A speech by Mark Twain in 1900 opposing a move in certain quarters of the American government to close down some public schools (public schools in the American context are government run schools catering to the poorer sections of the society) which the government thought were getting too expensive to maintain for too little to gain, is fascinating for both its passion as well as sound rationale. “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It`s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won`t fatten the dog,” (Speech 11/23/1900). Twain made the message clear. Whatever fund the government stood to gain by shutting down these schools, would in the long run not result in any saving, for they would have ended up spent in dealing with other adverse social side effects of precisely the closure of these schools. This is a worthwhile lesson for those who handle education policies in Manipur. For education, apart from the well-known role of imparting skills and knowledge to the younger generation is also equally about social engineering. Hence, money well spent on education is never a waste, and that any obstacle put up before quality education, most specifically in the corrupt practice of disregarding merit in the appointment of teachers, would amount to a deep stab wound inflicted into the social mechanism, the scars for which will not be easy to remove for generations. Equally, the perennial overturning of academic calendar which has become a salient feature of the state on account of the numerous so called civil agitations each year would have also done equal harm.
It is of course another matter as to what quality education should be. It involves so many things and the debate on what education should consist of, has reached levels of sophistication elsewhere that would be difficult for us in Manipur to imagine. The basics of education having been guaranteed, these discourses are now entering in the subject’s fine nuances. Should it be skill oriented, or should be about imparting a liberal understanding of life and the world in general? Should education produce technocrats or philosophers? Must appreciation of art, music, nature etc., be a necessary part of a wholesome education? Even as these questions are coming to occupy centre stage, and universities that rest on the belief that all these must converge in the definition of quality education are being set up, it is a tragedy that Manipur still has to be grappling with problems such as teachers’ absenteeism in primary schools, or extremely low pass percentage in high school leaving examination. Hence in Manipur, the definition of quality education remains confined to basic issues like streamlining the administration of government schools or rationalizing the transfer policy of school teachers, or of the pressures to absorb part-time lecturers without a screening test. This being the case, ensuring quality education cannot for quite some time be about keeping pace with the developments elsewhere in the country and the world, but of making a fresh beginning, and in all likelihood, right from the very beginning with a black slate.
But if we must begin all over from the beginning, the sooner this is done and gotten over with, the better it will be. Since the foundation on which the edifice of quality education can stand on is virtually absent, it must have to be built now, or else the present generation will have to live with the terrible guilt of having condemned our society to another “hundred years of solitude”. As elsewhere, only after the basics have been guaranteed, can the state too afford to meaningfully join the ongoing discourses on education at other much elevated planes. True there can be no single factor to any social issue. Nothing about life is in black and white terms. But should we doubt that a good and wholesome education that not only teaches skills of modern trades but also of the value of a rupee earned as against another found, or the beauty in the bees in the sun, can heal much of the wounds that our society is agonised by? Shouldn’t we then also believe that every school revitalized, every college propped up back on its own legs, would deplete the ranks of mayhem makers on our streets who have made life in the state descend progressively into misery year after year?