The Myth of Learning in India

Update (Aug 6): IIT Roorkee has decided to re-admit the expelled students, on certain conditions.They have taken a lenient view, considered the situation again and accounted for the impact of the expulsion on the students’ future. #inanity-of-it-all


IIT Roorkee, a premier engineering institute of India, recently expelled several first year students for not meeting the requisite grades. Predictably, there is a backlash both outside and from within the IIT communities themselves, although there are more examples in the past of such incidents in the IITs. There are also insinuations that the decision, by affecting mostly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is discriminatory in nature.

Many important issues in our education system are laid bare by this unfortunate event. As the author of one of the articles asked, why is the teaching not being questioned? Or the academic practices? Or counseling and remediation? Where are the voices of students in decision making? What legal and educational recourse do students have in the face of such orders? Why is the evaluation and grading system designed in the way it is? Why expel at all, anyways?

It makes me question why we take our education system so seriously. It also proves a thesis I have evolved. For generations we have believed that the education system transforms students, with each class level and exam signifying one step in that direction. But if that were really true, in general, then we would be living in a far equitable, happier, sustainable and prosperous world.

Instead, I have come to believe that the student, far from being transformed, represents a form of organized labour, who along with the academic and administrative labour, and the capital inputs of buildings & infrastructure, actually manufactures certain outputs – the outputs being marks and degrees. These marks and degrees then become commodities used to transact production downstream – either more degrees or formal employment. All funding, policy, standards, school practices and the like are subservient to this production process.

This is not learning. This is production. And production by any means possible – even those that cannot ever pass for anything close to academic excellence, far less to the delight and joy of learning. So we see ministers with fake degrees, grace marks in standardized exams, teachers or school leaders with zero qualification, schools with no infrastructure and research that is non-existent – but still reports that our children have completed school levels or have got into the IITs in droves – as evidence that the system really, really works.

The system works, but it is not learning, it is production of a different kind altogether. And this system of production, at scale, can have no other ways to work – it knows nothing about people and learning, but a lot about numbers and certificates.

People, though, are another thing. People are resilient. They understand the value of the system in transacting the business of living, and accept it as yet another fact they have to deal with, and carry on. That single fact pushes the system through, from generation to generation, from shocking fact to abysmal deception. And people do succeed, some due to and some despite the system.

But it does not need to be this way. There is great joy and reward in learning and sharing. The potential benefits of a well thought out educational system can really result in social outcomes of equity with growth. Such a system would have none of the trappings of the production organization that education is today.

The countless folks who have been rejected or denied education, both outside and inside the current system – there is hope that things will change. Or else they shall have to be made to.

In solidarity, then!

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