Education: Towards Utilitarianism, Away From Egalitarianism


This year’s budget has once again been lackluster in terms of allocations made to the Education sector. The Kothari Commission recommendation of an allocation of 6% of GDP has remained far from realization, with the allocation hovering in the range of 3-4% every year. Within the education sector also, elementary education is the most fund-deprived and neglected sector. The priorities of the State being made amply clear, year after year and government after government, my purpose here is, however, to discuss the kind of education that is thought desirable to be imparted, who makes these decisions and the impact of these policy decisions on the general populace.

The term ‘education’ has various definitions attached to itself. I will highlight two of them here (Taken from The first one defines education as, “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life”. The second definition defines education as, “the act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills, as for a profession”. Both these definitions focus on two entirely different aspects of the importance of education in our lives, its importance for utilitarian purposes, for earning our living, and secondly, its importance for being able to lead an intellectually mature life, for being able to develop into reasonable human beings, who can think, reflect and reason and decide the right and wrong for themselves and to act according to these.

When India attained its independence in 1947, it comprised of a majority of non-literate population. According to the 1951 census, the literacy rate in India was 18.33% (Wikipedia). Due to a huge number of illiterate population, the entire effort came to be directed at ensuring that more and more population of the country was able to attain literacy as fast as possible. Thus, providing access to all became a core concern of the policy makers in the initial years of independence. The literacy rate, according to the 2011 census, is 74.04% (Wikipedia). “The working definition of literacy in the Indian census since 1991 is as follows: Literacy rate: The total percentage of the population of an area at a particular time aged seven years or above who can read and write with understanding” (Wikipedia). Thus, literacy rates deal with only the superficial aspect of the broad term education, i.e., being able to read and write with understanding. Education, on the other hand, as defined previously, is much broader. India, being a third-world, relatively poor nation, with increasing population, has still not been able to achieve 100% literacy rates for its population. Hence, the focus has somehow never been able to completely shift from looking at quality more than quantity. In trying to ensure that all its population is able to at least develop the basic skills of reading and writing, the larger and more important aspect of what kind of education should be imparted to the population, has somehow always remained at the back-burner. Although, there have been National Curricular Frameworks, which have provided guidelines for development of curricula that has been thought desirable for the population, yet, there has been a lack of efforts in terms of measuring/looking at the output/outcome in terms of quality. Most of the assessments and analysis of the education system has been in terms of the quantitative and basic aspects like to what level are children able to read and write, the enrolment ratios, the percentage of out of school children etc. There have been limited efforts that have focused on what kind of education is desirable for the population, and more importantly whenever such frameworks have been laid down, the assessment of whether the desired goals and aims are being actually met or not.

From an analysis of the Indigenous Education system prevailing in India before the colonial take-over of the education system, Brahminical hegemony emerges as the dominant theme. This was characterized by emphasis on oral learning, memorization, a limited curriculum, absence of women education and education for the lower castes, especially Harijans, lack of teacher training, Brahminical dominance among teachers and a dominance of higher castes among students.

The British presence in India began with the coming of the East India Company in 1600, as a trading company. After an initial period of familiarization with the Indian setting, the policy of Britishers shifted from one of accommodation of Indian culture, to that of imposing their own ideas and superiority. The culmination of this policy was the adoption of ‘Macaulay’s Minute’, by the then Governor General William Bentinck, in 1835.

The analysis of colonial discourse reveals many similarities with the indigenous Brahminical tradition in terms of perpetuation of the theme of moral uplift of the masses, perpetuation of rote memorization and absence of a spirit of enquiry, lack of encouragement to alternative teaching methodologies, standardized and centrally imposed curriculum and a perpetuation of a class divide based on the educational attainments. Mass education could still not become a reality and women’s education also lagged behind.

Indian education system, post-independence, has been modelled on the education system proposed by Macaulay in his ‘Macaulay’s Minute’. It has thus promoted rote learning and memorization rather than conceptual thinking, holistic understanding and logical reasoning.

