Thursday, June 01, 2006

Demystifying Merit

Social Justice vs. Excellence

YP Chhibbar

Scenario one:
Long years back when I had not yet retired and was teaching Economics in a college of Delhi University some of us started feeling that increasing member of students were now coming to the Economics Honours course who were not fluent in English, and the medium of teaching and writing the examination in Economics Honours was English. Some of us, who could discuss the topics prescribed, or the prescribed reference books (mostly by foreign authors), in Hindi, had experienced that students could grasp the points easily. But still, they had to write the exam in English. Some of us from a few colleges discussed the matter (Ruddar Datt, MM Suri, Jangir, Khatri, and others besides myself) made a representation to the Head of the Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics. Meetings of the teachers of Economics of Delhi University were held. Many more teachers agreed with us in these meetings. The problems of reading material in Hindi, teaching in Hindi, writing the examination in Hindi - many things were discussed, at times heatedly.

The professors and other colleagues at the Delhi School of Economics were generally opposed to the proposal. Their argument was that if Economics was taught through the medium of Hindi, the standard of Economics will go down! The Delhi school of Economics which, was the centre of excellence and was known through out the world, would suffer a set back. Our argument that if what is taught in the classroom is not grasped by the students and the students do not get in to the “Why” and “How” of the topics, ‘teaching is a wastage’ cut no ice with anyone. It appeared that making the student understand what was being taught was not the issue. The issue appeared to be the ‘centre of excellence’. Sometimes the discussion would get into the utility and futility of the English language/Hindi language as language of learning.

One professor, no less eminent than the others, stood up one day and said that he had to confess that when he used to teach Economics through the medium of Bengali at Shanti Niketan, he could see that students could grasp easily and in a better way. But here at Delhi school of Economics, all the non Hindi speaking faculty was afraid that from Economics Honours and optional status, the Hindi medium, if permitted, would graduate to the post graduate level and would become in due course, the only medium. So, he said, “for us” it was a question of bread and butter. That outspoken professor was Amartya Sen.
Ultimately, some colleges were permitted to open Hindi medium sections also. But after a few years this practice died because no reading material was made available in Hindi (a writ-petition of the PUCL on this problem is being heard by the Delhi High Court these days). It was clear that the English knowing faculty was against the Hindi medium which could benefit a growing number of students and the opposition to the adoption of Hindi as an optional medium was being given the high sounding coating of ‘excellence’ and ‘standards’.

Scenario two:
An interesting situation had once developed in the United States of America. When I was in this State in early 70s, I was told that the IQ test was a popular device which people were subjected to at the time of admissions or qualifying for tests, etc. It was noted by some people year after year that the Blacks, the Latinos, other minorities, and foreigners generally fared badly in these tests. I was told that some intellectual thinkers and academics belonging to these deprived sections evolved an alternative IQ test. On an experimental basis, parallel groups of students belonging to the traditionally higher IQ groups and the lower ones, were asked to take the test. The result was devastating. The tables were turned. The students belonging to the deprived sections scored very high and the other group fared poorly. What was done was that the IQ test that was evolved by these peoples used the vocabulary, the material with which these sections were familiar. The tests, however, was as strictly tuned to measure intelligence as the other IQ tests. The point was made that the traditional IQ test were being used to exclude certain groups from sharing the pie. Somewhere there seemed to be a ‘rationing’ angle in this.

The above two episodes, the episode of the teaching medium of Economics in Delhi University and that of the IQ test in America show that the ‘haves’ do not like to share the pie with the ‘have-nots‘. They do not like to widen the arena of competition. The ‘creamy layer’ of the ‘haves‘ keeps pushing down all those who are below them and are trying to climb up the ladder of success and achievement. There is a need of a social policy resembling the ‘Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Policies law’ to break the stranglehold of the upper castes, creamy layers of society, and aristocracy of academic world, on the fruits of development. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development has said in its report tabled in the Parliament in the last week of May 2006 that higher education is a pro-rich and urban phenomenon and the share of the SC/ST in it is “abysmally law” compared to their percentage in population (The Hindu, May 28, 2006, p.8). Enrolment of SCs in higher education ranged from 8.6 percent in 1990-91 to 11.3 percent in 2002-3, while that of STs was from 2.1 percent to 3.6 percent.

One is reminded of the days when there was an agitation against the use of English language. Whenever such a controversy develops, ‘India’ unites against ‘Bharat’. The intellectually appealing slogans and arguments that are used and developed always speak about ‘excellence’, ‘standards’, ‘international access’, and all that. The crux of the matter is that ‘monopoly groups’ do not like to give up their secured and reserved privileges.

The widespread support that the agitating “Youth for Equality “have been getting from the trade and business community indicates joint action. It was reported in The Indian Express of May 26 that “huge cartons of water bottles, biscuits, and shirts” and donations between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 3 lakh daily were pouring in. The Indian Medical Association alone collected Rs 72 thousands on one day. An export house provided 800 litres of water. Apparently, there is more to the agitation then meets the eye.

According to one well known commentator on media matters (The Hindu, May 26, 2006) “The current coverage of reservation debate in the television news would be a media teacher’s delight: it is rich in instances how the media shapes debate.” She goes on to quote the news titles of these channels depicting anger, loss of excellence and merit, and words giving it an All India character. One channel contrasted the lathi charge in Mumbai to Jallianwala Bagh.

One former IITian who is at present at Stanford University, USA, has written (Dethrone Royalty in Academia – Anand Sudarshan, The Indian Express, May 15, 2006) that students admitted to the IIT from outside India do as badly in the internal examinations as the students from backward class in India. SC/ST student, US and French exchange students, Indian expatriates of different castes all are in the poor performance Anand Sudarshan opines that this is “not because they have no ability, but because strong cultural and social differences” divide society. This argument indicates to the IQ test story related above.

The Prime Minister has adopted a flexible attitude as far as negotiations go and has offered a scheme of graduated implementations, simultaneously with an increased intake across the board. No major political party is openly opposing the new dose of reservations. Tamil Nadu is showing the benefits to the ‘reserved sections’.

By the time this appears in print some solutions would have been agreed upon but this debate has made it clear that the deprived sections of society have a tough fighting future ahead. We must not confuse the issue of social backwardness and denigration by introducing merit, excellence, or economic disadvantage. In an underdeveloped country economic disadvantage is universal, differences are a matter of degree not of kind. The argument here is that higher learning will dilute the stigma of birth.