Expand educational opportunities for the weaker sections
Expand educational opportunities for the weaker sections
By Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
It is seen that students from English-medium private schools rise fast in their career while those from local language government schools lag far behind. Brilliant students from the poorer classes are not able to reach high in the social ladder. The gap between poor and rich is increasing. Educationists have expressed concern at this increasing social stratification.
Many suggest that the Government should enforce same education for all students up to High School so that this social gap can be narrowed down.
The issue is intertwined with that of economic and social inequality. Certain degree of inequality is necessary for the growth of any species. The species of bees will not grow if all bees are reduced to the same level. None will be able to become queen bee and procreation will come to an end. Or, equality among a group of lions will lead to their splintering away from the group. Individual lions would scarcely be able to fend attacks from other animals.
Making of a ‘society’ inevitably involves creation of inequality and social stratification. On the other hand, inequality becomes a destructive force beyond a certain point. Lions of the herd will be starved if the King Lion were to eat away all the meat. The lone surviving King too would hardly be able to hunt and survive on his own.
Human beings have likewise accepted certain degree of inequality. They have ensured that the upper classes do not capture all the resources. The upper classes will not be able to grow food for them if they capture all the resources and they will be in trouble. At the same time they have discarded equal distribution. Man will be reduced to a primitive existence if the resources are distributed equally. Every man will spend all his time growing food and weaving cloth and have little time left to make spacecrafts or computers. A particular level of inequality is best for the growth and survival of any species, including humankind.
Inequality in education is but a reflection of this social reality. Mankind needs farmers, workers, traders, politicians, soldiers, scientists and priests each in certain numbers. The status and capabilities required for these positions are unequal. The education system has been created to develop these professionals with different abilities in the required numbers. This division has not been done consciously. It is done by the market. More medical colleges are established if there is shortage of doctors and their salaries increase. In this way a hierarchy of education is established.
The status of a student in this hierarchy is determined by a large number of factors. These are named as prarabdha, purushartha and bhagya in the Indian tradition. In the context of education, prarabdha may be understood as the family circumstance or inheritance. Parents of one child send him to an English-medium school in the city. The other child is sent to graze the cows because of financial necessities. This difference arises because of what these persons inherit. purushartha may be understood as the effort put by the child. One child takes cows for grazing in the daytime and studies in the evenings. Other child goes to a top school but spends his time partaking drugs. I have met a person who has got PhD from Harvard University but is barely managing to survive as reader in an Indian University. He went to Harvard because of his prarabdha but made little of it because of his purushartha. The third factor of bhagya may be understood as social circumstances that are not of one’s own making. For example, a poor child may be born in Dharavi slum of Mumbai but picked up by a social organisation and given a scholarship to go to an English-medium private school. Another better-off child may be born in a faraway village where there is only one decadent government school. The social status of the child is determined by the combination of these three factors.
The role of the educational establishment is limited to a part of bhagya. Establishment of a common education system for all the children of the country will change the bhagya of both the lower and upper classes. Bhagya of the upper classes will decline and that of the lower classes will improve. However, the prarabdha and purushartha of children from different classes will remain unequal. The educational establishment does not cover all of bhagya either. Other factors such as increased incomes of the parents due to Employment Guarantee Scheme, availability of a road to trek to school or chance posting of a kind bank manager who helps him procure an education loan are also part of bhagya. The contribution of educational establishment to the final status of the child would be about 17 per cent if we reckon the share of prarabdha, purushartha and bhagya at 33 per cent each; and that of educational establishment at one-half of the bhagya.
Evidence of this limited impact of the educational establishment on the social status of the child is available aplenty. John Katsillis writes in Encyclopedia of Sociology: “The impact of variation in quality and quantity of schooling has been reduced over the years, and evidence does not indicate it as a major determinant of educational attainment. For example, the well publicized report Equality of Educational Opportunity found that differences between public schools had no significant effect on student performance… Structural limitations and cultural deficiencies account for only a small amount of attainment differences as compared to the individual achievement variables… (It is) found that the tremendous expansion of education in the nineteenth and twentieth century (in the United States) left the opportunities for social mobility essentially unchanged. It did expand the educational attainment of many social groups, but, as the educational attainment of individuals from lower socio-economic strata increased, individuals from higher strata acquired even more education, thus shifting the overall educational attainment of the population upward but keeping intact the stratification of educational attainment.”
It will be remembered that the United States implemented a system of ‘bussing’ to remove social divisions. Students from poor localities were bussed to schools in richer localities and vice versa. Yet the social disparities have continued to increase. Such happened because the huge impact of prarabdha and purushartha overwrote any compensation that was secured by equalisation of bhagya. The home atmosphere in upper class homes is more conducive to learning. They find newspaper and magazines lying in the house. The poor child, on the other hand, sees violence and consumption of gutka. Upper classes have a culture of investment. Only thus they have become rich. This culture is transmitted to their children. They invest their youth in acquiring education. On the other hand, many lower class persons tell that they did not study despite being pushed by their parents to go to school. These differences persist even if same education is imparted to the child.
My understanding is that social and educational inequality will continue to increase no matter how hard we try for equality because inequality is necessary for the growth and development of the human species. Accordingly, inequality will increase in the field of education as well. Huge differences in educational attainment and social status will persist on account of prarabdha and purushartha even if we try to equalise bhagya by forcibly establishing a common education system.
We should accept privatisation of educational system in this backdrop. Inequality in education is merely a shadow of inequality in the society. One does not kill the lion by killing its shadow. Similarly, we will not be able to reduce social inequality even if we establish common education system. In any event, inequality in socio-economic status is necessary for the growth of the human species. Therefore, social inequality will persist and continue to increase even if upper sections are denied access to high-quality private schools and lower classes are saved from low quality government schools. This is precisely the lesson we must learn from the American lesson of bussing. The American Government bussed children from poor areas to schools located in better-off localities so that educational opportunity was ‘equalised’. But this has not led to reduction in inequality. In fact, it may be that the decline in maths scores of American students owes itself, in part, to bussing. Putting together students with different prarabdha and purushartha has led to neither the upper nor lower classes getting education suitable to their temperament and orientation. As a result both have gone down the ladder. Thus our overall educational attainment will not improve and social inequality will not be reduced if we put a ban on private schools and force all children to go to a common school having a common curriculum.
Question remains of the brilliant students among the weaker sections. Certainly, we must provide plentiful opportunities for them to rise in the social ladder. The need, therefore, is to establish a larger window for the brilliant students from the lower classes to get in to private schools imparting high quality education. Effort must be to develop a pro-poor culture of love and charity among the rich so that their affluence does not become socially destructive. We should not pursue the establishment of a common education system.
(The wrtier is a Gandhian thinker and veteran columnist on economic affairs)