The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
Yesterday sitting in an interview board of Staff selection Commission I met with about a dozen such illiterates holding degrees from some of the well known Universities/colleges. How would you react if a first class masters’ degree holder from University of Delhi for English (hon) failed to recite a single poem of Shakespeare..or Keats…or Shelly ? The chairman of my board, a retired bureaucrat , was not much shocked with the blank and confused look of the interviewee . I am sure he must have seen a lot more such samples during his thirty odd years in the government. But with just 8 years of experience , I found it difficult to believe as among the interviewees we had History graduates unable to tell the significance of 1707 AD as the beginning year for –Modern Indian History. There were people working as tax assistants unable to distinguish between direct and indirect taxes and MBAs (shockingly from my own university) who could not explain two factor theory of motivation . Probably one can let go of ignorance about theoretical aspects of a subject studied but how do you ignore the poor language skills? Or ignorance about the world around us ? All candidates were using terms like naxalites, Maoists, insurgency, terrorism, fundamentalist organisation loosely. Neither they knew the difference between these nor were they aware of its correct usage. Another senior professor on the interview board informed me that the situation is almost similar even in Civil services interviews. His reading was that one can get most degrees without much knowledge of the subject or command over the medium of instruction . I can’t blame it to students. Most of them were from small towns and were trying hard to break the ceiling between Bharatand India . If some of my friends are to be believed , in corporate sector too there is acute shortage of qualified staff . My sister informs me that in big IT firms we have engineers on roll who don’t know even the most elementary logic and in my own office I find Hindi translators with abysmal knowledge of the language .
My first reaction was of disbelief followed by anger …..gradually I realised it is not surprising at all. Where is the scope for imagination? Of taking interest in a subject ? Of learning for learning sake ? It is simply a stepping stone to get into a secure livelihood . Don’t you come across students ‘preparing for competitions’ asking about which subjects are ‘in’ and are considered scoring these days . You get to meet parents of school going children inquiring about which branch has better chances of getting a job. We have our school boards making examination patterns more and more objective to ensure less stress , better marks and …err..poor language and expression skills for students . We also have our syllabus designed by barely eligible educationists. Years back I found a classic case in this regard when my father started teaching English to our Milkman’s son who was doing his 10th from UP Borad with Agriculture stream. The boy was totally disinterested in opening the book . My father diagnosed the problem after a while . The prose and poetry chosen for his compulsory English textbook was devoid of any sensitivity to his surroundings. A village boy of UP studying amidst poverty and illiteracy of elders was to go through essays about English Parishes, Wordsworth’s Lucy Grey and even ‘La belle dam sans merci’ to learn a language still foreign to him. Things and scenes explained there were so strange to him that they hardly made any sense to his mind. My father was so agitated that he started compiling a book for this boy’s reading which included stories by RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond and poems of Sarojini Naidu. The boy found this interesting. But to pass his exam , he still had to mug up the ‘foren’ poems and texts with which he can’t relate to . The teacher of their school was also a fresh graduate quite uncomfortable in English and a product of the same system. Naturally like all other classmates he was keen to take refuge of ‘guidebooks’ written in awful language and ‘key books’ and guess papers . All his friends were just mugging up part of these booklets to ensure passing marks – for most of them no doors of jobs will open without mandatory school degrees and school degrees will not be obtained without resorting to these horrid keybooks and guessbooks. Many would not even buy the original textbook to save some money. What knowledge of subject we can expect from these kids in future?
This is not only for village students , even my colleagues complain that their kids studying in best public schools are discouraged to innovate while solving maths sum. They have to ‘learn by heart’ even the explanations of poems and steps of maths equations solving. No scope for expression even in literature subjects and no question of deviation in solving mathematics. On our word processors we have spell checks to ensure correct spellings and tools to ensure correct grammar. There are interactive TV channels to help them with homework and still the quality of education from school to college is nose-diving . Degrees like MBAs, MCAs and engineering are available from Never-Heard-Before institutes and hordes of our young men and women are making big with international companies. I am not for ridiculing these youngsters. They are simply a product of their education system and surroundings . It is the same culture that forces our young sales executives to speak in English and wear ties in the hot summer days to ‘make an impression’ while selling goods…however uncomfortable it makes them . But next time you found the call centre executive faltering on a well rehearsed sentence or speaking nonsense – think about it seriously. Its about time we take a serious note on our education system. We must take our kids out of the obsession for marks catching techniques and encourage them to the good old ways of learning rather than just acquiring paper degrees . Or else let us be prepared to face a situation (already there in many government sector offices) where we have workers incapable of understanding the work assigned to them for want of elementary knowledge of the field .