Affirmative Politics: Teacher Recruitment in Bengal

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.



  1. If they are to teach science, they must know it. If they are to teach history, they must know that. I don’t see anything to complain of in this system.
    Are you saying that they want science graduates even for the arts etc?

    • I think your question will be better answered by the paragraphs that I’ve added to the final version of this post. Take a look.

      Also, to be honest, teaching school-level history or English well enough for the students to pass tests needs little advanced or special skills in the subject. Neither, in my experience, does bio, till one reaches the lab/disection stage. The sciences, on the other hand, demand that the teacher at least understand the principles behind what is being taught.

  2. History is a fall-back option for people from status-conscious families who have very little ability. “Old money,” and people who aspire to be “old money,” have a soft spot for history. Doesn’t mean they fund it, much, but as a college degree it’s a safe place to domicile a lazy or slow son. It’s also a good berth for a smart daughter working on her MRS. degree. Only a handful of people make it in history because the job market is ridiculously constricted. The rest do something else, but history at least provides basic training in critical thinking and research. I imagine the system works the same way in India as in the U.S., with some minor differences. The number of high caste names on the spines of Indian history books is telling.

  3. @James, The number of high caste names on the spines of Indian history books is telling, true but that has to do with who’s doing the telling. Caste, here, unfortunately plays a part too, I suspect. However, if you look at the quality and not the quantity of the names, an Ambedkar or a Jagjivan Ram more than makes up for the number of high caste names.

  4. Gautam, the trouble with being able to recall the Dalit/ tribal successes (actually, can we recall a ST ‘social success’?) is that they’re such glaring exceptions to the rule, they stand out for decades on end. And people can use them either as a source of hollow community-pride (“One of OUR people helped write our constitution!”), or use them as examples that marginalised groups need no aid whatsoever, and we’re encouraging lazy, lumpen behaviour at best, and anarchist violence at worse, by supporting them on the public money. I am hard pressed to see much good coming of either, and considerable harm.

  5. Also, Gautam, I think it’s merely our opinion that Ambedkar’s contribution to the nation more than makes up for the high caste names James mentions. The very fact that they have high caste names makes very powerful and very comfortably off men (and some women) in our public sphere practically invisible.

    To shift parameters from caste to class and gender, far more people in Bengal and the country recognised Mamata Banerjee in her opposition days, than they did the influential polit bureau members. The very fact that her ‘low class crassness’ and her gender were unexpected made her visible and memorable, but it didn’t mean perfect equality of opportunity for all women. This is something we should consider.

  6. I have one hunch about this. Since research infrastructure and science teaching in govt. schools of which i am a product of, remains abysmally poor, I think the govt. wants to create a position of yet more science graduates to fill in lower rungs of the knowledge economy that we are experiencing. I do not think it has anything to do with attracting brains from the rural or suburban areas to compete with their urban counterparts when it comes to basic scientific research.

    • Hah. I hope I didn’t give the impression the government had such magnanimous and thoughtful plans for this decision. The idea IS indeed ticking boxes for self-appraisals. Did we recruit five people from the ‘science stream’? Yes we did. Well done, us.

      But even bureaucratic exercises with no intent to do so reflect structural exclusions — naturally — and can have considerable effect in reifying/distrurbing extant hierarchies and hegemonies. This post was mostly a reflection on that.

      • Maybe. But in my academic experience, any kind of radical policy change usually has a (flawed) logic behind it. We will have to wait and watch.

        • That was exactly the point of the post. So, are you perhaps trying to add to that by saying the school board is merely guilty of lazy thinking, not indifference to actual causality of our poor performance, or of the unconscious prejudice of its decision-making members?

          • Plausibly so. Plus any govt. has to show off its populist posture of promoting science irrespective of results. To respond to your points, 1) Poor performance – No one is accountable in the govt set up. So that is unlikely. 2) Prejudice – That is the status quo a supppsedly left govt has suitably cultivated over the last 34 years and it continues. Every govt needs to perpetuate it not to upset the more vocal social groups. So it is a conscious decision in that regard.

