Idealism and Pragmatism Clash in India

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When I decided to intern at an education start-up in North India this past summer, I had no idea what to expect.

I entered the summer with many opinions and questions about education. What I didn’t realize was that I also carried plenty of ingrained assumptions about education that I never even considered to be assumptions.  And as most people find, spending time abroad highlighted my own value system and my own perspectives because they differed so sharply from those I encountered in India.

Some Background

I should caution that India is an incredibly diverse country, so what I describe cannot be generalized to all of India, despite some broad similar

I was interning in Yamuna Nagar, a small industrial city that is considered a “non tier-1 town,” in terms of population, wealth, and access to resources. I and the three other Penn students with me were the only foreigners around town. I used to joke that I expected us to cause a car accident here because all the drivers were so busy staring at us that they barely watched the road.

The Organization

I was interning with Leap Skills Academy, a “skill development” company. The premise of their work is that companies have many job openings and many young people are seeking jobs, but that there is a gap between the skills employers are seeking and those that young people have after graduating college. So the company offers programs for college students and for college-age young people who never pursued post-secondary education. These programs consist of courses in a variety of areas, including IT, English/business communication, retail, and what they call “recruitment preparation” – which guides the students through the standardized hiring process used by most large Indian corporations.

In addition to this overarching mission statement, the organization promotes a pedagogical philosophy of experiential learning. My bosses believed very strongly that the Indian education system teaches kids to study hard for tests from books, but doesn’t nurture teamwork, confidence, or creativity. These are skills, Leap staff emphasize, that will help their students not only get hired, but advance up the corporate ladder.

The Questions

I realized pretty quickly that I was troubled by LEAP’s single-minded focus on employment. Everything I’ve ever learned about experiential learning (and I researched it a lot this summer for Leap) has made me believe that it’s all about fostering creativity and critical thinking. Indeed so much of my passion for education has stemmed from the belief that good teachers have the power to transform a child’s life by fostering in them a love of learning, a passion for creativity, and a confidence in their own ability to succeed.

All, in other words, very lofty goals.

Of course I see education as a key to questions of socio-economic mobility, and I understand that a strong education can empower the underserved and disenfranchised. And yet I’ve always been really troubled by an outlook that sees education solely as a bridge to employment. I’m also wary of approaches that seem to steer poorer kids towards vocational tracks. No matter the justification, I will never stop believing that every child deserves a well-rounded, multi-faceted education, and then they can choose to do whatever they want – whether that’s be a plumber, a lawyer, or a multimedia installation artist.

Yet my firm convictions about education wavered in the face of the Indian reality. My boss, Megha, who’s incredibly passionate about her work, explained to me that her country is facing a crisis. India has the world’s largest youth population, with over 50% of its population under 25. That’s 356 million people in the age range from 10-24. In just a few years, median age in India will be 29 years (for some context in America the median age is 37). Add to this the fact that India lacks the equivalent of American vocational schools or community colleges, so middle class students who aren’t from large urban centers like Delhi or Mumbai have no way of developing practical skills that would make companies want to hire them.

Very simply, these young people need jobs and have no way of getting them.

As with all other issues in India, the numbers feel staggering. There are more young people under 25 in India than there are people in the US. So I was forced to ask myself: I am approaching this through the eyes of first world privilege? What do you do if you’re someone like Megha, a 30-something talented, upper class, ambitious person who wants to address issues of Indian education? Do you talk about instilling a passion for learning, or do you talk about developing a sustainable model that could help employ hundreds of millions of youth?

So that left me wondering whether the issue was my idealism or their pragmatism.

I think often in education these two come into conflict.

Take high-stakes standardized testing. I know it bothers me how much testing matters in the lives of low-income public school students. I know that in my own very rigorous private school education, I never once had to worry about what would happen to my school or my teachers if I did badly on a standardized test. School should be a stimulating learning environment, where teachers have the freedom to experiment with out-of-the-box techniques that excite their students. But then I’m confronted with the questions of the pragmatist: how do we make sure students are learning and making progress?

I’m not sure how to reconcile these two – I imagine as with most issues the key is a happy medium: some sort of compromise that strives for idealism and yet does not reject pragmatism.

My time with LEAP certainly forced me to consider the pragmatics more than before. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that when it comes to education, if we surrender too much of our idealism, we lose the very essence of what we were fighting for in the first place.

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By Leora Mincer