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Limiting debate to 500 characters

The move to invite the public to participate in making the new education policy is
well intended, but Twitter-style conversations cannot build coherent arguments
Rohit Dhankar

The Hindu, 21st July 2015

In April, Minister of Human Resources
Development Smriti Irani described the
decision to invite the public to discuss the
new education policy on the government
site MyGov as the “first ever attempt
where an average citizen of the nation gets
involved in policymaking, which has otherwise remained the preserve of a few”.
The government’s move is to be appreciated, for in a democracy more participation from the people in policymaking
makes for better policies — at least in
principle.
However, the website limited comments to 500 characters and to an already
provided list of issues. This partly censored opinion generation could at best
generate only fragmented and disparate
views, and contradictory recommendations from the public. While contrasting
views are a sign of a healthy democracy,
they still need logic and arrangement — in
other words, a reasoned argument — if
they are to be useful for the purpose of a
broad-based discussion on education.
Second, significant arguments could
not be presented in the impossibly tiny
space of 500 characters — a fact that can
be seen when we look at the comments on
the site. Therefore, it is safe to conclude
that the very design of inviting public
views in this manner favoured
fragmentation.

Age of fragmentary wisdom
But this is the age of fragmentary wisdom. Society is being pushed to believe
that thinking means throwing in pieces of
ideas here and there, much like what is
done on Twitter. These ideas, however,
make sense only in a particular context. A
discourse created out of such fragmented
ideas only makes for half-baked arguments. The policy deliberations being
conducted by the present government,
whether by design or due to a lack of
understanding, are nothing but such a
fragmented and fuzzy cloud of ideas,
Twitter-age wisdom.
A general contextual background of our
culture and polity is missing. The assumption that we can see our cultural, social,
political and economic needs in the same
light is wrong. Tweeting makes some
sense but it always remains at the level of
piecemeal opinion. It creates an illusion
of sharing opinions, but the real arguments behind the opinion and the intent
of the participants remains opaque. Providing a context is vital to build a coherent
argument and gain consensus on important issues such as education.
Policy, according to the Oxford dictionary, is a course or principle of action
adopted or proposed by an organisation or
an individual. It is used to generate specific activities or actions, and it is also used
to judge the acceptability or otherwise of
particular
suggestions
and
recommendations.
The MHRD hopes to derive such a pol-

ILLUSTRATION: SATWIK GADE

icy framework from a series of deliberations it has planned. MyGov declares
that the Ministry has formed a group
whose objective, it states, is “to formulate
a new education policy for the country
through an inclusive, participatory and
holistic approach”. In addition to the ‘discussion’ on the website, the Ministry
plans to have nationwide consultations on
the basis of a “pre-defined questionnaire
survey form”. The group that has been
formed, though, is a mystery — its members are unknown to the very public that is
supposed to give its opinions on the new
policy.

Faulty methodology
There are at least two serious problems
of methodology in formulating policy in
this manner. One, Twitter-style opinions
need to be interpreted accurately, but the
interpretation has been left to the same
mysterious group mentioned on the site.
Interpretation requires a framework of
general ideas, which has not been discussed with or revealed to the public.
Therefore, these opinions are open to manipulations to suit pre-decided policy guidelines. This means that a small, chosen
group’s preset decisions may be legitimised through an ineffective public
discussion.
Two, with no basic guiding principles of
consensus-seeking, it will become what
John While, a noted philosopher of education, calls “the HCF problem”. The whole
exercise will generate a list of vague and
bland recommendations that crowd out
contested social justice and equity issues
— simply because they are contested and
no easy consensus is available on them.
And, therefore, the real concerns of society remain under-emphasised or totally
absent.
The 13 themes chosen in elementary

By opening up the narrower
issues for debate through
predefined themes and
leading questions, the
strategy pre-empts any
real discussion on policy
education make very interesting reading
in understanding the scope and intent of
deliberations. Each theme is introduced
in 200-odd words and a list of questions
given for deliberations. Most questions
concern the nitty-gritty of functioning
and do not necessarily have much to do
with policy.
For example, in one of the questions,
opinion is sought on how technology can
be used to ensure real-time availability of
teachers. The formulation of the question
makes it clear that the issue is not whether
technology should be used but how it
should be used. If the question concerned
the ‘whether’ aspect, it would have opened
up issues such as trust, autonomy, responsibility and dignity of teachers, all important factors. But by sticking to the ‘how’
aspect, it has already decided that teachers should be strictly monitored and
threatened with punishment. Thus,
‘whether technology should be used’ for
this purpose can be a genuine policy issue,
as it involves general principles, but deliberating on ‘how’ is a technical question
that has little to do with policy and more
to do with implementation. Most questions are of this nature.
It is significant to note that many already decided policies are hidden in the
introduction of the themes. For example,
the theme on examination reform at the
school level states that “examination reforms will change the teaching-learning

processes and improve learning outcomes”. This could have been an important issue to discuss whether
‘examination-led reforms’ can be successful, or whether they will encourage ‘teaching to test’ and therefore further
jeopardise education for critical rationality, and so on. Isn’t one of the biggest
problems of our education system the fear
of examinations? But here, examinationled reform is taken as an article of faith.
I am not arguing against a public discussion of education policy; nor is my argument against deliberating on the details
of issues of educational importance. Both
are equally necessary to take decisions on
educational policy in a democratic country. The problem is that leading questions
and pre-decided themes limit the possibilities of an in-depth and fair discussion.
At present, Indian education is being
pulled in three directions. One, education
is being aligned with the need for economic growth. This emphasises practical skillbuilding and preparing an adequate workforce. The second pull is towards
education for democracy and social justice. This emphasises a critical understanding of society, politics, economy and
the value framework needed for a more
equitable and harmonious society. The
third pull, becoming stronger by the day,
is towards aligning education with a certain perspective of Indian culture and history. This lays emphasis on enlarging the
space in curriculum for Hindu heroes,
scriptures and practices. All three pulls
underline different approaches to understanding the needs of society and polity.
For example, the economic pull, while
emphasising marketable skills, will underplay issues of political critique and social justice. This may lead to an efficient
but docile workforce and encourage consumerism. On the other hand, a sole emphasis on education for social justice,
without taking care of the capabilities required to earn one’s livelihood, may lead
to what the Kothari Commission Report
called “armies of unemployable graduates” who will fail even to achieve social
justice. And an emphasis on a partisan
understanding of Indian culture and history will lead to a fragmented and striferidden society, which will jeopardise economic progress as well as democracy and
social justice.
The government’s emphasis on Twitter-style conversations indicates a refusal
to engage in any sustained discussion. By
opening up the narrower issues for public
debate through predefined themes and
leading questions, the strategy pre-empts
any discussion on real policy issues, thus
leaving decisions in the hands of a chosen
few. An illusion of open democratic debate has been created but the public mind
has actually been bogged down in minor
details of little significance.
(Rohit Dhankar is professor and director, academic development, at Azim
Premji University, Bengaluru, and Academic Advisor, Digantar, Jaipur.)