In an op-ed in The Hindu, "Questions of real national security", scientist and well-known public intellectual Pushpa Bhargava dicusses "agriculture security... education security, and health security". But in his five paragraphs on education, mother-tongue medium education finds no mention at all. This is a pity. Coincidentally, another part of the same newspaper reviews Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local - "a passionate call to respect and enshrine the inalienable right of all the children of the world to learn their languages and through their languages."
Bhargava rightly bemoans the quality of India's government-school education (which is overwhelmingly in the dominant regional language). What he does not say is that children of indigenous peoples and linguistic-minorities suffer doubly under such a system: a bad education made worse by a non-mother-tongue medium! This no doubt contributes to the official elementary-school drop-out rate of nearly 49%.
But Bhargava also disapproves of the extensive commercialization of both school and higher (including professional) education: "education has become a commodity to be sold and purchased." In the current ASER report on school education, Amit Kaushik in his essay "The Shift to Private Schools" alerts us that enrolments in private schools have increased from 16.4% in 2005, to 22.5% in 2008, even as "learning levels appear to be stagnating or declining":
"only 41 percent across Grades 1 to 8 [were] able to read simple stories in 2008 as opposed to 43.6 percent in 2005. Similarly, only 27.9 percent children across grades could do simple division sums in 2008, as compared to 30.9 percent in 2005. This decline is observed in both government and private schools, even though the latter continue to maintain a marginally higher level than the government schools, at least on an all India basis. However, as has been shown elsewhere in this Report, in many States there is little or no difference in the performance of government and private schools, and in many the performance of the latter is far lower than that of government schools in some of the other, more educationally advanced States. In an uncomfortably large number of cases then, receiving a private school education would clearly seem to be no guarantor of acquiring any significantly better learning."
Clearly, an English-medium education (among the attractions of a private-school education) is not helping these children learn at all! These schools are yet more instances of the "early-start and maximal-exposure" myths that I blogged about recently.
Back to Bhargava: "It is no surprise, therefore, that 80 per cent of the engineering graduates (in fact, graduates in all areas) India produces are unemployable." These are figures amplified by others, for example in this article in Outlook:
"In the intensely desired world of BPOs, IT majors and MNCs, language gatekeepers are turning down all but a minuscule number of applying graduates. According to Uma K. Raman, head, Skills Enhancement, HCL BPO, her company rejects 92-93 per cent of applicants for poor English. Sandhya Chitale, director, Nasscom's Educational Initiative, puts the rejection rate for non-engineering graduates applying to the IT and IT-enabled sector, both in "voice" and "non-voice" roles, at 82-83 per cent, for lack of soft skills, including written and oral English. About 65-75 per cent of applying engineers are rejected for the same reasons."
Anjali Puri, the author of that despairing essay "English Speaking Curse", says:
"The teachers make an important fundamental point, which I hear repeated, time and again, by teachers in other institutions. These problems have their roots in students being language-impoverished rather than just English-impoverished (that is, demonstrating a poor ability in regional languages too), and being virtually cut off from the humanities stream from senior school."
In other words, the education of these students is typical case of a subtractive multilingualism: the dominant, "prestige" language is rarely learnt well, and even when it is, this happens at the expense of the home language(s).
This is why Pushpa Bhargava should have emphasized the language question while speaking of an education system that promotes national security. He rightly identifies the need in India for "a knowledge society in which every citizen has a minimum amount of knowledge." The way to that is through mother-tongue medium based multilingual education.
The crucial message of Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local (click here for ordering information) needs to spread.
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