Varied Perceptions of Education in South Asia

by Debarshi Roy | on 3 July 2022

While the argument that industrial development is dependent on the application of knowledge might be sound, an extrapolation of that argument would lead thinkers to the importance of the proclivity of a population to acquire such specific knowledge as well as the efficacy and efficiency of the institutions and the delivery mechanism that will help impart that knowledge. Moreover, this ideation limits the scope of education to industrial and economic growth and does not recognise an intrinsic value of the knowledge that is acquired. Consequently, due to the influence of a varied mix of factors, if a section of the society does not present the proclivity for formal education as defined by its narrow scope, could that section be described as uneducated and/or unproductive? This article dwells on that question while exploring the perception of education among a set of responders from divergent sections of society in India.

The present discussion could begin with an identification of the difference between mere literacy and education. This is very important because the terms literate and educated are often used interchangeably thus ignoring the subtle difference between the behavioural expectations that are generated from the two categories of individuals. While a literate person is one who can read and write, an educated person is one who would inculcate acquired knowledge into her thinking, behaviour, values and other aspects of life. If one assumes this difference between the terms to be true then literacy might be described merely as a skill but an educated individual would present with enhanced levels of sophistication in ideas and thoughts. This notion was however challenged when I met an old alcoholic individual who was remarkably well read and wrote insightful poetry in Hindi which was not his native tongue. He was an outcast in the village with six sons all of whom were drug addicts with criminal charges against them. This insightful individual was not an educated man by the standard definition of the term but he was surprisingly well read even if it were only second-hand newspapers that he could afford to read in recent years. This experience is not unique to me and most South Asian readers will have had similar encounters.

While there is nothing exceptional about a 70-year-old man from a poor struggling family writing insightful poetry, we as members of the privileged educated society have low expectations from people with such social profiles. Consequently, such experiences come as a surprise if not shock to us. Unfortunately, the low expectations that the privileged section of society have of the underprivileged, come at a cost to society. Goldthorpe (2010) had specified “children of less advantaged class origins have remained, to much the same extent, more likely than children of more advantaged origins to leave the educational system rather than to continue in it; or, if they do continue, to follow courses that, through the kinds of qualification to which they lead, reduce their chances of continuing further” (p.318). Thus, it could be argued that while not accepting this 70-year-old erudite, insightful poet as an ‘educated’ person the society might have encouraged his children to discard dreams of education. Bersier (2008) had reported similar findings from her study on education in rural India wherein she had reported “scheduled-caste children living in rural areas are still significantly ‘intrinsically’ disadvantaged regarding education” (p.37). Bersier (2008) had added “after controlling for household wealth and parental education, it would not be surprising to observe the persistence of an overall bias against scheduled-caste pupils” (p.37). The biases are not limited to castes but include gender as well, it was reported within Bersier’s study that “large land ownership and large household size dependency seem to still endanger the education attainments of the girls” (Bersier, 2008, p.37).

Similar thoughts were echoed in some manner or the other among the many underprivileged children I happened to meet during the course of this exploration. A youngster claimed to have dropped out of school when his uncle had told him that no one would give a villager like him a job even if he had several degrees. The general idea that emerged out of my conversations was that a section of rural Indian youth felt that even if the students from the underprivileged sections of society had degrees they would not be considered ‘educated’. Thus, according to the individuals who had interacted with me, the term ‘educated’ within parts of the Indian society is perceived as an elitist privilege rather than an earned outcome of requisite behaviour. In the Indian context the primary reason for this perception could be disillusionment resulting from the prevailing widespread unemployment among the educated youth especially those from rural India. Dhingra (2020) reported that a significant section of educated young Indians from rural India, even those with post graduate degrees in science and business administration are unemployed and spend their time by working in their agricultural fields, tending to cattle or just playing cricket during the day. Tirodkar (2019) had reported on the similar plight of educated rural youth in Maharashtra. Moreover, as Jacob (2011) reported the noxious combination of class and caste leads to greater difficulties for the underprivileged, and the predicament only helps “Over-coached but mediocre applicants from private schools win over bright but underprivileged students.” (Jacob, 2011).

While the behaviour of the so-called ‘uneducated’ are judged ad nauseam and stringent benchmarks are created for such acceptable behaviour it is the behaviour of the so-called ‘educated’ class of people that often avoids scrutiny. A cursory discussion among the ‘educated’ class of people led me to an impression that some individuals herein are unempathic towards the plight of those who are not as privileged as them. One individual with a professional degree emphasised that free school education in India had provided the poor with enough scope for upward socioeconomic mobility and it is the lazy who do not take advantage of such opportunities. Another respondent quoted William Shakespeare to point out that people were poor due to their faults and not due to their destiny. This aspect of behaviour among the privileged is not surprising or novel and has been widely reported in literature (Grewal, 2012; Miller, 2012; Piff et al, 2010). Thus, while the so-called ‘uneducated’ are perceived to constitute an unproductive section of society, the ‘educated’ demand respect irrespective of the fact that degrees are not a good predictor of civilised human behaviour.

Roy (1990) had argued “Literacy is what is taught in government primary and middle schools – that too very badly. Education is what they receive and absorb at home.” I would add a pinch of fairness to that argument and venture to include most schools (private and government) to that list. Roy (1990) explained the consequences of such schooling within the context of rural India: “doctors licenced to kill, poorly trained using lethal allopathic medicines following no code of ethics staffing the primary health centres and sub-dispensaries in villages; teachers using the written word as a tool for exploitation and encouraging social ills like dowry and untouchability in government run schools if you please; literate revenue officials not measuring land for the landless; engineers making roads that are not supposed to last more than a year; extension workers passing poor quality seeds.” The paradox lies within the fact that the professionals mentioned herein are described by the society at large as educated. Therein, it might be argued lies the contradiction within the interpretation of the term ‘education’ in South Asia.

Some young respondents from the rural areas of North Bengal described education as learning the art to stay alive, survive and protect their properties and family in a hostile and difficult world. Education for them is to be able to know when elephants will raid their paddy fields, or understand why a cow is behaving odd. It is to learn how to protect their huts from the rain and how to save themselves from scorpions and snakes. This overarching concept of education was discussed by Mahapatra (2020), who had opined “A farmer knows how to grow his crops even if he is illiterate. I do not know that though I am literate and having taught at a University, will be considered highly educated. So, I may be literate but uneducated in many things. The illiterates are definitely educated in many things”.

It is within these paradoxical perceptions of education that South Asian Societies presents a complex sociological dilemma which affects the decisions taken by millions of youngsters with regards to their education and consequently their lives. In order to explore the causes of such decisions and the consequent emergent behavioural patterns it could be helpful to explore the diverse interpretations of the term education, since such interpretations fundamentally have the potential to influence the destiny of South Asian societies.



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Author Information:  Dr. Debarshi Roy is an independent researcher and author on school organizational behaviour. His current research interests include complex adaptive behavioural systems, psychological safety and empathy in school behavioural systems and their relation to school outcomes and student motivation. His books ‘Skinned Knees and ABCs – The complex world of schools’ (Routledge) was released in 2020 and ‘Empathy driven school systems: Nature Concept and Evolution’ (Routledge) was released in January 2022.


Suggested Citation: Debarshi Roy. 2022. ‘Varied Perceptions of Education‘, Think Pieces Series No. 29. Education.SouthAsia (