Diganta made a post on the Great Indian Textbook Controversy, to which Sandeep responded.

Diganta’s post presented one side of the coin while partially presenting facts. Sandeep’s post presented the other side. What is interesting is that the two sides have existed for over 50 years now and our grandchildren will continue to fight over this unless we find a way of transcending the problem.

While I understand that the Aryan Invasion theory has been debunked, and one of the biggest proponents of the theory, Prof. Michael Witzel, officially acknowledged that he no longer believes in it according to a conference report by the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, this change of mind took over two decades, if not more.

History is, at the end of the day, an interpretation and any scholar claiming to own history is compromising their integrity. Besides, in keeping with the high standards of academia, scholars ought to mention their political biases so their readers can subtract the author’s biases on their own. There is nothing wrong with a scholar admitting a soft corner for Hinduism or Marxism, and allowing the reader to discount the filter being used.

However, no matter how much care is taken, India is run by politicians who need issues and find this as a convenient ground to fight. We cannot blame any one political party for this as they are both involved and each have political agendas. They both hate each other and the general population is unfortunately stuck in the middle.

To understand this circus better, let’s take a look at a report where Sri Ramakrishna was labeled as “mentally unbalanced” in history textbooks. I am selecting this piece to demonstrate how emotional this could get as revered icons are publicly brought down to score political points.

First, lets talk about our rights in a free society. Anyone has the right to verbally abuse any one, as long as it is not physical. You reserve the right to abuse me. I reserve the right to reply in kind or stay silent. Under no circumstances can we fault Government of India for abusing Sri Ramakrishna, Hinduism or Indian deities. Government is not a concrete building, it is made of people with biases and opinions. If these individuals want to perpetuate their opinions, they should be free to do so. If anyone objects to it and starts counter-propaganda, they are equally free to do so. So where’s the problem?

The problem starts when we bring coercion into the picture. Lets say I’ve had a field day abusing all that you hold dear. While you’re shaking with anger, I calmly inform you, “Oh, by the way, I am going to teach all these children to repeat what I just said and you are going to fund this effort.” Huh? So you think I am crazy? No, sir, that is exactly what you have been doing everytime you pay your taxes. We’ve all paid the salaries and infrastructure costs for a group of people to decide what our textbooks should teach us, regardless of our faith in their ability to do so.

This coercion has been around for almost sixty years. And I will fool myself if I think its an issue only with the present government. Any government that comes by in the next fifty years is going to continue to rely on coercion. And its not just in history. For, the more research that has gone on in the field, the more options and opinions there are. History is just the most visible bone of contention. What style of education do we choose for our children? Who should decide? What if I totally disagree with the decision makers? Must I be forced to pay them to continue their activities?

Most people will shy away at this point, for this is a very simple question. Simple questions are the hardest to answer. If we do call ourselves rational, maybe its time to wake up. How do we remove the coercion in the present system? Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem at the level it was created.” What is the higher level where this problem does not exist? Can Education work without Government interference or control?

To answer these questions, we must start to look at voluntary systems, where people act only out of motives of personal gain. Lets start by disbanding the Department of Education. What would such a society look like? While the blood pressure of collapse theorists will surely rise up, their first question might be – how will India provide education to the underprivileged?

My answer – India will not. Education and healthcare are positive rights – for which you need to do something. (Negative rights are ones where you don’t need to do anything unless the right has been violated, like, “Peaceful honest people have the right to be left alone”). Any country with positive rights has ended up with a devastated economy. The erstwhile USSR is the biggest case in point where they tried to guarantee a whole bunch of good things and didn’t get very far. China is another example. They wised up and withdrew all their positive rights. When asked recently what they were doing to drive their economic boom, an official remarked that they had decided to step back. Where are the collapse theorists when we need them?

The question remains, what’s to happen to underprivileged children who cannot afford private education? The question is a loaded, biased one. First, public education is highly overrated by those who support it. The Finance Minister of Punjab, Surinder Singla, narrated a story at a conference at Stanford in 2006.

A beggar came to his home and asked for a reference and money to send his child to a private school. The minister refused the money and asked the beggar to send the child to a public school, which was free. The beggar replied that his child would not have a future in the public school system. So, if the minister would give him a reference, he would do extra begging shifts and raise the money.

A senior researcher once told me how mothers in a village in Gujarat would rather keep their children at home than send them to public schools. Even the underprivileged don’t seem to harbor illusions about public schools that are unfortunately shared by our public policy makers.

Second, there are no absolutes. There are very few people who cannot pay a single dime for education. Nothing stops a smart entrepreneur from starting a school that is targeted for such children and operates at a low-cost. In fact, this is the business a lot of NGOs are in. And when we look at children who truly come from destitute backgrounds, that does move you, right? Well, what stops you from starting a fund or an institution that caters to such children? If you publicize your message, others who share the vision can contribute. And insofar as society cares, the mission will survive. If society does not care, then it dies. There is no room for coercion.

At this point, classical economists might use their biggest argument for coercion – efficiency, and point out that it is inefficient for lots of different people to be funding lots of different missions. In an ideal society, a perfectly centralized system will run smoothly and ensure everyone gets the best possible resources. In the real world, people are diverse with differing opinions, values and interests. One size does not fit all. The argument for efficiency is tenuous, at best. Government-funded endeavors are not accountable – they will simply get more funds the next year (through our taxes). Private endeavors will go out of business if they are inefficient.

