A visitor to the office this afternoon brought with him an advertisement from the school education classifieds, which stated that 40% of the proposed body of appointees to secondary school teaching positions will be reserved for applicants with a ‘pure science’ [Physics, Chemistry, in some instances Maths] degree. The news brought forth much excitement and general cheer. This is because, currently, the most accurate anthropomorphic representation of Bengal’s school science system is a limping, disoriented, confused old man, dressed in filthy layers of mismatched tatters and glaring at the world through rheumy red eyes in defiant incomprehension. Even the tiniest improvement would be a giant leap forward.
There is a big bone in this hilsa, however. And it’s not merely the fact that the pedagogic capabilities of the ‘pure science graduates’ produced by this system is most suspect. That suspicion is a given for nearly all our teachers. [Which makes ours a sad, sad world 😦 ]. No. The ‘hidden agenda’ buried beneath the progressive benevolence of this decision — whether intended or not — is this: very few non-upper caste and lower-than-middle-class youth choose ‘pure science’ tracks in college, or for their plus-twos. Most of their families cannot afford the extra cost of lab fees, private tuition, travel to a distant school/college with ‘good’ teachers, and so on. And because of this, most suburban or rural colleges have either very limited seating on their science-shuttle, or no shuttle at all.
Consequently, what this welcome declaration of science-based affirmative action in teacher recruitment effectively amounts to, is that 40% of the proposed body of teachers has been reserved for the middle class and upper castes, with a smattering of urban or suburban Muslims, SCs and STs, whose personal lot is far above the collective lot of their ilk. In other words, superglue to the status quo! Jei timire, shei timire. (Where ‘timir’ means the darkness inside a whale’s belly, and ‘whale’ means a giant, sea-dunking monster beyond the scope of Moby Dick).
A possible solution floated at work to counter this rewarding of apparent ‘merit’ was to reserve another chunk of seats for students of history — which is inexplicably very very popular in high school and undergraduate programmes — and other ‘easy’ and inexpensive subjects. As a humanities/social sciences person, I should — or so group-behaviour norms tell me — feel the appeal of this solution. But I don’t. The problem of our humanities/social science education lies not in scant numbers — an overwhelming number of college-educated school teachers are from the humanities and social sciences — but in pedagogic methods. To address our less-than-sterling performance in these areas, we should look to better-researched teacher-training and classroom delivery models, not stepped-up recruitment. Floods are not the cure for drowning.
The crux of our science ed. crisis, on the other hand, is a long drought in numbers. The trouble is that people who have invested three years — and assorted other resources — in an undergraduate science programme, are unlikely to consider a middle-school teaching job their just deserts, either in terms of remuneration or social prestige. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the majority of students opting for ‘pure science’ at colleges are male, who, in our patriarchal culture, bear a far greater burden of livelihood-centred social prestige and perceived breadwinning capabilities (this means that if a clerk at a nationalised bank makes more than her doctoral student/researcher husband, this fact usually goes unmentioned). When one adds their probable socioeconomic background to this — middle-class and above upper caste Hindu/urban Muslim — the probablity of them choosing a nomadic, rural life in unglamourous public service becomes even more remote. A full circle to class, caste, gender and religion, you’ll notice.
The upshot of all this is an ever-widening distance between reasonably bright physics, chem or maths graduates and school-teaching positions, consequent vacancies, the proliferation of private tuition, and eventually, a lowering of the applicants’ academic performance bar by the school boards, so they get somebody to come take attendance in the physics class, at least. Which drags us back to that favourite conservative talking point of: Does universalising education (the ‘public’ aspect of it) automatically result in a lowering of quality? Is private enterprise — which can, for students who pay their steep price, acquire at least teachers with the requisite degree, if little pedagogic ability — the only viable alternative? And is educational inequity — and other inequities rooted in it — a permanent social fixture in a functioning democracy?
If the answer to these is ‘yes’, I think a great many of us will be secretly very relieved. Equality, I’ve had the misfortune to notice, appeals best to most people as a terrifying socialist surrealism.