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Must university students know English or perish?

April 12, 2011 13:17 IST

Let us not create 1,500 or more institutions, which are world class but disconnected to the socio-cultural milieu, which houses them, says Apoorvanand.

For the last one week the students of the department of history at the University of Delhi have been agitating. They are raising an issue, which despite its wider implications never gets discussed by teachers and administrators of academia or by policy makers.

The issue revolves around the new semester system, under which more than 63 percent of the students of history have 'failed'. The students are asking questions about the nature of classroom interaction, the relationship between teachers and students, the rationale behind a particular testing and evaluation method which seems to relish pushing a majority of the students out of the system, the role of Indian languages in knowledge areas and finally about the very relevance of an educational system which fails to relate to its environs.

A majority of the failed students are those who wrote their examinations in Hindi. The complaint of the students is that Hindi is not welcome as a language either in the class room or in examinations. It is true that there are some teachers who take pains in communicating to the students in Hindi. Barring these exceptions, they are left to fend for themselves, sometimes brutally told that they must not use Hindi. The result is for all to see. Most of the students have failed or barely managed to pass their examinations.

It can be argued by the teachers, that the students who do not have skills in the language of higher knowledge should not complain. They can also argue that they were never told by their employer at the time of appointment that they were expected to communicate with a community of students uninitiated in English. A counter-argument can be made: do our university departments make English an essential pre-requisite for those seeking admission? If not, what does it imply, both for the students and the teachers of the respective disciplines?

The prospectus does not even say that once given admission, the students will have to master English in a given time period. On the contrary, Hindi is one of the languages used for the entrance examination. This being the case, the students can lawfully claim that the university, which means its teaching staff, is duty bound to make help them access knowledge in their own language. It is for the university to evolve a required mechanism.

Forced to use the tired prefix 'even after sixty years of Independence', the state of affairs in our higher education institutions does not seem to have changed. We have assumed English to be the natural language of thought and intellect. The question has been asked and always evaded as to how English acquired its pre-eminent position!

That most of the knowledge available to us through English now was never created in this language need not be told. It is in French, German, Polish , etc. It is the universities in Europe and America, which take it as one of their primary tasks to gets major texts translated and published in English for centuries. We have the famous case of our own Gayatri Spivak whose first major intellectual work was the translation of Jacques Derrida's work into English.

The number of translated works in English would be comparable to the number of original texts published in it. What gives the universities in the US a cutting edge is also their translation and publishing activity. We have seldom thought about it.

The policies guiding higher education in India never made translation as one of the primary tasks for the universities. Publishing was also never fore-grounded in the scheme of university education. Therefore, there is little budgetary provision for these two major aspects. We have also not realised that such neglect is annulling the policies of the state to ensure inclusion, which most of our higher education institutions have reluctantly agreed to implement. They are simply not prepared to respond to the demands of these 'first-time knowledge seekers.' Even worse, these 'intruders' are made to realise through subtle and many a times not so subtle means, that these 'higher' spaces were never meant for them.

The departments make classrooms inaccessible to them by keeping their language out and later use their testing and evaluation methods to finally push them out of this tough race.

Students are told by their teachers that it is not their job to ensure accessibility. They feel that their job is to create and add to the knowledge pool of humanity at large. After the introduction of the semester mode, testing and credential giving seem to have become the primary or the only function of the departments. The teachers would claim that their standards are very exacting and it is for the students to prove themselves against them. Students ask a simple question: we have come through an entrance process designed by the faculty themselves. We were taken in because you thought we were good. Now if we agree that after spending two years with you, no value has been added to us, who is to blame! Was it only the poor receptivity of the students, which led to their failure or there could be something more behind it?

The failed students would tell you that there is no reading material available in Hindi and many a times they are told not to refer to any work in Hindi. A recent study done by some eminent social scientists of the university tells us that the quality of the reading material in Hindi is very poor. But the social science departments and the university administration seem to be ignorant of this study. As a follow up the departments needed to get their act together and take up translation of major works into Hindi and other Indian languages.

We have not heard anything in this regard from the university or the policy makers. We know that there is a National Translation Mission created three years back to address this lacuna. Paucity of resources and lack of autonomy has made its work difficult and tardy and it has already turned into yet another branch of the language wing of the ministry of human resources development.

It is here that we realise that the issue the students are raising has to do with a grievous structural deficiency. Universities have never thought that it was their job to create knowledge in Indian languages one of the ways to achieve this was to encourage departments to appoint teachers in good numbers who can do their knowledge work in Hindi. We know that there are individual teachers who have struggled for years together, overstretched themselves to cope with teaching in both the languages, and also create readings in Hindi. But it remained the heroic effort of some individuals which was never recognised either by their respective departments, nor got institutionalised.

We have always looked for legislative measures to reform the university space to make it more equity conscious. However, there are things which could have been done at the level of the departments themselves. As part of their MPhil programme, scholars should have been encouraged to translate authentic texts into Indian languages. A very simple thing to do, without any additional resource! One wonders as to why did not we ever make it part of our scholarly work.

The universities we treat as models also expect their students to learn at least one more language if they wish to pursue research. They make necessary provision for this. Unfortunately our universities have never treated this as an area to which they need to pay attention.

The fact that universities have increasingly stopped looking at themselves as spaces where young minds and hearts are to be nurtured cannot be missed. Teachers and other supporting staff of the universities do not think that it is their primary responsibility to create an anxiety free, enabling atmosphere where young scholars engage with their disciplines in a relaxed but rigorous manner. This is also because, in the first place, we were employed to teach the young people of a society with certain constraints and aspirations.

In more mundane terms, society pays for its children to be enabled to play their role in the world of knowledge. If these children are disempowered and discouraged by the processes of higher education, it'll think twice before continuing its support to such callous structures.

Teachers would need to introspect if they stupefy their students. It would be criminal if these processes are there only to make students feel that it was foolish of them to have ever thought of entering the hallowed precincts of knowledge.

We must not ignore the voices from the students of history of Delhi University. There are speaking about issues which are very crucial and vital for the future of higher education in India. They are pleading before the teachers and the system to relate to them. Let us not create 1,500 or more institutions, which are world class but disconnected to the socio-cultural milieu, which houses them. Let us not take pride in creating a frustrated and unhappy young humanity.

Apoorvanand