Amidst the good news of the birth of genuine competition in career hunt, as witnessed by the desperate race amongst our young and smart youth, just out of school, for seats in institutes for specialized professional courses in the medical sciences and engineering etc, we cannot help a lament from crossing our minds. A knowledge divide has clearly emerged, with those who can compete and hope to win, and those who have been totally excluded. A profile of the successful candidates, as well as those who seriously contested, will show they all belong to a class whose parents are affluent enough to have them study in privately run schools. The greater majority who have had to be content with completing their schools from government schools, if fortunate without being compelled to drop midway, have receded far away from these competitions or the hope they can ever make it, and consequently from the most sought after professions. It needs no soothsayer to predict that the condition for social inequity thus created will have a spiralling effect in the generations to follow. In fact, it will be a double spiral, one that goes upwards carrying those on the advantageous side of the knowledge divide, and the other sweeping those on the other side, downwards and into social oblivion – that is until the accumulated rage amongst this class reaches a critical point and explodes.
Yet, apart from lip service, no government in the state has ever lifted a finger to intervene appropriately and adequately. Despite the fact that every year, government schools have shown dismal results, we have seen no important heads roll, or any minister in charge of school education resign. The repeated bad showings have not even figured for a debate in the Manipur State Legislative Assembly. But the matter being of extreme gravity, one that has a far reaching, and extremely crucial implications, we would have even liked the chief minister to be held directly responsible. Only such a level of accountability fixed will ensure that the pressure percolates down the hierarchy to the last man in the department to make each take the necessary initiative to lift government schools to competition standard again. It is true there are genuine handicaps government schools face. For one, many if not most of the students in them belong to families below poverty line. Hence they can ill afford text books, school uniforms, private tuitions, or even morning meals before school. But these are precisely the area where the government can and must intervene, and in fact there are many Central government schemes to help overcome these hurdles. The midday meal scheme, free text book programme, government run day nurseries we know as Anganwadis etc, to name just a few. And if these are deemed not enough, the state government can use its own genius and imagination to decide where else more interventions can be made.
The matter is important. A comparison between the progress of the economies of Ghana and South Korea from the 1960s to the 1990s in a book co-edited by Samuel P Huntington and Lawrence Harrison called “Culture Matters”, which Amartya Sen critiques in his book “Identity and Violence: Illusion of Destiny”, is revealing. In the 1960s, both the countries were poverty stricken and backward but by the early 1990s, while Ghana’s economy remained where it was, South Korea emerged as the 14th largest economy in the world with a per capita income comparable to those of many Western European countries. Sen refutes Huntington’s claim that the major factor behind the difference is the cultural moorings of the two peoples. Instead Sen argues it is the South Korean leaderships’ pragmatic commitment to the spread of appropriate primary education that paid rich dividends. A tradition for respect for knowledge, so common in peoples influenced by the Buddhist ethos, also helped. We too once had this respect. Once upon a time there was no honorific more revered than “Oja”. Today that tradition has decayed. Sen says Korea’s commitment was also perhaps an emulation of the Japanese example. When the Meiji Restoration began in the 1868, Japan already had a better literacy rate than Europe. But when it found itself at a disadvantage in terms of appropriate education when pitted with the West, the Japanese leadership single-mindedly pursued the agenda of making its education fit the needs of the time. They devoted so much energy on education that between 1906 and 1911, this pursuit consumed 43 percent of Japan’s budget. Sadly, our leaders lack this kind of focus or commitment. We seem then to be heading the Ghanaian way with our leaders fiddling while primary education heads for the bottom of the pit.