  7. Almost every allegedly progressive government in the world signals left and turns right, to paraphrase the advice given to Anwar Sadat by his driver. The lower classes in any country, due to their lack of education, are more easily swayed by promises than by reason or results. India’s poor, I must admit, have demonstrated (historically) much clearer political thinking than post country’s masses: consider, for instance, their utter rejection of the BJP platform during the election immediately after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and their focus on real, serious issues.

    However, the fact remains that you can throw most people a promise, and they’ll be happy. At the end of the day, you only need to come through for the people who can hurt you – the middle and upper classes. They have ambition, organization, money, and the ability to communicate ideas and opposition if necessary. The policy Rimi mentions is a perfect case of affirmative action that is really geared to advance middle class interests. In the U.S., as we frequently hear, the primary beneficiaries of our affirmative action policies have been middle-class white women. By creating a whole new tier of middle-class families with two professional incomes, the government succeeded in turning the old three-tier class system into a four-tier one, with the gap between the poor and the middle-class greater than ever. Meanwhile, the nouveau riche class of professionals and managers provide (both in India and the U.S.) a larger political base for the truly wealthy. Poor people who have given up are of no account in any political system. Well-to-do people who have had a taste of success are the most dangerous citizens of all. If you don’t placate them, all hell will break loose.

  8. I am a little confused James…I thought the only people the politicians cared about (in vote bank terms) are the wretched majorities. The rest of us are a pitiful minority who really don’t have a voice except to fulminate here. Rimi?

  9. They can win the majority with empty promises. The actual promise is made (quietly) to the middle classes, who are smart enough to be in on the hit. However, from time to time they reserve the right to demand periodic reductions of affirmative action. Rarely does anything actually happen. A program is cut away… later on, it can be offered again, and the masses will be happy once more with the paternal care of government. Thus the marionette of political life goes on its merry way.

  10. “the nouveau riche class of professionals and managers provide (both in India and the U.S.) a larger political base for the truly wealthy” — precisely. The aspirational classes, the ideal they aspire to, and down below, those they cast aspersions on for the lack of the national achievement of ‘modernity’ (at least, this is the case in India).

    *However*, as you also pointed out, James, our unwashed masses actually keep track of the general shape of politics, at least locally, and vote in far greater numbers than their urban counterparts. As a result of which we have crowd-pleasing/appeasing policies (the ‘firing’ of Dinesh Trivadi for raising rail fares, to take a recent example), a great deal of which, like most crowd-pleasing moves, are ill-thought-out, and backfire on the party (which is good) or the public (which isn’t).

    I’m wondering which this science thing will turn out to be.

  11. Not tokenism, Gautam. Two examples from my line of work: the Sarva Shiksha Mission and the mid-day meal programme. They are the two great mass-appeal programmes which infuriated the middle and upper-middle classes when they were first announced, because of the fear of levelled social capitals.

    In practical terms, the success of these programmes meant a diminished pool of cheap and abundant informal labour, but that didn’t seem to be the trigger, did it? What people were deeply upset about was that they threatended the very pillars of middle-class social identity: formal education/superior intellect, and access to daily nutrition.

    If everyone was served food *at school*, where they could also be lured into learning, how could the boundary between the teeming millions and the khaata-peeta public be maintained?

  12. The nature of education is such that these schemes never work. We are dealing with similar “mandated success” here in the U.S. I think it’s the plight of all multi-cultural, class-ridden societies. Yes, we understand that for the society to work, more people have to be stakeholders. But we also understand that only in fairy tales does the scullery maid become a princess (or a high-flying lady scientist) over night.

    It’s easy to educate students who are from wealthy, privileged backgrounds. They carry themselves through. Educating the poor and underprivileged is a difficult, frustrating task, and most of the time the results are either mediocre or disastrous. Having the state standing over you, saying, “By such-and-such date X, Y, and Z will magically happen” doesn’t help. There can be only one result: people who are not prepared will be shoved into positions for which they are unsuited. The state will be placated, and the resulting incompetence and corruption will allow the upper castes to say, with conviction, “See the logic of varnashramadharma unfold….”

