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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 37, New Delhi, August 29, 2020

NEP: Fancy Ideals or Real Concerns? | Avijit Pathak

Friday 28 August 2020, by Avijit Pathak


[This article is part of New Education Policy 2020 Special Focus Issue]

This article is not a detailed analysis of the National Education Policy (NEP 2020): its politico-economic and ideological implications, or the debates it has already generated regarding the possibility of increasing privatization and commodification of higher education. Instead, in this article, I will make an attempt to reflect—and that too through the eyes of a teacher—on some of the key ideals of education and pedagogy the NEP has emphasized. Far from simply debunking these ideals, I wish to go deeper, raise some critical questions, look at the social dynamics of education, and evolve a set of possibilities.

I know my limitations. I am neither a techno-manager nor an academic bureaucrat. I am not a ‘policy-oriented’ person. I live in the micro domain of the classroom. Hence, I am possibly incapable of visualizing something big and grand. However, unlike the distant policy makers, my advantage is that my everyday world brings me closer to students and teachers. I see the social context of learning. It is not altogether impossible for me to feel and experience the way the academic machinery actually works; moreover, I can see the meanings we—students, teachers, parents and the larger society— tend to attach to academic disciplines, diverse faculties of cognition, and education, achievement and success.

          Integral education: thinking critically

Education must move towards learning about how to think critically and solve problems, how to be creative and multidisciplinary, and how to innovate, adapt, and absorb new material in novel and changing fields. Pedagogy must evolve to make education more experiential, holistic, integrated, inquiry-driven, discovery-oriented, learner-centred, discussion-based, flexible, and of course, enjoyable.(NEP 2020) 

Yes, these ideals, even though not new, are absolutely fantastic. And those of us who have cherished the educational ideals of the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Sri Aurobindo know that education is not rote learning for instant success in dull/routinized examinations, nor is it mere bookish knowledge dissociated from lived experience and creative exploration. In fact, without the spirit of freedom and awakened intelligence, education becomes merely a sort of graded learning—an alienated activity. Yet, the fact is that these ideals are hardly practiced, and often seen as dreamy ‘alternatives’ that only select ‘elite’ schools can afford to experiment with. Otherwise, our ‘normal’ schools, or government schools with poor infrastructure, and over-crowded and noisy classrooms tell a different story. The teacher—not necessarily with a positive self-perception— somehow restores’ order’, completes the syllabus, gives home assignments, and transforms the child into an ‘exam-warrior’. Generally, a child’s educational experience remains limited to prescribed textbooks or guidebooks with ‘success mantras’.

The question is whether it is possible to alter this practice, and make education truly holistic, experiential and enjoyable. Can these fantastic words be a real experience? No, I am not cynical. However, I wish to reflect on the obstacles and challenges. It is in this context that there are four points that need to be made. First, there is a paradox. The more we move towards the universalization of formal schooling the more we dissociate ourselves from the experience of ‘holistic learning’. Even though I too am a product of a schooled society, I have no hesitation in agreeing with Ivan Illich when he reveals its discontents. Our schooled consciousness makes us believe that education is essentially what happens at formal institutions; knowledge is what exists in the official curriculum; there is no possibility of self-learning; and to be ‘educated’ is to be taught by formal teachers and ‘certified’ by the academic bureaucracy. Think of it. Even a 3-year-old child has to come to school, learn how to ‘play’, and develop all sorts of ‘skills’. No, the grandmother’s tales cannot be seen as worth learning; a spontaneous play with the parents and siblings cannot be seen as education; everything—from the techniques of drawing to dietary practices—has to be learned from ‘professional’ teachers at a formal school. This is the beginning of alienation and division. There is no ‘holistic’ learning; books are separated from lived experiences; play from work, and informal learning from ‘disciplined’ training.

Second, even if we admit the necessity of compulsory schooling in a modern/complex society, ‘holistic’ learning becomes difficult because with the supremacy of techno-science as ‘high status’ knowledge, we tend to separate science from poetry, ‘objective’ reality from ‘intuitive’ experience, reason from emotion, mental from physical, intellectual from spiritual, and work from play. Well, in the name of ‘holistic’ learning, schools often speak of ‘extra-curricular’ activities. However, the emphasis on the development of logico-mathematical reasoning (and this time, as the document suggests, the importance must be attached to ‘artificial intelligence, machine learning, date science and computational thinking’) becomes the cherished ideal. Not solely that. A sanitized classroom separated from the experience of manual labour attracts the ‘educated’ class, despite the occasional celebration of pottery or handicraft. Despite Gandhi’s plea for the ‘integral ‘education with a creative blend of the mental and the physical, the experience of being ‘educated’ in our society (never forget that ours is still a caste-ridden society ethically corrupted by the ‘purity’ vs. ‘pollution’ hierarchy) is to be like a clean ‘gentleman’ burdened with books and theories— but culturally, psychologically and emotionally separated from the peasant, the artisan, the worker. The prevalent practice of education does not unite; it separates. Is it possible to change this mindset merely through the tokenism of ‘vocational training’?