The classical economists will now argue about people not having a “long-enough vision,” and so we do need government involvement to produce such a vision. First, the government is composed of people who have the same malaise of lacking a “long-enough vision.”

Second, this argument stands unsubstantiated by our history. There is hardly a “long-enough” vision we’ve had beyond the five-year terms that our governments struggle to complete. In the age of coalition politics, it is quite surprising that they get anything done at all. I haven’t yet heard of a visionary coming from the Department of Education.

I have, however, heard of voluntary visionaries, like Asha. Started by students at the University of California, Berkeley, Asha has gone from being a daring and naive experiment to a serious effort that focuses on bringing primary education to all children of India.

Having addressed the efficiency and vision argument, the next big one is that of standards. Standards are a good idea. The question is, who should evolve them? Why should I pay the folks whose standards I don’t agree with?

If we accept this line of reasoning, it is not hard to imagine private bodies that evolve standards for economic benefit. Private schools can agree that there is a demand for standardization. These schools can select bodies that design standards and pay them for their services. If children come home with learning that is inconsistent with the values of their parents, the latter can take their business out of the school and into another one that is consistent. That drives the school to care about good standards, for business reasons. They will change the standard if they don’t like it. That will keep the standards bodies on their toes, trying to do their best, again for business reasons.

The effect of opening up standards is that we’ll have more variety to choose from. One size, again, does not fit all. There will be competition, and with that, comes quality. Colleges, for economic reasons, would do well to accept many standards, or they will lose out on their customers. In turn, employers would do well to accept students from varied backgrounds for reasons of diversity and innovative thinking. If they don’t subscribe to it, thats fine. A company that does will eat their lunch.

Finally, it’s the turn of the nationalists, who will point out that our efforts on National Integration will suffer if we cannot get everyone to speak the national language. Regional boards of education can choose to do away with Hindi, and then where would we be?

Well, we’d be exactly where we are today. If you think imposition of Hindi is working, it’s time to visit Tamil Nadu. The whole idea that you can force people to learn a certain language, or restrict them to one of your choice, is a coercive and counter-productive one. First, Hindi may be the national language, but the reality is that it is spoken in a few states in the North. The East, West and South have different languages altogether. While having a common language is a good idea, its imposition has led to politicians jumping up and claiming danger to their regional heritage. Suddenly, “protecting” regional language is the means of coming to power.

The same politicians have also tried to do away with English, the unofficial common language in India. If one were to do a census, one would find more people knowing English than Hindi. Why is that? It is out of economic benefit that people have voluntarily learned English. There has been a backlash in states that have tried to impose local languages alone (like in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu).

We really have to start waking up to the fact that you cannot force anyone to do anything. There are sufficient intelligent people in these states that will realize the benefit of being multi-lingual. Knowing Hindi will provide access to several Northern markets and also invite people of those regions to come and trade in the South. If that is a sufficient argument, people who see it that way will be free to devise a curriculum that caters to the learning needs of non-native speakers.

In fact, currently, Hindi is taught the same way to native and non-native speakers, making it difficult and resulting in regional disadvantages in competitive examinations. This is one of the main reasons of protest and will be resolved by a customized, voluntary approach. By the same token, people outside the state can (and do) voluntarily learn local languages to improve their business prospects. Through entirely voluntary means, we will find language diffusing organically.

Now comes the question that is being discussed openly. What about education that is provided by fundamentalists, be it Madrassas or those by Hindu or Christian fundamentalists. Well, what about it? We have a government right now. That hasn’t stopped them from sprouting. If we talk about taking our guns and forcing people to teach a standardized syllabus, we might have a better chance finding our way home intoxicated. We must remember that societies are not violent by nature. They become violent when their identity is denigrated and repressed.

Let’s look at Hindu society as a case in point. Bride-burning by greedy individuals was rampant in Bengal in the name of “Sati.” This perversion was aimed at obtaining the land and property of the deceased, as in Hindu laws, women would inherit the husband’s assets. The British passed laws through the activism shown by Raja Rammohan Roy and other stalwarts.

However, the laws themselves didn’t mean much without the work on the streets – where the people in this society stepped out, educated the masses and developed an awareness of the injustice. Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore were notable in their efforts. Today, Bengal is free from this evil.

It would be a shame if we don’t analyze the reason for their success and apply it in other areas. The primary one was, they stood right in the middle of the society they belonged to and touched people’s hearts, in a non-coercive manner. No gun or taxes had the effect of Tagore’s words or Vidyasagar’s actions. While some might be quick to suggest that we don’t have the heart of that generation, I would suggest it is because we think the government is expected to solve our problems that we don’t rise up to the occasion.

If education in madrassas is a big problem, then the reformers cannot come from an alien community that reacts with fear; no, they will be educated Muslims who feel in their heart that it is time to modernize while keeping the best of their traditions. They must stand up and take the lead, for it is they who will understand their context the best. What is more important than criticism is where you stand when you give it. We cannot hope to reform any society by looking down on them and passing judgment. It is being tried and the failed experiments are for all to see. Our only hope is a voluntary approach.

In conclusion, coercion in education has been tried for decades and has failed to meet our expectations. When something does not work, there is no point doing more of it. Why must we pay for a circus we don’t like to watch. It is high time we asked ourselves – how do we stop coercion in education and act like a free society that we claim to be. Any thoughts?

First published on Desicritics