Unconventional in thinking, Dev Lahiri has had a long controversial career (his book titled With a Little Help from My Friends gives a detailed account) as an academician in India. One of the longest serving principals of the Lawrence school, Lovedale and Welhams Boys School, Dehradun, a St Stephen’s and Oxford University alumni, he spoke to Anjuli Bhargava on what he thinks needs to be done as the government finalises its new education policy. Excerpts from an interview :
What do you think of the reintroduction of the board system in class X?
The continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE), in principle, was a great idea. But here, in India, you are dealing with a student and teacher population that is so diverse. The CCE requires a lot of focus, attention and involvement; it was asking too much of the system. The CCE works on the assumption that the teacher and the taught is a very close-knit group.
Here we have classes of 60-70 children at times where teachers don’t even know the names of students. They come, take attendance and then they know the student will go for tuitions. There is no bond between the two. Also, remember quality of teachers hugely varies in India. There are teachers who are excellent, those who are mediocre and then very poor teachers…
What is the percentage in your view of the three categories you describe?
I’d say the average is 70 per cent. This lot takes no great pride in being a teacher but they do their job as is asked of them. Twenty per cent are in the pathetic category — where they have no option so they became teachers. And 10 per cent are excellent or born teachers. And these are to be found everywhere; not just in elite schools.
Coming back to the CCE, it works on the assumption that every teacher is very highly motivated and highly connected to the child. It may work for some systems but you can’t superimpose it on every system.
The larger point I want to make is that we have lost sight of what school education is meant to be. We are so obsessed with certification. It’s all about getting a CBSE, ICSE or state board certificate. A child should be able to get an education that helps him appreciate music, poetry, Mathematics and see the connections between different disciplines. We tend to box students in. From class IX, we tell him to choose: Accounts and Commerce or Science or Arts.
And, unfortunately, humanities is totally neglected whereas, I think, the foundation of any education system is a background in the humanities. At the end of the day, education is all about making a good human being. Why do we denigrate the humanities like we do? I have nothing against science; of course science is very important, but along with it comes an appreciation of the finer things in life. Why do we insist on separating them? You can either be a science student or arts. It’s so erroneous. We started this in Lawrence school. If you are doing biology, we suggested students do psychology also. But when they went to apply for colleges, they were asked what kind of weird combination they had. Moreover, I have a fundamental problem with accounts and commerce; these are not education subjects, they are trade subjects.
What do you think of no detention?
As a blanket thing, it doesn’t work. The problem with detention is our mindsets. We see it as a punitive thing and as a fall in status — mera bacha fail ho gaya (My kid has failed in exams). The word fail in India is an abuse. In other countries, people admit and accept failure and learn from it.
What other aspects of the current school education system worry you?
I am of the view that we need to end school education in class XI and have one preparatory year before we send kids off to college.
The school system is highly structured and controlled. You live by the bell. Everything is dictated. And then suddenly you send them off to college — by and large unstructured. It’s like being thrown to the wolves. No one cares if you are coming to class.
Students are simply not prepared for universities. So, in my view, there should be a gap year to prepare where you learn a different set of skills; the ability to research, reference, to ask questions, to allow them to think out of the box : These are the skills good universities will seek, which the students never have time for since they are so busy with cramming and learning by rote. For a sensitive child, the transition can be quite painful as I have recently seen while working with college students in a private college. Since no one will agree to “wasting” a year — although I think it’s anything but a waste — let’s end school in class XI and let students prepare for one year. Let this be a bridge year of sorts. Let there be a structured curriculum so they don’t goof off, and give them some inkling of what they will be in for in college.
A second problem, I think, is that we are totally ignoring the mental health of these kids. I call them the “pressure cooker” generation. They are always under some kind of pressure. Pressure to perform in examinations, peer pressure of all kinds, pressure to look good; their hormones are going crazy. And there’s nobody to help them. This is my single biggest worry. Mental health of students, in my view, seems to be very precarious.