When Learning Is The Main Aim, Why Does Age, Gender, Caste, Calibre Matter?

Posted on July 24, 2016 in Education, Society

By Radhika Jhaveri:

My husband makes a lot of furniture around the house. We dislike store bought furniture since it is made of poor quality materials and is much overpriced. My husband hasn’t learnt carpentry and did not go to any fancy design school. He is a naturally gifted craftsman and over the years has taught himself everything there is to know about this trade.

Our spare room looks like a tool shed with a variety of woodworking essentials (a Black&Decker plunge router – which I gifted him on his birthday several years ago, precision drilling machines, circular saw which he has reverse mounted on a work bench, a variety of sanders and grinders, a whole lot of spare plywood, screws, nails, hammers and screwdriver sets) lying around the floor. Our circle of family and friends marvel at the book shelf, chest, kitchen utility cupboard, storage racks, bird houses that are on proud display in our house. One of my very good friends insists time and again that my husband enrols himself at a design school, talented as he is. So last evening I got tempted and checked out the NID website (National Institute of Design). Not surprisingly, the Masters program that they offer has an eligibility criterion and students above the age of 30 are not encouraged to apply.My husband is 33 years old. I have always wondered about the necessity of eligibility criteria in educational institutions. What is the purpose of an educational institution? Is it to impart knowledge? If yes, then what is the need of eligibility criteria? Shouldn’t an educational institution worry only about imparting knowledge and not be so picky about who it chooses to impart knowledge to? If the purpose is to enable students to avail a job and nothing else, then we really need to ask ourselves – what ought to be the purpose of an educational institution?

I have a Masters degree in Political Science from the University of Mumbai. The UoM is nowhere near the likes of JNU and the department of Civics and Politics, specifically, is in desperate need of new direction and leadership. I completed my Masters a little over a year ago. When I joined the course there, I was required to give an entrance exam. I was a field change student and having come from a commerce background, had no knowledge about the world of political science. Luckily I got in despite performing poorly (I believe) in my entrance exam. Had I applied at an institute like JNU, I would never have been able to secure an admission.

When I started attending my lectures, a whole new world was opened to me. I was introduced to a variety of new thinkers and got the opportunity to explore many new subjects  – Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, International Political Economy, Political Theory etc. I was nowhere near the most talented pupils in class. I had no achievements to boast about. I had only just begun exploring ideas my classmates had long ago debated, discussed, mulled over, discarded and were now yearning for new ones. I brought no talents with me except curiosity. This course changed me as a person and gave me something that no other field of study and no other educational institution had given me – a new perspective. Had the eligibility criteria been as tough as it is in institutions like JNU, I would never have been able to access the knowledge that I was able to at UoM. I would not have discovered Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. I would not have known to explore ideas of justice and equality.

I am sharing my experience to bring attention to the fact that a certain course changed the way I perceived the world. I may or may not go on to achieve great things in life, but my entire world changed because I was able to access the lectures provided in the university classrooms. I learnt a new way of thinking and I will be able to pass on what I have learnt to my nieces and nephews, to my neighbours’ kids, to my own family members, to friends and (if one day I decide to have them) my own children. None of this would have been possible if I was turned away from the university just because I was not considered clever enough or because I did not have the right certificates or the right age or the right gender or the right caste.

Almost all educational institutions desire only those students that are over achievers. Meanwhile, the calibre of students from different financial, economic and social backgrounds is measured with the same yardstick. Throughout the educational system in India, the percentage scored in exams is used as a barometer of intellect, talent and capability with no thought given to the fact that this system of measuring a student’s calibre is highly inaccurate. Educational institutions believe that their status, desirability and ranking are on account of the kind of talent they let inside their gates. But is it not easy to teach someone who is already smart? Shouldn’t true ranking and status belong to those institutions that display an ability to teach and help those amongst us excel who may not be as gifted as the crowd they seek? No Nivedita Menon or Usha Ramanathan or P Sainath ever appeared in the schools and colleges where I studied. How does someone who does not have the privilege of studying at an Ivy League university benefit from the kind of ideas exchange that happens at such places of learning? Since when did learning and education become synonymous with good grades and the ability to secure a job? Why are courses desirable only if they can secure placement? Whatever happened to the belief in learning for its own sake? In our haste to grasp those six-figure salaried jobs, have we forgotten the true purpose and meaning of the word ‘education’?

I firmly believe that universities should always remain openly accessible to everyone who wishes to learn, irrespective of their age, class, caste, gender and calibre (whatever that is supposed to mean). Otherwise, what is the point of having a university?

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