Third, the cultivation of critical thinking—yet another cherished ideal—needs an environment filled with the spirit of trust, reciprocity and dialogue. In other words, fearlessness is the foundation of critical thinking. A young learner ought to be encouraged to question and differ, think differently, and make new observations based on facts, experiences and intellectual understanding. However, the teacher’s monologue (seldom does one come across what Paulo Freire regarded as ‘dialogic’ or ‘problem posing’ education), the emphasis on the ‘right’ or bookish answer, the importance attached to ‘success’ rather than creative exploration, and the fear of being punished for ‘disobedience’ make it exceedingly difficult for a child to think differently and critically, and see the world beyond the ‘syllabus’, or the eyes of the surveillance machinery. Imagine a situation—a young learner asking her teacher why she has to write in her answer that India is a secular country when Hindus and Muslims are constantly fighting, and giving the impression that they cannot live together. Or imagine a child asking her Principal why like the army, school students too have to wear the uniform when diversity, as it is often said on the occasion of Independence Day celebration, is the rhythm of Indian life. Unless the teacher is sufficiently sensitive and receptive, these questions are likely to be discouraged, and the child might be punished, or instructed to follow the disciplinary norm of being an ‘obedient’ student. This is like depriving the learner of his/her own language and voice. Never forget that we live in a society where families expect conformity (even ‘bright’ youngsters accept dowry because they do not want to make their parents ‘unhappy’), and schools demand obedience. To promote critical thinking is to dismantle the hierarchical structure. Is it feasible?

And finally, it has to be realized that critical thinking is not just ‘scientific thinking’—performing well in physics and mathematics, or the ability to acquire the new skills with absolute promptness to cope with the changing job market. Critical thinking is also the ability to see beyond the glitz of the spectacles, or the ‘aura’ of the official truth. Take, for instance, the ideology of nationalism—the way it has invaded our consciousness, entered the corridors of schools, colleges and universities, and shaped the contents of the curriculum. And also see the absurdity of everything. The same government that celebrates this new education policy does not seem to be interested in the cultivation of critical thinking. Yes, in recent times, some sensitive students and teachers from our public universities—guided by the spirit of critical thinking—questioned the discourse of militant nationalism, revealed its inherent asymmetry and violence, and raised their voice against the divisive nature of the NRC/CAA. But then, they had to suffer. From the dictates of politically appointed vice-chancellors to all sorts of police actions—the strong message was conveyed to the dissenters: Be a ‘loyal soldier’ of the nation. Don’t question! In fact, critical thinking requires the art of listening, or the courage to live with the plurality of perspectives. Critical thinking requires empathy and dialogue—not the tyranny of power that transforms everything into its opposite. Are we really moving towards participatory democracy? Or is it that we have almost legitimized the culture of narcissism?

Can we respond to the issue of critical thinking without looking at this puzzling question?

Is the mind elastic enough to see beyond fragmentation?

Medicine, law, business, engineering—
these are noble pursuits
and necessary to sustain life. But poetry,
music, romance, love—
these are what we stay alive for. 
— From the film ‘Dead Poets Society’

Yes, the NEP strives for a multidisciplinary approach to education. It is a fantastic idea. Imagine how right from school days we have been trained to hierarchize diverse knowledge traditions. Think of the PCM (Physics-Chemistry-Mathematics) syndrome that characterizes our school education. It is almost taken for granted that ‘intelligent’ students must opt for science, and try to become engineers or doctors; and the not so ‘fortunate’ ones have to remain contented with ‘arts’ and ‘humanities’: sociology, history or political science. Science is equated with ‘success’, and humanities with ‘failure’. This mass psychology (often nurtured by the anxiety-ridden parents for whom nothing matters more than ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ careers for their children—a typical phenomenon in a country like ours with a huge gap between resources and aspirants) has destroyed young minds, killed many possibilities, caused widespread unhappiness, generated a crudely instrumental orientation to knowledge (the IITS/IIMs become the ‘sacred’ sites of salvation one has to reach through a journey towards Kota—a notorious town in Rajasthan known for its education shops), and fragmented human consciousness. Under the prevalent system, it is impossible to imagine that a student of physics taking keen interest in William Wordsworth or Munshi Premchand; or a student of sociology taking interest in quantum physics. We close the windows of human consciousness so early.

