The Decolonial ‘Wrong Turn’ in Indian Academia

by Sayan Dey

With the arrival of the postcolonial era in India, the nation faced the gargantuan task of wiping out the toxic remnants of colonization that the British dumped on the indigenous natives before leaving India. The colonially structured education system was one of them. In the year 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘sincere’ efforts to revive literature in India and promote the knowledge of sciences among the inhabitants have borne innumerable fruits in the post-independent era through hierarchizing and diminishing several socio-cultural components of indigenous epistemologies – languages, dialects, cosmic beliefs, religious practices, mythologies, education systems, etc.

How has the academic system in postcolonial India made efforts to dismantle the colonial frameworks of knowledge production?  And how have they failed in the process?

One of the prominent efforts to decolonize the Indian academic system in the schools is to shift from ‘teacher-centered pedagogies’ to ‘student-centered pedagogies’. This involved the process of exchanging knowledge beyond the classroom space. But, the process has been a very problematic one especially with respect to the pre-school education system in India. At the very outset of this process a clear dichotomy between government (popularly known as ‘sarkaari’) sector initiatives and private (popularly known as ‘besarkaari’) sector initiatives came to the forefront. In the year 2013, the government of India initiated the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy to reach out to the children between 0-6 years across the country. In the rural areas, Aanganwadis (village centers) were established and they were bestowed with the responsibility of looking after the entire infrastructural development of the pre-schools. In the cities, the government sector experienced stark competition from the private investors who promised better academic infrastructures.

What happened next?

Firstly, the pre-schools in the rural areas fell victim to the ‘cargo-cult syndrome.’ The term ‘cargo-cult’ was first used by Richard Feynman in the year 1974 during a lecture in California Institute of Technology. He argued that cargo cults were properly identified for the first time during the Second World War in the islands of South Pacific region where American and Japanese armies brought in large amounts food, technology, equipment, etc.  The islands were inhabited with the local tribe who often enjoyed the benefit of these products. After the world war was over the military bases were shut and the inflow of the goods and materials stopped. The natives continued to believe that they will receive the materials and as a result they started building ‘imitated’ land strips, aircrafts and radio equipment out of bamboos. Of course, the airplanes never came back.

In a similar fashion, the village centers imitated the constructed well-furnished class rooms, air-conditioned computer labs, language labs, hygienic washrooms and lush sports fields but they did not have any idea about the ways to utilize these facilities.  During that time, the government was blinded by the impact of technology on the more developed nations and they thought that by incorporating advanced technological facilities they can fast-forward the pace of ‘development’ in India. This flawed logic prevented them to realize that in order to maintain and implement this infrastructure they need to have well trained experts which they can’t provide. Individuals from the city were not eager to work in the rural areas because of problems in living, hygiene and communication. Parents in the rural areas felt highly alienated from these technological appliances and were highly sceptic in admitting their children in these schools. A 2014 survey report revealed that the central reason behind the reluctance of the parents to send the kids in these so called ‘technologically smart’ schools is they feared that their children might lose their sense of indigenous socio-cultural belongingness. This reluctance continues today and as a result most of  Western mimicked ‘smart houses’ function as domestic shelters for cows, goats and stray dogs and some of them have been converted into old-modelled pre-schools.

Secondly, the government initiated pre-school systems in the urban areas neither had a dearth of efficient tutors nor they faced any form of resistance from the parents. Unprofessionalism and lack of maintenance continued to be a major issue and therefore the private sector pre-schools, with highly professional infrastructural facilities, successfully attracted both teachers and students. In order to incorporate contextually diverse methodologies of knowledge development amongst the teachers and the students the organizations imbibed the Reggio Emilia phenomenon from Europe and this initiative did more harm than good. The approach consists of self-driven, experiential learning in relationship-driven environments. In the Reggio philosophy, the teacher is considered as a co-learner and collaborator and not just an instructor. Within the European socio-cultural, economic and geographical framework, the Reggio Emilia phenomenon produced remarkable results and it revolutionized the entire pre-school and primary academic system of Europe. Problems arose when Indian schools in metropolises like Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad, etc. started mimicking the system.  However, with the passage of time it seems that within the Indian socio-economic structure Reggio Emilia is just another form of cargo cultism. It has widened the already existing class divisions. The schools in which this phenomenon is implemented have high fee structures and therefore only the elite class families can afford to send their children to these schools. As a result, there lies a stark difference between the standard of pre-school learning of elite class children and others. The participation of the parents, which is an important aspect of the Reggio practice, is also a matter of major concern because many parents struggle with working hours, office commutes and logistic concerns. Therefore, they fail to participate in the effective learning of their children. The absence of a structured curriculum also makes parents worried about the adaptability of their children in primary schools after learning in the environment of Reggio Emilia.

These arguments reveal the ways in which the initiation of Reggio Emilia phenomenon has proved to be a decolonial ‘wrong turn’ in the Indian academia as it has been blindly mimicked from Europe and then superimposed on the existing Indian academic system without taking into consideration its detrimental impact. The efforts to disentangle the Indian education system from the shadows of Western colonial ideologies have failed severely because the pedagogic structures continue to celebrate the idealism of colonial doctrines and blindly imitate the cultural identifiers of the West.

Dr Sayan Dey is a Lecturer at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan and is the founding member of Aurthaat Archives. He can be reached at sayandey89[at]yahoo[dot]com

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