Rethinking educational philosophy in Our Times

The dynamism of educational philosophy will lie in its ability to constantly renovate itself and make itself adequate for the needs of the changing times. This article reflects on this requirement and throws light on this important issue.


Dr. Sushama Yermal has been a researcher in biology and an educator, who taught at the undergraduate programme of IISc from its beginning. Now freelancing as a writer and independent advisor in teacher education, educational policy, curriculum development, implementation and related areas.


Ideally, basic education in the modern world is a means of passing on the essentials of collective learning by the human race to the next generation in all fields, and equipping their mental faculties to build on from there. Universal and free access to education has been a goal in many countries in the past few decades, achieved successfully in some of them. At the same time, most of the industrialised nations have adopted market-driven economic policies in every aspect of the society, and slowly the rest of the nations are joining this trend, leading to globalization. According to experts in sociology and economics, ‘this makes the citizen into a consumer, and his or her activity is to be understood in terms of the activation of rights of the consumer in the marketplace’.

This phase of economic thinking originated as an influence over western governments to move away from the liberalist policies of post world war years, and has accordingly been termed ‘neoliberalism’. Earlier, social institutions that benefitted everyone, like healthcare and education were under the public domain. Neoliberalism considers even these realms to be accessed by individuals and families through entrepreneurial means.

While neoliberal waves of government have affected the education sector to various degrees in early adapters of the policy like Australia, New Zealand, France and the USA, it has slowly but steadily introduced privatization and commercialization of education in India too. Teachers, educationists and policy makers have been watching the effect of neoliberal values on the students who have been subject to such a system of education. The philosophy of education in this situation sounds more like a set of  factors to control education rather than a clear ideology or guideline that can be used to inform educational policies or practices!

Privatization of education in India is by far the most obvious in the sector of higher education. Professional colleges of medicine, engineering and management, with diverse academic and pedagogical areas of emphasis are competing among themselves and with colleges run by government agencies . The curriculum for the most part is still recommended by universities and most other criteria are monitored by centralised accreditation bodies, hence consumerism in this aspect is yet to take over the process of selection of educational institutions by the students. While diversity of choice and experimentation in education are welcome,  it is also necessary to ensure that these do not result in dilution of quality.

A study of freshly graduated students in Australia who have attended all their schooling in neoliberal times finds that “the economically rational subject of neoliberalism is not the only form of subjectivity available to these students. They argue that the students actively craft their identities drawing not just on neoliberalism but also on the cultural economy and the knowledge economy, as well as neo-conservatism. This complex range of discourses, which students juggle in the shaping of their identities, can lead to creative and surprising life plans that do not necessarily conform to the neoliberal rational, economically driven mode of subjectivity” . This report provides the much needed hope that not all is lost to the pressures of the market in the field of education.

The universal trends of student assessment like PISA  and India’s own ASER  have clearly highlighted some of the lacunae of Indian education. Before revamping the curriculum, a discussion on follies of the education system must be undertaken. Market-driven consumerism and its close kin, materialism, demand a focus on STEM subjects, but this mandate is insufficient to improve the overall status of student learning.

The time is now ripe to think of times beyond the neoliberal ideology: stop-gap approaches to fix the problems in education, whether in the public or the private sector, are not going to provide any long term solutions. By the time we figure out what to do and how to implement the ideas at the scale of Indian population, a newer world scenario may well have been established, which needs further adjusting from our side. A better plan would be to assess the overall requirements of India as well as the world in the next fifty or more years and chalk out our system of education accordingly.

In the internet age where information is easy to obtain, conveying dry facts to students is no longer important. It is the ability to innovate, create and emphasize those aspects that are crucial for generations to come. Usually, the usage of technology, specially associated with information technology, is promoted as an easily scalable quick solution to a number of problems faced by the system of education – it is necessary to remember in this context that technology  cannot evolve without core scientific research and creativity.

Recently the MHRD ministry has announced reduction of NCERT curriculum: I hope this means reducing the load of facts in textbooks, which alone are usually considered the supreme resource in Indian classrooms.  Alongside this, a rethinking evaluation of students and assessment of teachers/schools would be necessary. We have to discard the archaic system of memory-based examinations and grades as the only yardstick of educational achievement.

Our policy makers also need to develop a detached mindset while looking at traditional beliefs, historical achievements and religious sentiments. At the level of policy and implementation too, it is essential to make gainful employment possible for persons with creative aptitude and passion.

There has been a constant cry about how teacher education is not up to the mark, whether we look at it from the neoliberal point of view or not . Therefore, future teachers at all levels of schooling and higher education will need to be trained well in order to identify and nurture individual abilities as well as collective sensibilities. This is not as simple as preparing students who know enough to carry out existing types of jobs and professions. 

We have been surrounded by scams involving huge gains to a handful of wealthy individuals and their associates. Given the prevalent levels of corruption and apathy, this would have been possible in any kind of economy. The general public is watching them exactly like another set of Bollywood movies, and giving them the same mindless responses – both positive and negative. The urgency of turning out young graduates with the attributes of independent critical thinking, scientific temperament, sense of community to name a few, requires that teachers are equipped with professional autonomy even as part of teacher education.

Individuals, specially in India, are used to thinking that they are too small to take part in decision-making, but don’t realise the impact of unthinkingly going on participating in the neoliberal economy, hoping to reap profits for themselves. Following from this line of response to the world is our societal outlook of disinterest, which is reflected in the system of education, which seems to have conveniently stood by and watched without participating, while a number of educational reforms including neoliberalism took over the rest of the world.

In spite of lip service to present and future visions of getting wonderful citizens ready, the core aims and values of education have remained the same from when the British began formal schooling in order to produce cheap local clerical staff. So, while trying to come up with the Indian version of better education, we have the chance to learn from experiences of systems elsewhere, as long as we do not blindly copy-and-paste from those systems or ideas. It is necessary to analyse what attitudes, curricula and pedagogical techniques worked well, where, why and whether it suits our situations. Coming back to the question of privatization of education, it can be put to good use only if it can articulate and implement alternative curricula that incorporate the forward-looking principles outlined here, thereby being disruptive rather than destructive!

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1 COMMENT

  1. In this times when education is completely linked with material achievments in life the real discourse of true ethos of education and it’s philosophy has completely margenalised or out of mainstream discourses .

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