In honour of education

 Published in: The Daily Star on December 26, 2018
In honour of education

Half an hour away from home, the air smells the same; the people seem similar, but there’s definitely a lack of ostentation. One does not drive through streets of Kolkata in the latest cars; the roads are still swamped with yellow taxis and a touch of Uber and Ola has changed the scene only a bit. Your columnist for one has never had any problems walking through the pavements of Kolkata, or having bhelpuri by the roadside, or taking public transport. The touch of the ordinary and the hint of moderation certainly feels promising in a world of excess.

Thus, a convocation ceremony in the most modest setting, graced by scholars and graduates draped in saffron in Jadavpur University, was an emotional experience for your columnist. Yours truly was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Arts by the institution two days ago. During the ceremony, economist Dr Kaushik Basu, the chief guest, focused on meta honesty, inclusiveness and determinism. Basu admitted that he has little faith in traditional religion and unhesitatingly declared that he believed in Determinism and at the end, it all boiled down to luck. I couldn’t disagree more and responded in Twitter by writing that Lady Luck hadn’t helped me write my 300-page thesis. I did. We decide which rainbow is for us to chase and which is not. For me, I chose my closure or rather, the new beginning to be in education. My PhD journey, at 54, is a journey that I will continue to share with every aspiring woman …

My first school was Little Jewels, a small place tucked away in real Dhaka. I call it “real”, as all the happening places were on that “real” side. That “real” side of the town had a Chinese laundry, authentic Chinese restaurant: Chu-Chin-Chow and while we shifted from the real to the “near real”, we went close to the old books from Nilkhet, frequented a quaint bookshop, Zeenat Book Store in New Market, an aeroplane shaped mosque opposite in Elephant Road, a fair price shop of Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, hogged biscuits from an only visible confectionary Ruma on the “high street”, bought sandals from a modest shoe shop called Rakhee … and of course, dreamt of Dhaka University.

Times have changed. We have a huge Chinese community in Bangladesh now, engaged in trading, production, instead of the little laundries that we used to send our clothes to. Instead of the sweet and sour prawn laced with sugar or hard American chop suey, we have now developed a taste for fine Chinese dining; instead of Zeenat Book Store, we now have our sophisticated Kindle to handle; instead of praying in the heat, we have super modern air conditioned mosques to go to; instead of TCB, we ourselves have become traders racing for profits; instead of Ruma Confectionary, we have a whole new series of French, Italian gourmet spreads to pick from; instead of Rakhee, our footwear are imported; and instead of the 40 public universities that we have, most of us send our children to the other 80 private universities. Let’s pick education for now …

Today, while one could infinitely argue about the quality of education, let’s look at a few figures that may please us too. In 2017, for the first time, 3,500 blind students received over 27,000 braille books; five minority groups in the Hill Tracts received 227,000 free books in their own language; the literacy rate has crossed 73 percent; life skill-based education has been included for classes 6 to 10; ICT education has been declared compulsory for all between grade 6 and grade 12. And the figure that pleases me most is the increase in enrolment in technical and vocational training. Nine years ago, that figure used to be one percent and today it has jumped to 15.12 percent. The National Skills Development Policy 2011 is being implemented, 12 industry skills councils are in place, online admission for vocational training is in practice and … the list could go on. Point is, in any country, while changes take place, hiccups surface at an even faster pace. With the right policies set, we should be able to pull through, amidst critiques and curiosities. But vision to embrace disruption in the system is going to define our next leap.

With AR and VR leading us and with the fourth industrial revolution setting in with the majority of the world feeling deprived and suspicious of governance, the only way is to consider new approaches to formulate new policies so that systems are designed to augment the potential of labour instead of replacing it. In order for that to happen, new policy labs can be formed within a government, so that a new renaissance in education based on humanism happens. Extensive commitment to govern with agility will enable the next government to rule better. While we argue about the ethical implications of artificial intelligence and the social ramifications of most of the technological disruptions, we will also need to keep in mind that the most important factor to consider is going to be the trajectory of human development, without which, under the guise of welfare, we will only be breeding a culture of advanced insensitivity.

It’s early morning in Kolkata. The cafe at 5:00 am is still open and people are happily streaming in and out of it, having croissant and coffee. Most of them are on their phones, reading the news, playing games, or “WhatsApping” their friends to wish and celebrate the special day and the year ending. The next decade will see 80 billion devices all around the world in continuous communication, and installed base of Internet of Things (IoT) devices will increase from an approximate USD 15.4 billion in 2015 to USD 75.4 billion in 2025. That is going to be education at its best …

While heading for the airport, weary travellers like me are ending up gazing at the Indian version of Santa Claus, popping out of almost every second iron fence, with a huge sack laden with the promise of a new tomorrow. Let our tomorrow be one of eagerness to learn, of compassion to forgive, to change, and to cherish whatever little or more we have.

Happy 2019!