Editorial: For Education

Figure out why, and the how will then follow

The definition of literacy in India is grossly under-achieving. Anyone with an elementary knowledge to read and write is counted as literate; at times, even just being able to write and read their names is considered enough, and that is hardly what literacy should be about. If this were the yardstick to measure literacy, then handing over smartphones to the unlettered will get the job done. It is after all not rare to find preschool toddlers who have figured out how the play and pause commands on video games look different and work their way around it. So, aiming for literacy is really aiming too low. The aim has to be to deliver learning even if it does not include reading and writing so that the quality of human resource is improved. Governments choose the easier option of literacy when the more productive and necessary approach should be to create better educated citizens. Do that, and one need not even worry too much about employable skills, because if education does its job well, it will infuse an inquisitiveness and a confidence which will make the “educated” ready for every job and every challenge. And this has to be approach with which the education policy is approached. Sikkim is thankfully on track since there are deep meditations and consultations already underway to understand what is missing from its schools, what works and what needs to be done to inject quality into the school system here. Education has been held up as a thrust area of governmental engagement, with ‘quality’ as the watch word. It is heartening for Sikkim to learn that education is receiving a relook. The density of schools in Sikkim leaves no room for complaint and the free textbooks and uniform scheme of the government ensure that at least the tools required to remain in school are in place. Schemes like the mid-day meal are pegged as incentives to keep students in school, but the only effective incentive long-term will be the quality of education that is imparted in the classrooms, not the quality of food served during breaks or the quality of uniforms. That said, enrolment is handsome in Sikkim’s schools and kids here can complete education if they so desire. But what also needs to be accepted that nowadays, most kids are in school because their parents don’t know what else to do with them… because sending children to school is the done thing. Worryingly, most enroll in colleges for much the same reason (or rather, the lack of one). Not too many of us have really figured out why we send children to school. There are vague notions of “a better future” and employment, but come on, we should not be signing off the first two decades or more of our lives for pursuits without any clear idea of why. Hence, the first task for any enquiry into how schools can be improved should be to build consensus on why we have schools, and let’s scratch employment from the reasons because imparting “employable skills” does not require such a long time – you can prepare people for most jobs with a basic 3-month course and the rest they can learn on the job. Once Sikkim has figured out “why”, the how will be easy to work out.