Hence, this multidisciplinary approach is wonderful. However, the question is whether it is merely ornamental (opt for physics, mathematics and chemistry; but just take ‘music’ as an easy ‘optional’), or whether we are really sincere about it. Well, to begin with, let us understand what this ‘multidisciplinary’ approach means. First, it seeks to overcome the narrow specialization and fragmentation of knowledge traditions. Instead, it assumes that the world needs to be understood as a whole. Take an illuminating illustration: a sensitive/ curious young student looking at the sun. Yes, physics helps her to make sense of the sun; but then, the sun is also filled with the spirit of wonder; the sun nurtures life; the sun evokes poetry and our finest prayers. From a Vedic sage to William Blake: we see yet another enchanting reading of the sun. And imagine how wonderful it would have been had physics and poetry merged to understand the phenomenon called the sun. Essentially, as I would argue, the multidisciplinary approach means this sensitivity, or this elasticity of consciousness.

True, none is saying that specialization is unimportant. Our aptitudes and orientations differ; and hence, it is quite likely that not everyone can become a mathematician; nor can everyone become a poet. Furthermore, in the complex domain of knowledge, specialization is important for a rigorous and penetrating enquiry. However, despite the need for specialization, it has to be realized that things are inter-connected; and sensitivity to this inter-connected world is a treasure, not an obstacle. It widens one’s horizon, makes one humble, and promotes the spirit of eternal curiosity and dialogue. It would be good if scientists converse with poets; historians talk to philosophers; and mathematicians attend the conferences on Zen Buddhism.

It has to be realized that this multidisciplinary approach cannot be encouraged or cultivated in a casual way. It needs a new orientation to knowledge—the ability to see beyond merely ‘instrumental’ interests, and appreciate what Jurgen Habermas would have regarded as ‘hermeneutic’ or ‘emancipatory’ interests. In the neoliberal era of techno-science, commerce and management, if we continue to prioritize instrumental education (producing ‘technically-skilled’ workforce), the disciplines like hotel management, fashion designing and information technology would be valued more than ‘non-productive’ liberal arts and humanities. Is it possible to rescue education from the market-driven rationality? Likewise, the kind of sensitivity that the multidisciplinary approach demands would require immensely creative and dialogic teachers who have the courage to question academic orthodoxies (quite often, the high priests of specialized academic disciplines remain ‘puritan’, and discourage the possibility of fluid boundaries of, say, even sociology and political studies), experiment with pedagogic possibilities, and, say, recite a poem in a physics class, or refer to a conversation between scientist David Bohm and wanderer Jiddu Krishnamurti. And good teachers, believe it, are not necessarily ‘trained’ teachers (with the B.Ed degree, or M.Sc in Physics or PhD in medieval history). There is something beyond ‘training’; and if a bureaucratic system recruits a teacher merely on the basis of a formal degree, it might miss the opportunity to invite truly innovative minds for whom teaching, far from being a ‘technique’, is an art: a quest.

Are we ready to accept this possibility?


As I have already indicated, I am not a cynic. I believe in the art of possibilities; and this has enabled me to survive in the vocation of teaching. I would like the ideals of holistic learning, critical thinking and multidisciplinary approach to be practiced and implemented. However, I cannot forget that we live in a society known for a huge gap between ideals and practices. Moreover, in a corrupt society like ours, we find our ways. For instance, we know the cancerous growth of B.Ed colleges; degrees can be bought. And the ‘promotion strategy’ that many college/university teachers evolve leads to the cumulative growth of the ‘publication industry’ (pay and publish). And nepotism or corruption does no longer surprise us when we come to know about the recruitment of teachers. Our politically appointed vice-chancellors often behave like the agents of the ruling regime. And fancy private universities look like five star hotels. Amid coaching centres and filthy guide books, a teacher who still seeks to carry the lamp of truth is harassed, ridiculed and marginalized. In a society of this kind, leadership is equated with narcissism, nationalism becomes toxic majoritarianism, and spectacles become more real than the real.

Hence, there is no escape from the moot question: Is the NEP just like yet another document filled with fancy concepts and good ideals? Or, are we really ready to restructure our society, rethink education, invest heavily on public education, open high quality schools/colleges with an inclusive ethos, appoint more and more spirited teachers, trust their creativity and intelligence (yes, more than what the National Testing Agency does),and move towards an egalitarian and compassionate society?

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU

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