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How literate is young India?

We hear all the time that India will soon be reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend as a result of having a high ratio of working age population to retirees. Can we?

In recent months, I interacted with students at seven colleges. Of these two were government and five private colleges). These included interactions with 150 teachers of the most famous and oldest college in Mangalore.

I wanted to find out how our collegians were preparing themselves to enter the job market. What I discovered was shocking. Many were even unaware of the notorious 2G scam. The students at the private colleges were marginally more articulate than those at the government colleges. At every college I had to coax the students to speak. Our rote oriented examination system has failed to impart communication skills to students.

 

Lack of English knowledge even among convent kids

Many poor families are sending their children, spending their hard-earned money to private ‘convent’ schools with the hope of their progeny fluent in English. Speaking in English need not be the criterion of good education; however, having language skills is certainly useful in today’s world. One student was frank to admit that despite going to an English medium school all through; he still struggles to communicate in English.

Most students have not read even one non-text book during the previous 12 months. The teachers were no different. But for one teacher no one had heard of ‘Arab Spring.’ While about 20 per cent expressed a desire to get involved in social work while in college itself, they expressed their inability to do so because of a lack of suitable platform. At one college, I was shocked to find paper plates thrown all around the campus; yet students told me that they are concerned about the menace of garbage. They didn’t seem to know that they can keep their own campus clean.

 

Impervious to changes around

Many mentioned about corrupt politicians and lack of governance. However, they could not connect that it is only by taking an active part in electoral politics that good candidates could be elected to improve governance. If you do not know the importance of civil society’s participation as an essential condition to bring about good governance, what hopes do we have?

 

Only 16 per cent graduates employable!

N R Narayana Murthy, Chairman of Infosys, had stated that only about 16 per cent of our graduates are employable. Our interaction has convinced us that he is not off the mark in his assessment. Unless we as a society realise the inconvenient truth that our youth is failing to develop the needed skills even after spending an enormous amount of time in schools and colleges, there will be no demographic dividend. Instead, our youthful demography may turn out to be a huge burden.

 

The true education seminar

One small initiative which colleges and high schools can take to help students is the implementation of True Education, an experiment I had successfully conducted in my home town in 2008.

In True Education, I had 19 sessions with a group of 20 students. We limited the participation so that everyone could be given personal attention. All of them turned up regularly for the classes even though none of the topics would help them score more marks in their examinations. The topics covered ranged from philosophy to politics. I spent 15 minutes at the beginning of each session introducing the topic. The remaining 75 minutes were spent on questions and answers. I noticed a remarkable improvement in a short span. Students who were hesitant to speak up at the beginning of the seminar series were completely transformed and by the end of the sessions, there was not enough time to respond to all their questions!

 

Need for committed teachers and better role models

During the valedictory, every student made a short presentation on what they got out of this seminar series. One said that he learnt more during these 19 sessions than he had during his entire 15 years of education. Many young women mentioned that they had started reading newspapers critically. Many talked about the courage they had acquired to ask questions not only in the classroom but also in government offices.

There is hardly any cost involved to spread this concept but just the need for committed teachers.

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