18 December 2008

Why not to dream big

During the past few months I have interacted with children of various age groups from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some are first generation learners, some are the first to complete Class X and some have only seen a computer for the first time in the last six months. These kids have heterogeneous backgrounds - north vs south, urban vs rural, slum vs village etc. but ALL of them have aspirations and these are by no means duller than what the kid at the local private school near my house has. They aspire to be doctors, engineers, policewomen, teachers and lawyers. Sadly no one wants to become a scientist. I attribute this to our poor brand management.

Well, the trouble does not lie is having these aspirations but fulfilling them. For e.g., in my days if one wanted to get into a decent engineering college you had to go to tuition, subscribe to brilliant tutorials and generally spend your best years in front of book not gaining knowledge but memorizing information or sharpening your skills with pattern recognition. That status quo hasn't changed much. So for my kid in the village who has to finish school and then till the land or take the cows out to graze where is the time for all this extra study? How is she going to compete with all the other kids out there. A very simple retort to this would be that the kids come from backgrounds where reservation ensures them a better playing field to get admitted. This in my opinion is just gobbledygook. There are two aspects which are inter-related here that I want to discuss. The first is about fulfilling these aspirations and the second is about having realistic aspirations.

In order to fulfill aspirations the kids need access to higher education (high school), information (what to study for a particular entrance exam or professional degree) and financial assistance. Access to higher education is a big problem right now. Thanks to SSA there is a huge thrust in primary education but once the kid is done with Class VII the next school might be too far away. On one of my site visits a gang of high schools kids were playing cricket on the primary school playground. I was curious about this and enquired. Turns out they weren't in school because the only morning bus that brings them to their school broke down, the next service was only in the afternoon and so they had the day off; for technical reasons. The next issue is one of information. Most kids are aware of state level exams for technical courses but they are clueless about what type of marks they need to get and how to prepare for the exams. Lastly, more higher education courses require a significant investment of time that families cannot afford for their child to be involved in simply because they need that earning member of the family. Even if all these issues are taken care of there still a problem with these aspirations i.e., are they realistic?

Why cant becoming an engineer be a realistic aspiration? I am hurting as I write these words... for the simple reason that we don't have enough infrastructure or universities to cater to our population. This is abundantly clear if you were to read the report put out by the National Knowledge Commission on higher education. The other disturbing fact is that all these kids aspire to become something not wholly related to their environment i.e., no kid wants to become a farmer (even though that might be the ultimate profession they end up in) or a forest officer or water conservationist. They aspire for professions they see in TV or read about in newspapers that bring to them an ocean of financial security and upward mobility.

This issue has been vexing me a lot recently so at a recent book launch of "Imagining India", I put forth this as a question to Nandan Nilekani; that we are building aspirations but not laying the foundation to fulfill them, to which he succinctly replied "Well, they'll experience a expectation backlash. Next question?" Now this bothers me a lot. Are we supporting our children through various projects, sowing seeds for a better future only so they can experience an "expectation backlash"? I'm at a dead end with regards to a solution. For most issues that I feel strongly about, I look inwards for solutions because I want to be the instrument of change myself. But this time I am floored. Do we continue encouraging the kids and hope that the few who make it across the threshold of higher learning would eventually lead the entire society forward? Or do we revise our course curriculum and encourage the children to embrace professions more suited to their local environment and needs? What type of system can we build where your circumstances don't dictate your professional ambitions - this means a kid from urban school should aspire to be a snake charmer while a rural child aspires to become a orthopaedist. Any thoughts out there?

No comments:

Post a Comment