The National Curricular Framework, 2005 has been the latest of the curricular documents.It has attempted to lay down the broad aims of education and the kind of curricula that is thought desirable to achieve those aims. In my opinion, it has been a path breaking document in terms of defining the aims of education. It has broken away from the traditional dominant perspective that has been visible in the Indian education system. NCF, 2005 redefined and radicalized the aims of Education and placed tremendous emphasis on “Education for Peace” (Position Paper by National Focus Group on Education for Peace, 2006). The National Focus Group on ‘Education for Peace’ proposes the concept of peace as the all-powerful aim towards which the education system should be geared. It explains ‘Education for Peace’ as, “Education for peace is holistic. It embraces the physical, emotional, intellectual, and social growth of children within a framework of human values. Recognizing peace as holistic carries two major implications for education for peace. (a) Peace involves all aspects and dimensions of human existence in an inter-dependent way. Only those who are at peace with themselves can be at peace with others and develop the sensitivity it takes to be just and caring towards nature. Spiritual and psychological peace is neither stable nor viable without social, economic, and ecological peace. (b) Peace implies reciprocity. Values like love, freedom, and peace can be had only by giving them to others. Peace for oneself that excludes peace for others is a dangerous illusion. Education for Peace, hence, has a two-fold purpose: (a) to empower individuals to choose the path of peace rather than the path of violence; and (b) to enabling them to be peacemakers rather than the consumers of peace. Education for peace is, in this sense, an essential component of holistic basic education that aims at the comprehensive development of persons” (Position Paper by National Focus Group on Education for Peace, 2006). Such an education will enable an individual to think, reflect and reason, to decide the right and wrong for himself and herself and to act according to these. It would also imply a tolerance for the opinions and viewpoints of others, an ability to ‘agree to disagree’, to be able to live in peace and harmony within diversity of opinions. It would imply developing an ability of self-introspection and an ability to engage with diverse ideas, in the process also subjecting one’s own ideas and opinions to test. It also implies the development of an ability to recognize an individual’s liberty over his/her own thoughts and actions, as long as they do-not affect others. The recognition of this ability would enable an individual to be able to live in harmony with diverging and even conflicting viewpoints, without feeling the need to force one’s own opinions on others. However, the liberty to hold opinions needs to be accompanied with a responsibility, that of subjecting those opinions to the rigor and turmoil of being debated and discussed, lest they turn into static entities. This is the spirit that needs to be developed and inculcated through creating an atmosphere of engagement, discussions, constant generation of new ideas and refinement of the existing ones. Schools and teachers have an indispensable role to play in this, along with families and the society.

In my view, the above aims are the ones that need to be reinforced through our education system, for it to be meaningful in any manner. Even if we succeed to ensure 100% literacy rates, complete access and nil dropout rates, still if the content of what is being delivered to students is lacking, it will be a total waste of all the efforts put in.

However, what is thought of as essential to be imparted vide the education system depends to a large extent on the political dispensation and its ideology. Education is the most potent tool in the hands of any political dispensation, with the help of which it can propagate its ideology and mold the future of the nation in a manner it desires. The current political dispensation is leaving no stone unturned in making full use of this tool. The New Policy on Education is already in the pipeline. It is being touted as a policy that, once formulated, will be the result of a holistic consultative process. However, the framework for the consultation process has already been provided by the Central government, and is hosted on the website of Ministry of Human Resource and Development. Thirteen themes that have been listed down for discussions and feedback. The first theme is titled “Ensuring Learning Outcomes in Elementary Education”. The entire focus in this theme is on the need to develop basic language and numeracy skills in schools, improving reading, writing abilities etc. of children. Elementary education refers to the first eight years of schooling of a child. The entire discourse of elementary education is, in most of the discussions, limited to only how basic skills can be developed in children. When it comes to the theme of higher and secondary education, the focus is entirely on skill development, ICT, improving Science and Math education, use of PPP model etc. The overarching aim of education that has been fore fronted by the present dispensation is the utilitarian aim with focus on skill development, ICT etc. The aim of education to establish a just and humane society, which was emphasized by NCF, 2005, has been relegated to the background. This is no surprise though, and is completely in line with the ideology of this political dispensation, which has made it amply clear as well. The idea of a just and humane society, as per the current dispensation, is a society that believes in jingoistic patriotism, Hindutva nationalism, caste superiority, religious bigotry and so on and so forth. The proposed National Education Policy is a step in the direction of reflecting this political ideology in the school curriculum. Certain steps have already been taken in this direction, for example, the Rajasthan state government, has recently decided to distort and twist historical facts themselves, as a result of which, in the new history that children will now learn, Akbar, an outsider Muslim ruler, was defeated in the Battle of Haldighati, and the Indian/Hindu pride was upheld against the Muslim alien.

