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Nation that kills talent

Education, Bertrand Russell remarked, is the key to the new world. In our political discourse, clichés regarding our children being the future of the nation, youth power, and India's burgeoning 'youth bulge' abound; but the profile of this great potential engine of growth and, more significantly, of civilisational development, is, with small exceptions, distressing. The circumstances within which our children and our youth are being brought up and educated reflect the most deplorable waste, indeed, destruction, of talent, of aspirations and of natural potential.

Over the past months, India's youth have been projected in stark relief through the media in circumstances that have been personally tragic for the protagonists, as in the current controversy over drug use among the affluent and powerful, or fruitlessly polarised, as in the unnecessarily provoked anti and pro-reservation demonstrations. These are certainly not the images that India, as a nation, would be tempted to project and publicise, and these are far from the worst aspects of the country's profile of youth.

The image that pleases us most at present is a tiny pool of dynamic youngsters coming out of a handful of premier educational institutions in the country, burning a trail of success in the IT, technical and business sectors, fuelling national 'great power' ambitions and creating small islands of great productivity and wealth in booming urban economies. This young population has certainly given the country much power and pride. But even this segment, overwhelmingly, is a class without significant social consciousness or commitment, seeking personal goals and personal advantage wherever (and often by whatever means) these can be found. This, nevertheless, is the tiny but dynamic fragment of India's vast population of youth.

Beyond them lies darkness.

Within what passes for the young 'elite', we find a significant population of the idle rich, conscienceless parasites who fuel the economy of corruption, crime and prurience in their frenetic search for titillation and endless, illusory, diversion. Then we have a generation of privileged inheritors, who lay claim to their parental legacies - financial and political - with little preparation or aptitude, but with great arrogance and sense of entitlement. Not all inheritors are, of course, sybaritic wastrels, and there is a small cohort among the privileged classes who have built enormously on their inherited legacies - but these remain the exceptions. Even among them, however, there is little vision. Their education has been practical or ornamental; seldom social or moral.

There are, of course, the middle classes and the fortunate few among the poor who are able, through a quirk of circumstances, to break through near-insurmountable barriers to acquire an education that allows them to become productive members of the community. In the main, however, their vision is exhausted by the imperatives of building the narrow material base of comfortable living that is the natural ambition of any among the first-generation that secures access to a modicum of affluence.

This is the minuscule human resource base - no more than a few hundreds of thousands among the many millions of children and youth in India - that currently has access to a meaningful education, one that prepares them for productive employment in the modern economy. As for the rest, there is the despair and hopelessness of most village or Government schools, the permanent lack of skills, and a lifetime of uncertainty and apprehension on the forgotten margins of the economy. Many among them are joining the thuggeries of the extreme Left, the lumpen support-base of other political parties or movements, or the widening sphere of crime and disorder in the country. For the rest, there is only the consolation of fatalism or the dead-end of hopelessness.

From time to time, these millions are cheated with a false offer of special access to the better institutions in the country through reservations. But few of them have the capacities to cope, even if such access is provided at the expense of others, who are then left out. This may answer to some notion of 'social justice', but reflects a certain and personal injustice to those who are denied opportunities. In the interim, there is a precipitous decline in the entire educational infrastructure at all levels that has little to do with the controversy over reservations, but reflects "a much bigger crisis" in which India's premier institutions increasingly fail to secure candidates who meet their minimal standards for admission.

This much bigger crisis must secure the most urgent and massive attention if India is not only to maintain its current trends of growth, but indeed, even to survive. Absent a tremendous expansion of the educational infrastructure at all levels, and its most fundamental transformation in terms of the quality and content of instruction imparted and of facilities, tools and opportunities available, the entire network of national enterprises will be systematically eroded, and will eventually collapse. The future of a modern nation is defined by her schools, her universities, her technical institutions, her capacities to produce human resources with contemporary skill and abilities, and to create a visionary leadership that can mould the coming age. But this idea and these objectives have been lost in the cacophony of needless political debate rooted in ignorance.

The truth is, the ideal of an educated democracy, so powerfully articulated by Jawaharlal Nehru in the early years of Independence, appears to have been comprehensively abandoned. The many and great educational centres he created, and on which India's present reputation as an intellectual powerhouse is based, are in decline, and in some cases, terminal. Few have been added to those that were created under his guiding hand, and it is increasingly the case that a decent education is available only to those who are able to pay a most exorbitant price.

The teaching profession, at one time perhaps the most honoured, is becoming the refuge of - at best - the lazy, the easygoing and the unmotivated; and - at worst - of unemployable incompetents, failures and scoundrels. It is useful to recall that, in the greatest civilisations of history - including India's own at its cultural zenith - teachers were honoured above all others, and even emperors bowed to their moral authority. It was this honour, this position of unmatched privilege that attracted the best minds into the profession, and that created the intellectual profile and vision that could shape and fulfil the potential of the successor generation.

Where the teacher is not honoured; where the school and the university become shops; where pedagogy becomes a ritual that is forgetful of its own purpose; and where the educational sector is thought of as secondary or subordinate, cultures, civilisations and nations perish.

(Published in The Pioneer, June 10, 2006)





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