I opened the Op-Ed page of The Hindu yesterday to read the headline – “Limiting debate to 500 characters” written by Rohit Dhankar.The article began with a sweeping statement “Twitter style conversations cannot build coherent arguments”, referring to the invitation to discuss the New Education Policy. Many tweets since then have “coherently” demolished many verbose arguments of the piece, but that is not the point I wish to discuss here.
As I continued to read, I was aghast at the poor homework by the author and was distressed that drastic conclusions were reached upon based on poor understanding of the working of the participatory website, www.mygov.in. I was amused at how easy it is to get published in main stream papers if you merely criticize this government.
Let’s discuss a few arguments in detail, lest this article doesn’t end up with the same rhetoric. One of the fundamental arguments of the author is about the composition of a mysterious group. First, let me paste parts of his argument here – “MyGov declares that the Ministry has formed a group whose objective, it states, is….”. “ The group that has been formed, though, is a mystery — its members are unknown to the very public that is supposed to give its opinions on the new policy.”
The author goes on to insinuate (in a full paragraph) that the “small chosen group” will decide on the policy. This is where the author (and perhaps the editor) should have done some homework. www.mygov.in is a participatory website that is a brainchild of the Prime Minister. Ordinary citizens (and not just “eminent” citizens) can now merely login to the site, and share their opinions on various facets of governance. To give this some structure, the site classifies various topics and anyone can go and share their view on the topic of his/her interest. A discussion “group” is created for each topic – just like you have groups on facebook, gmail, yahoo, whatsapp etc. The “group” consists of all those who contribute their ideas. So just like there is a New Education Policy Group, there is also an Incredible India group, a Job Creation group etc.
This therefore begs the question – What kind of fact checking happens at The Hindu before an article is published? The basic premise of this article is that a “mysterious group” is running the entire show. Did the editors think that no one will access the site to find the truth?
Next, the author cites the 500 character limit in the comments section, and argues that it is often not possible to limit oneself to such a short limit while putting across views on something as serious as education. I found merit in this argument, and visited the New Education Policy discussion page here. I was aghast at what I found. The 500 character limit is surely there, but you can also upload pdf documents, images etc onto this site. A lot of people have done so, and that is how I knew this. This means that I can type up 5 pages worth of my suggestions, create a pdf file for each page, and then upload it onto this site. Or if I have an argument that is 800 characters long, I can type two different messages.
The author equated the 500 character limit to “partly censored opinion generation” (no I am not kidding, the author actually said that!) Therefore this begs the question – who gets to benefit from this half-baked information? Why should the reader be willfully misled by a premium newspaper like The Hindu?
Now that we have shown you the full facts, let’s move over to the opinions expressed in the article further. “By opening up the narrower issues for public debate through predefined themes and leading questions,…”. The author sums up his arguments thus, in the last paragraph of the article. Please visit the New Education Policy group page here. There are 13 themes under School Education, 20 themes under Higher Education. For brevity sake, I am not pasting the 33 topics here, but I would again strongly urge you to visit the page and think if these are “narrow” topics by any chance? These topics cover a wide range of issues under education, if not the full gamut. It is surprising to note that the author found them “narrow”.
What are the arguments that the author makes to substantiate this claim? Sample this – “For example, in one of the questions, opinion is sought on how technology can be used to ensure real-time availability of teachers. The formulation of the question makes it clear that the issue is not whether technology should be used but how it should be used. If the question concerned the ‘whether’ aspect, it would have opened up issues such as trust, autonomy, responsibility and dignity of teachers, all important factors. But by sticking to the ‘how’ aspect, it has already decided that teachers should be strictly monitored and threatened with punishment.”
Anybody remotely familiar with the government schools is very well versed with attendance patterns of the teachers. The author blindly asks the system to “trust” the teachers in being responsible, and not even try to think of penalizing them for transgressions. The author finds fault with the fact that a policy decision of using technology to monitor teachers has already been taken, and the discussion is merely on implementing it. In fact, this is one of his fundamental argument about the MyGov page – “Most questions concern the nitty-gritty of functioning and do not necessarily have much to do with policy.” All I can request is to urge you, the reader to visit the MyGov page and view the topics once again.
Another underlying tone of the article is the offensive manner in which the opinions provided on the group are treated. The author feels that one cannot have “fragemented” views on policy. It has to be “in-depth” only. He also tells us that “Society is being pushed to believe that thinking means throwing in pieces of ideas here and there”. At a few other places, he makes this same point again by choosing different words.
Another example – “While contrasting views are a sign of a healthy democracy, they still need logic and arrangement — in other words, a reasoned argument — if they are to be useful for the purpose of a broad-based discussion on education.”
So, just for fun, I went to the discussion page for the Theme – “New Knowledge, pedagogies and approaches for teaching of Science, Maths and Technology in School Education to improve learning outcomes of Students”
At the time of writing this article, the first response on this page is from a user ID “Amnesty International India”. The user uploaded a pdf document here. There is not a single usage of the words - Science, Maths or Technology – in their opinion on Science, Maths and Technology! A couple of opinions I found interesting, given by ordinary folks. Please go through the link for many more suggestions.
The very idea of MyGov is this – if you have only two ideas that you will think will benefit education, please share them with the government. You do not need to be an “intellectual” to reel out ideas on reforms. Anyone who has a stake in education which is practically every citizen must be given opportunity to contribute.
The author also worries about the “lack of consensus”. Which policy in the world has been evolved out of a consensus of all their stake holders? Not only is the article based on false premises, the author does not give a concrete suggestion towards policy making in education. There is a lot of rhetoric that flows in, like “education for democracy and social justice.” Of course what is an article without the customary reference to “aligning education with a certain perspective of Indian culture and history. This lays emphasis on enlarging the space in curriculum for Hindu heroes, scriptures and practices”.
Our mainstream media has restricted the debates around education to history in text books and civic values alone. For the first time, the debate has been opened up to encompass various other facets of education. If this causes heart-burn amongst the liberals, so be it.
By S Sudhir Kumar