- A couple of years back, an alumnus who had graduated more than 30 years back from the B-School where I teach, had shared a personal episode with me. After joining the institute, within first term he realised that he could not cope up with the place. This was not so much because of the academic pressures, but because all teaching was done in English, and he was not at all conversant in the language.
Deciding to call it quits, he went to the then dean, and told him about his decision. "But you can't leave just because you don't know English!!", the jesuit priest told him... and then spent next six months, daily two hours, teaching him English!
When I met him, he had already worked with some of the leading Indian and foreign corporates for a couple of decades, had raised a family of very mature children (I met them), had decided to branch out on his own, and was operating his business.
Why did I recall this incident today?
- ...Today, I chanced upon a report (tip: Uma's blog) about Garima, the 16-year old daughter of a Delhi police constable, who had topped her class X (in the government-aided DAV Dwarka) by securing 97.6% marks in the CBSE exams - and a perfect 100 in science. Belonging to one of the Delhi villages, when she applied to DPS Dwarka (New Delhi), she was not selcted.
According to the school principal: "This year, we had around 200 applications for 28 seats. In the admission process, the Board exam score is not ignored, neither is it the only criteria. We take in students on relative merit, on the basis of an entrance test, an interview, and the board exam marks."
Garima ranked 12th out of 80 students selected in the written test, and made it to the interview, where she failed to make the grades. DPS' explanation for rejecting her was: "The CBSE marks don't mean anything to us. We have certain criteria about the kind of children we want. She wasn't able to speak English properly and that was also a problem."
There were 9 other girls who got selected, though they had less marks in CBSE than Garima, but fitted the "kind of children" the school wanted.
Garima was lucky, since she got noticed by the media and appeared on NDTV debate. Barkha Dutt wrote about her: "...there was nothing about her spoken English that suggested that she would have been unable to keep pace with the syllabus. Yes, she spoke with a regional accent that some would consider insufficiently sophisticated. But there was no doubt that she could not only follow a complex argument, she could also make herself understood to any English speaker."
I think, and hope, that Garima's case is not generalisable across all schools and all people. There are some heart-warming exceptions too. For instance, there was this touching article on Sudama's Children in the recent issue of The Outlook, which featured the Delhi schools and childen from less-privileged backgounds who studied there... about their challenges and the support they got from their peers and school.
Neverthless, Garima's case does open up three issues to think about...
1. The Purpose of Our Elite Educational Institutions
Whether DPS - or IITs, NITs, IIMs, XLRI, etc. - the entry to all such institutions is based on criteria that select the "educatable" students. These are the one who meet the criteria - good "background", the "profile", "communication skills" (in "proper" English) - that will help them to do well at the exit stage (e.g., cracking the IIT, B-school entrance test, getting a "good" job, etc.). This 'exit performance', in turn, increases the equity and ranking of the institution, and will attract more of such people to the educational institution.
Needless to say, such institutions do add value by polishing the latent aptitudes of the students.
But do they really create value which contributes to society?...
...or to paraphrase Justice Chinnappa Reddy 1985 SC judgement:
[Barkha Dutt's article - The English Divide - articulates the other two issues much better, and so, I will take the liberty of quoting from her]
2. The "Meaning" of Merit in Our Society?
"Garima’s story is a metaphor for India’s twisted tryst with the future... For some months now, as the debate over reservation has raged, opponents of the quotas have made the same point again and again: we should be a society where merit matters. It’s a compelling argument... But what do the anti-quota street fighters have to say now? Here’s a girl who competed in the mainstream, her own DAV pitched against the trendier, richer, big names. But her merit was swallowed up by prejudice.
...and all because her English accent was not sufficiently sophisticated!!!
3. "English" as an Instrument of Social Divide?
This is an important aspect of our social divide, since in India - inspite of its much touted "large English speaking population", there are barely 20-40mn (out of 1bn), who can actually read, write and speak English (of course, we have our own form of "Hinglish" with the road-side dhabas advertising that they serve "snakes" (snacks) with "child bear" ;0)...
...and there is an "elitism" about speaking "proper" English - even though, our English acquires its own regional peculiarities across the country.
As Burkha Dutt, points out:
"...Garima’s story exposes India’s paradoxical relationship with the English language. Nobody in the world speaks English like us. We have our own idioms, our own words and our own accents.
We pretend to love our own English and brag about how it is India’s great selling point; the reason we dominate the global outsourcing business. But, of course, deep down we know that our English is not the English that the West really wants. And so, each time we talk to Britons or Americans, we subtly alter our diction and inflection. When we set up our call centres, we drop the subtlety entirely and start accent classes to teach our young people to abandon the speech patterns of our own society and to migrate to a virtual, linguistic, middle America, where they become impersonators of people they will never meet and never know.
But within India, we still treat our own English as the great social decider. We laugh at regional accents, smirk at those who make grammatical errors and feel most at home with those who talk like us. Everyone else belongs on the other side of the English divide. And as it turns out, the other side of the class and caste divide as well."