a student, more is the humiliation. Students from the so called ‘reserved’ categories are the worst sufferers.

It is customary for any person with authority in India to become authoritarian. Look at the current VC of University of Delhi. College principals and teachers come to know what they will be doing in the coming academic year through media reports. Statutory and deliberative bodies like the AC and EC have been bulldozed on short notices to approve pet programmes of the university administration. In a full page newspaper interview, published with his huge smiling pictures, the VC announced that 9 to 5 in colleges and for teachers will become the norm and he will make it happen. Intentions may not be bad, and it is true that infrastructure in colleges like St Stephen’s is grossly under utilized, but some well known men in history to have made such public announcements have been Mr Sanjay Gandhi and Mussolini (both claimed to have made trains run on time). While in democratic societies work gets done on time without anybody announcing that HE will make it happen. This happens because of generalized acceptance of institutionalized norms. On the other hand all autocrats start with violating such norms, as the current VC has done with the EC and AC of the DU. Even more shocking is that the majority of members of such bodies, fully paid professors, deans, HoDs, college principals, accept such violations and their humiliation as members of these bodies. It is not difficult to imagine how people with such low respect for their own democratic rights will behave with their students over whom they have administrative and pedagogic authority.

The recent trajectory of English language in India is very interesting indeed. Right at the time when deprived sections of society are getting a handle over the language, and entering academics, the domain of higher education and scholarship is becoming mono-lingual in favour of English. Very few of the justifiably acclaimed Indian writers of the language are bi-lingual, while this was common for writers and scholars of the earlier generations. The same holds true for academic and scholarly discourses. That is, precisely at the time when possibility is arising for genuinely multi-lingual discourses with significant participation from large sections of society, the terrain of academic discourse is turning mono-lingual. The loss is huge, since languages are not just means to communicate, but are storehouses of collective cognitive, normative and cultural practices; and a multi-lingual discourse can draw upon both indigenous and post-Enlightenment Western resources. Discursive techniques like comprehension, making an argument, or turn of a word/phrase to devise new meanings, can be learnt in any language, and once learnt they are easily transferable to another language. In the absence of scholarly and academic discourses in languages they are most comfortable with, students from non-elite backgrounds start their journey in the world of higher education with a double handicap. Media and market driven pop Hinglish is no match to the discursive challenges faced by these students, nor are the usual UGC funded remedies like the ‘remedial’ classes. Students pick up shreds of discursive techniques through a language they are not comfortable with in their own highly individualized ways with little institutional support. No official or market driven academic reform is even remotely concerned with this unique problem faced by students from non-elite backgrounds. Hence, a potentially unique contribution of India to the word of scholarship, a multi-lingual scholarship, to which many of these students in future can contribute, stands wasted.

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