    Same thing happens in the U.S., only it’s usually race, not caste, that’s at issue, and there aren’t any fancy Sanskrit terms to mask or soften the agenda.

    • This is exactly what I fear will happen (indeed, I speculate as much in my concluding paragraphs). The other fall-out is the consistent lowering of standards so everybody falls in the comfortable middle of a constructed bell-curve. Have you ever read Nayi Talim, James?

  13. WBBSE only? I guess the goal is to create jobs for unemployed “pure science” graduates. Not sure about the caste angle. Arguably, upper-caste male science graduates from privileged background will not be interested in teaching madhyamik bhouto bigyan and jibon bigyan. Although affiliation with a government school opens up private tuition opportunities, so they might be. Some first-generation science graduates from lower-castes, probably beneficiaries of affirmative action, with low BSc marks might take these jobs which otherwise would have been filled up by upper-caste social science graduates, no?

  14. Not if they’re city boys, especially. Their families will have a field day, even post Sixth Pay Commission. But ‘middle-class poor’ (as I like to think of them) upper caste boys and some girls from the suburbs (your locality or mine, for example) might jump on board, especially if they’re pushing biyer boyesh and nothing else has shown up. When push comes to shove, Dipanjan, shorkari chakri is shorkari chakri. You must have had this piece of wisdom directed at you at some point? (Then again maybe not. JU engineering and all that).

  15. Yes, I am familiar with that wisdom. But have been out for a while and am unsure if the opportunity costs have significantly increased, with growth in IT and some other sectors, for Bengali upper-caste citi science graduates to sufficiently confuse them about the trade-offs inherent in pay commission stability vs. promise of upward corporate mobility.

  16. @Rimi… nayi talim would be a spectacular form of education in a society without divisions of status or individual ambition, a society in which no one wanted to travel or undertake any bold, new venture. Societies do not advance en mass, by slow increments. They advance with the spectacular achievements of individuals and small groups. The same is true of sustainable societies. Both progress and sustainability require an efficient use of resources, and the concept of “a level playing field” or “equal sharing” is incompatible with efficiency. Nayi talim is education for the Stone Age. You can’t support a modern society with such a program. You’ll end up with Cambodia in the 1980s.

  17. I, of course, point out the irony: that Gandhi was a person of status and ambition, who traveled widely and did undertake bold new ventures, whose life and work would not have been possible (nor that of most of his disciples) if they had been products of a nayi talim sort of education.

  18. A. Cite your referenced data.

    B.Why shouldn’t the market drive the price of education if fair competition is ensured?Perverse subsidies and inefficient governmental education execution have only stifled innovation , strangled entrepreneurship and kept prices at lead user levels.

  19. James, heaven forbid we turn to Nai Talim.

    What I was preparing ground for, however, was Tagore’s educational project in Sriniketan (not Shantiniketan). Tagore was very critical of the handicraft/work-at-home mode of production Gandhi prescribed for the country (but, as you say, not for himself). Instead, his idea seems to have been restructuring the idea of manual labour and the ‘lesser’ skills — pottery, agriculture, pisciculture and so on — so that they became dignified areas of labour, yielded greater social capital to those working in these areas than they traditionally did.

    Also, of course, his idea was to have a more ‘scientific’ approach towards these spheres of labour. This was the project he started in Sriniketan, and I think it speaks to our inherent prejudices against certain forms of production that it didn’t take off as remotely well as the more intellectual Shantiniketan.

  20. Dipanjan, how do you mean, ‘opportunity costs’? And you didn’t answer my somehwta oblique question 🙂 Were you the personal receipient of ‘shorkari chakri’ wisdom?

  21. Not personally, but have observed the general reverence towards the safety-net. Opportunity cost is the fear of missing out on the upside of a private sector job. If you take up a government teaching job in your late 20s, you are probably not going to change career 5-10 years later.

  22. But, on that note, the government has raised the recruitment upper limit to 35 or 36 years, I believe. Perhaps it hopes to catch those with a college or, oh my!, a postgrad education who’ve been tossed cruelly to the rejection heap by the private sector?

