"Education system is cheating students": Dr Pratap B Mehta

PRATAP Bhanu Mehta, a former Harvard professor was recently honoured with Infosys Prize in social sciences. The jury described him as “one of India’s finest public minds”. In this interview with Careers360's editor B Mahesh Sarma, Dr Mehta takes a critical look at Indian education... 

Q. What does the Infosys Prize mean to you?
A. It is a humbling experience. I was pleased that it was recognition of political science as a discipline and in particular political theory, which is conventionally not very highly regarded. I am at the moment in this kind of odd stage of academic work with some amount of public engagement and public writing. I think jury’s appreciation of “public reason” in a democracy was quite gratifying.

Q. The citation says that you have attempted to broaden the sphere of public reason. In what ways?
A. Well, you may have to ask the jury as to what they meant and found important. As far as I am concerned, I try as best as I can to make good arguments about contemporary politics and policy challenges and strategies. One of the things you can do as an academic is to bring to light the deeper presumptions behind many of the arguments we make, which opens up more possibilities for making different kinds of arguments. 

Q. You have been a professor, a policy maker and a public intellectual. Which of these three roles you have enjoyed the most?
A. Teaching. That is for two reasons. First, I always wanted it for my own intellectual development. When you have to teach something, the decision that goes behind how you build arguments is very important.  Secondly, I will say in all the institutions I have been across the world students will never let you down. There is certainly some variance in quality of students, but I have never encountered a situation where the students, if you take them seriously, won’t take you seriously. So, teaching has been hugely energising and the most enjoyable role.

Q. You have taught at Harvard as well as JNU. How would you compare the student communities at these two institutions? 
A.  The teaching part at both the institutions was enjoyable. But obviously there is a vast difference in the kinds of students you have. The big challenge at JNU which I think was an invigorating challenge - was the fact that you have students from a wide variety of backgrounds. By variety I mean, among other things, students who come from privileged families and those who may well have been the first generation out of bonded labour. What does it mean to make an argument that could speak to both their aspirations and both their life experiences? Another interesting thing about JNU was that you would make an argument in political theory in the absence of any significant consensus on what our core values are and in context of political contestation as to whether one could be categorised as a Maoist or an internationalist, etc. 

Q. Where do the Indian  students lag behind?
A. I cannot help saying that the Indian university system is cheating all its students in some fundamental ways. I think many of the students at JNU were bright but the preparation they had was next to zero. For instance, at MA level, you would meet students who gave the impression as if they had not done their undergraduate degrees. I think as a society and in terms of pedagogy, we are not struggling hard enough with questions. Like there were students who would struggle with English, but we pretend that they don’t. How do we address as teachers things like a lack of basic writing skills?

The most worrying aspect is that Indian undergraduates are taught to fear big books and big ideas, particularly in social sciences and humanities. They seldom read original books. In good institutions abroad, the whole point of undergraduate education is to equip you with the confidence that you can take on anything in the world.  I think there is something about our undergraduate system that doesn’t instil that self-confidence and that’s a harder thing to deal with.

Q. Does that have something to do with the way in which we have structured our undergraduate programmes?
A. It is a combination of a lot of things, the most important of which is not just the way our undergraduate programmes are structured but the turn we have taken in our school education. The worrying part is a greater and greater emphasis on short answer questions, on objective type answers. It is quite possible for a student in the Indian system to go from class 8th to MA without having to write an essay in the genuine sense of an essay. They write answers to exam questions where you have a kind of protocol as to how to write. But it’s different from writing something for which you would be held responsible – making an argument.

Schools are under-emphasizing the basics of writing. The push towards the exams at the end of the year as the primary mode of evaluation forces you to take an expedient route through the system. In India, even if students are encouraged to read Plato, which is deeper and more fun to read than any secondary book on Plato, they are likely to come back to you and say, ‘We have really understood, but we fear we will fail our exams’. In any good education system – and it’s particularly true of some US institutions - the teacher is in complete control of the classroom. They set the expectations, students know what the expectations are, and teachers evaluate them according to the expectations. In India, we have a disjuncture between the people who are teaching you, the people who are evaluating you, and the standards between them.
Q. How do you view the new private education providers?
A. I have often canvassed the idea of what would it mean to create a genuinely world class university outside the state system. Universities have a long gestation period which is why there must be a kind of urgency to the moment. If you miss the boat now, you are effectively missing a generation. If you think of a university that ranges from research to undergraduate education, I don’t think we have seen a private player with that kind of ambition yet.

A great university will have to be genuinely not for profit. Such a project will have to be scaled up right from the beginning; you cannot do it incrementally. The biggest challenge would be attracting faculty; most teachers want to know who my colleagues are going to be. So, if you do it incrementally, say, you start one programme today and another three years later, you are not going to attain a minimum critical size.

Shiv Nadar University in Noida might turn out to be a promising one. It’s also true that our regulatory uncertainties really deter private players. It is very hard to attract investment, if you plan to spend Rs 2000 crores in a not-for-profit venture and yet are not sure who you could teach, how you could teach them, how much cross subsidy you could do. Hopefully, these regulatory uncertainties will dispel and we will get some interesting action in this space.

------------------------------------------------------ कोई भी मूल्य एवं संस्कृति तब तक जीवित नहीं रह सकती जब तक वह आचरण में नहीं है.

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