Another way in which this dispensation is trying to impact the minds of the young in schools is through the hidden curriculum. Post NCF, 2005, the NCERT textbooks that have been published are revolutionary in nature. There are certain other organizations as well that are working towards providing a meaningful learning experience for children. However, the teaching-learning of students is not limited to the stated curriculum itself. The hidden curriculum plays even a greater role in molding the minds of the young. To completely utilize the space of hidden curriculum, the present dispensation is leaving no stones unturned. I visited certain municipal schools in Mumbai, for a field study of mine, wherein I wanted to elicit from them their understanding of the term ‘patriotism’. These Municipal schools in Maharashtra are also taught a supplementary curriculum, called ‘Sangati’, for three years, (Classes V-VII), brought out by the Avehi Abacus Organization. This is an integrated curriculum, comprising of six kits, and aims to provide links between different subjects taught at school, help children integrate all that they learn in school and outside, build children’s self-confidence and develop skills of observation, analysis, articulation and decision-making, and provide a perspective based on values that emphasize interdependence and the need to live together in harmony. Equality, sensitivity, celebration of diversity, concern for the environment, and respect for work and the dignity of labour are some of the fundamental values that are emphasized throughout the Sangati series (this is the stated aim of the organization, which can be found at their website). Through this curriculum students are being exposed to pretty mature understanding of various issues like caste, religion, democracy, patriotism etc. However, during my field study I found that the actual impact of this curriculum was muted as compared to its potential impact. This, according to me, was firstly because of the interface between curriculum and students, i.e., teachers, who have been trained to teach the dominant perspective, and find it difficult to deal with their own prejudices and biases that are continuously fed in a society that rewards conformity to dominant viewpoints. Secondly, hidden curriculum played a major role, in the impact of the curriculum being muted. For instance, all the municipal schools had been instructed to celebrate Independence Day in a particular manner, wherein they were instructed to conduct various programs/competitions like patriotic songs singing, painting, declamations, speeches etc. (related to ‘patriotism’/’nationalism’) and send a proof of the same (photos/videos etc.) to the concerned officials. The schools were busy doing this work even till the twenty third of the month of August (the last day to submit their reports and proofs). Such forced celebrations of Independence Day in certain particular manners obviously left no room for imagination for the students to think about the meaning of the term ‘Independence’, or what else could be done on this day etc. Such directives purposely shifted focus towards jingoistic and loud and slogan chanting patriotism, rather than allowing the children to actually understand and internalize the meaning of patriotism, which could also mean, for instance, striving to do one’s best in every situation, living in peace and harmony with others, trying to build a just and humane society etc.

With the intentions of the political dispensation sufficiently clear, it is only a matter of time however, when the entire discourse would have been completely tilted more and more away from justice, egalitarianism and humanity. That day, however dreaded and dreadful, does-not seem very far. Considering the bleak scenario, it becomes an urgent duty of all who are concerned to at least try and de-accelerate the process of deterioration of the societal mindset and continuously provide and highlight alternate and more accommodative and just ways of thinking and acting.

Nivedita Dwivedi is currently pursuing my MA in Elementary Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.


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