    Also, I’m extrapolating from generalities, but ‘opportunity costs’… might you have acquired an MBA on the way? 🙂

  23. “the majority of students opting for ‘pure science’ at colleges are male.”

    That might be a tiny dry factoid in your commentary. Sigh, not so for us.

  24. I’m surprised we had to get this far before Tagore popped up. Sriniketan is another kettle of fish. In fact, the state university system in the U.S. is essentially a huge experiment along the same basic lines. Note that the emphasis, at these institutions, is on “practical” degrees. These are not research-focused universities. However, there is still a vast difference between the learning and social clout of a state U. grad and an R-1 grad. Farming and fishing are farming and fishing; unless you’re a gentleman farmer, or a vintner, or something like that, or unless you have a yacht and take millionaires out into the Pacific to hunt sharks, you’re not going to enjoy social capital comparable to that of capitalists and professional elites in any urbanized, industrial society. The ideals of Sriniketan are achievable, but not in a traditional peasant civilization like that of India. Historically, Indians have achieved the ideals of Sriniketan by moving to Malaysia and Singapore. Yet, even there people watch a comedy show about a Tamil chowkidar named Muthu, a bumbling but lovable character, who is deferential to a fault, complete with head wobbling and folded hands, forever crying, “Aiyo,” and threatening to return to India.

  25. No MBA 🙂 But it’s a useful term. If a upper caste male city-based science grad is going to take up these quota science teacher jobs, I wonder if they are going to think about what they are missing out on. Perhaps you are right – at least some won’t.

  26. I figure if teaching positions came with greater incentives, they would be in greater demand. Say teachers received more more money or chances to travel via exchange programmes, for example. I have no idea why we don’t pay more for our children’s education and upbringing, because that is what schools do. As a taxpayer, I would be happy to see my taxes go towards higher teacher salaries. Would more teachers want to go to the districts if those positions were better paid and rotated more frequently?

  27. @Sue… absolutely. But where is the money going to come from? Most taxpayers don’t feel the way you do. In the U.S., schools are under the control of local government (as in India), and public schools in affluent suburban areas are well-funded and can attract the best teachers. Suburban elementary teachers often make more than university professors. Schools in poorer areas can’t compete and often end up with the worst teachers. Inner-city, urban schools have a hard time getting any teachers at all.

  28. School exchange programmes should be a cheaper incentive to organise, especially short-term programmes. I know my comment was on the utopian end but I think what I was really trying to say is that nothing will change until we change our perspective and want to pay our teachers more. Junior school/nursery teachers, in particular, need to stop getting fobbed off with peanuts.

  29. Sunny and James, if I may interject, after the 6th Pay Comm. teacher salaries and incentives are significantly higher, with the added assurance of never being laid off. One might argue, of course, that teachers should be paid on par with mid-level IT and finance execs in the private sector, but a comment section is too narrow a venue for *that* debate. It’s more a matter of gendered labour, and the prestige attached with certain jobs. We should chat about this in another post (oh, gods).

  30. And James, it’s a very, very common misconception that Sriniketan promotes fishing/farming courses only at the uni. One shouldn’t have to pay for college to go back to a livelihood that one can start, frankly, while still at highschool. Like I said above, it is geared towards… how do I express this best without our own urban, 21st century prejudice seeping into it? Well, like school education and apprenticeship judiciously welded.

    A child can learn to be an ironmonger from his family (this might be near-impossible for his sister, however — pop goes the ‘level playing field’), but he would also have to finish primary school — that’s Class 1 to 8 under the current laws — so that the illiteracy of the informally-trained skilled blue-collar labour pool gradually wanes. Knowledge = power, lesser exploitation, more informed political choices, social progress and so on would follow. Or so the general idea went.

  31. I know the salaries are higher now. I think if they and the perks were high enough they would attract more teachers. For instance, why don’t I teach? I don’t think the hours I’d put in and the work I’d do would be adequately recompensated. Teaching is a full-time job that eats up all your day and it’s highly stressful — like performing daily, for an actor — so I would like to earn enough to make that worthwhile. That’s why I say our priorities have to change.

