India has 11,443 colleges and 789 universities. Yet the education they impart to its lakhs of students are incomparably lower than accepted global norms. Of the tens of thousands of graduates of ‘English literature’, for example, a majority can’t express themselves clearly in the language, nor would they be persuaded to learn. Most graduates, moreover, of science and humanities courses are unemployable. How is it that over a century of ‘modern’ education has yielded so little dividend? Saikat Majumdar’s College: Pathways of Possibility picks out our diseased system and charts an ambitious path for undergraduate education.
The fact that Indian undergraduate arts-science education—as different from professional courses—is considered a cesspit of mediocrity is spelt out at the beginning, after a recounting of engineering students cramming in Kota’s coaching dungeons: As Majumdar notes in comparison, the prestige of a degree from MIT or Caltech does in no way overshadow that from Yale or Princeton. His goal here is to “find some new avenues for art-science education in India today”. What ails such education is an ingrained prejudice against original thinking, a system that rewards expert swotters. The roots of this are well-known. In the words of Andre Beteille, who is quoted: “The first universities that came into being in 1857 in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were set up primarily for conducting examinations and awarding degrees, and not for undertaking research or even teaching”. Known for ignoring scientific education, it was a gateway to clerkdom. Independent India did little to change this structure, and with the setting up of specialised centres for research in the pure and social sciences, art-science colleges are pushed further into making their drab journey through “India’s examination-centred pedagogy”.