  32. And with no false modesty whatsoever and fully accepting my lack of patience doesn’t make me the ideal teacher I will still say that I would probably be a far better person to entrust the next generation to than a lot of the teachers I’ve encountered! But I do not teach because to me what teachers get is not enough.

  33. I agree completely with the above ^^

    However, I think the statement, “to me what teachers get is not enough” is precisely the geo-cultural divide in employment patterns Dipanjan and I were discussing above. You might think your status as a urban woman has nothing to do with your refusal to work in public ed (equally, of course, you may not), but 30K, which is the standard basic pay for secondary school teachers would be a delicious slice of the aspirational pie for tens of thousands of suburban/rural applicants.

  34. So, no, I don’t think higher salaries and perks would necessarily attract the cream of the crop to school-teaching. The salaries are already high enough for most people who take the School Service Comm. entrance tests. For PLU, it has far more to do with the idea of public school teachers, the demography we will be expected to teach, and our social distance from them.

  35. How can this gap be bridged? I was thinking of junior school teachers, to be honest. I think they need higher pay, especially those taking care of children too young to express or take care of their own basic needs.

    • My (far too often validated) cynicism tells me it shall not be bridged, Sunny. Think of special-needs schools. They need much more resources than ‘normal’ schools, you don’t see that happening because parents of children with learning disabilities don’t form a significant share of the vote bank. So, who cares about them?

    • And let’s be honest, Sunny. Idea school teaching, especially junior/primary school, has a strong component of ideological commitment. It simply isn’t ‘just another job’. One of the reasons the quality of teaching appears to go down with increasing number of schools is because such commitment is quite a rare quality.

      • True. It’s certainly not just another job. Many of the things I passionately believe today were instilled in me before I was 10. We cannot be too careful who teaches our kids early on.

  36. Yeah…but 30 K wouldn’t cut it in, say, Bombay. The basic overheads put together are more than that amount – if you are not living in a chawl that is. Teachers (mostly female) are subsidized by their husbands and that allows them to teach.So we can say that the education cess of 2 percent notwithstanding, the primary education system is actually subsidized by the same people who are also paying the school fees (and donations. )

  37. Which is why 30K is not the secondary teacher’s salary in Bombay 🙂 The salary is calculated, like all government salaries, on local cost of living, even if the inflation-adjustment is a few years too late. And re. gender and urban/rural connections to school teaching, see Dipanjan and my exchange.

  38. Re: social distance, I have some first-hand experience of the social distance between students and teachers in Bengali public schools starting from the opposite direction. When I was growing up, UGHS was a very respected educational institution. Getting admitted into class 1 was very competitive and the cream of Uttarpara — as you probably know, Uttarapara has loads of old money and old culture — would not even think about sending their progeny anywhere else. The teachers were almost exclusively respected elderly upper-caste gentlemen who have been in the service for 15-20 years on average, rotated within government schools in Calcutta and its suburbs — Hindu, Hare, UGHS, Ballygunge Govt. etc. Most of them were passionate and idealistic about teaching. The oldest among them were ex-freedom fighters who could not quite get rid of the utopia of nation-building through teaching. Plus private tuition paid well. Overall, they were happy and content with life. Not all of them were great teachers, but they could easily command the respect of students and manage a class well.

    However,towards the end of my student days there during early 90s — I belong to the first batch of no-English-for-you CPI(M) policy — we started noticing the influx of a new generation of cadre-teachers with strange surnames. The students immediately assigned them uncharitable nicknames usually referring to their caste and/or looks. They were usually ostracized by the old-school teachers in office rooms. The new bunch was not necessarily all bad teachers or unintelligent, but the combination of inferiority complex, exclusion from power group and a lack of bhadrolok diction/dialect defeated them even before they got a start. As this group of chhotolok teachers started gaining numeric strength because of CPI(M) policies, elite Uttarpara parents did not admire the government school as much as they used to. The hunt for private English medium schools and 3-hour daily commute began triggering a vicious cycle.


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