Recently, I was reading an academic paper ‘The Culture Industry Enlightenment as a Mass Deception’ by Adorno Theodor Horkheimer. The words were familiar to me but I was not able to understand the meaning of the sentences. I could not follow the flow of the language because I was stuck on individual words. Despite my efforts, I could not keep up and went blank. This was followed by feelings of frustration and helplessness. For years my attempts to write in English has been dependent on the automated grammar-check on my laptop to correct my mistakes while writing. Most of the time, I am so dependent on this, that I am unable to gain confidence while writing. This is strange for me, I reckon since the 5th grade in school, I have studied this subject called ‘English’. By now, I should be fluent in this language. Perhaps the problem is not in the language, but rather how it is taught, where it is taught and who teaches it.
Most of the Zila Parishad schools, the kind I studied in as a child, follow the same pedagogy. That is they teach English in their local language. Thus, when an individual reads an English newspaper, an English book or anything in the English language, students have difficulty in understanding. Most of the time, this creates the common perception that a person is not able to read and write in English. The next thing that an individual does is either does is work very hard to improve or, on the other hand, just give up. Giving up is the most common response among many first-generation learners in India. Tired of the constant effort and daily frustration, they decide to give up on trying to become fluent in English.
But the consequences of giving up are very harsh from the future perspective. It increases the risk of dropping out from higher studies, getting cut off from the mainstream, the opportunity of the career becomes limited in an English language dominant society— as a result the world of the student begins to shrink. The question one is to ask is can one language make such a change in a student’s life? The answer is yes, because the process of familiarity with the English language in India turns based on class and, more importantly, caste. It is an open secret of the India Education System. The amazing thing is that the use of the English language plays a major role in setting up power dynamics everywhere.
To understand the phenomena, pick up any one of the curricula of students. In India the curriculum is defined as the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE), International Baccalaureate (IB), International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), and lastly StateBoard, etc. After seeing the books on this different board, anyone can easily understand the difference. The structure of developing curriculum for the students (CISCE, IB, CBSE), the way they introduce ideas, concepts to the children in such a way that the students can understand easily. Like before, introducing topics to teach children gives different examples to make a base to get that knowledge. On the other hand, the state board books give an overview of every time. Content of the book varies. The quality of education is only left on a piece of paper not present in the lower and backward students’ lives. The criteria of education will completely depend upon their caste and class background.
English is not, by itself, a parameter of knowledge but it is still used as a weapon against Bahujan first-generation learners. It gives the upper caste and class people a tool to break the confidence of Bahujan students. Higher education institutions are places where people of diverse backgrounds go to gain knowledge. Reservation only gives the opportunity for a few seats to lower caste students in India. However, as soon as the student enters the college or university campus, they find that they are at a big disadvantage. The atmosphere inside the campus is dominated by the English language speakers. They don’t force us to speak in English but still, it creates a hierarchy among the speakers. It intimidates us as individuals, it is scary to just put across a point across in class. Forget about what is right and wrong but even speaking a basic sentence in front of them in itself is challenging for someone who is coming from a rural, marginalized and first-generation learner background.
Inside the classroom, this hierarchy based on English-fluency is clearly visible. One section would sit in the middle of the benches so teachers could not ask any questions— as being asked to speak in a class might make them uncomfortable as their English is weak. They sit quietly, taking notes sincerely in their notebooks, too scared to fall behind. Apart from this group, the other students will usually be relaxing, not paying attention and doing something with the phone, updating Instagram stories or other such ‘creative or important’ work simultaneously. They are the fluent English speaking upper class, upper caste students who do not feel the pressure of public speaking in a classroom. This type of confidence is rarely seen in vulnerable background students.
Even the more challenging thing for such vulnerable students is when teachers teach in fluent English accents. The surrounding becomes meaningless when the only sound of the words are heard without making sense. Those who come and sit inside the class most of the time have been first benchers in their rural classes and toppers from their community, and in possession of many other achievements which give them more confidence. But all this confidence is lost somewhere due to this aggressive English exclusion, till only the outer physical appearance remains in the class. The mind is scared and silent.
When I attended my first lecture in an elite institution like TISS, Mumbai, I was only able to understand the attendance. It was a traumatic experience. It is not just unique to me but almost every student I spoke to from a similar background like me, shared the same experience about their first lecture.
Students like me rely on Google translator which is not a very reliable source and leads to many mistakes. Few manage to organize groups of peers to help to understand the assignments. Others use different strategies to cope up like watching English movies and English Web series with subtitles, networking with others who speak English, etc. Despite this nothing works on a long term basis and hence they lapse on their last strategy, that is rote memorization (to learn it by heart). The major portion of mental labor and efforts and focus in higher education for students like me is consumed by just trying to cope with the English language. Grasping the concepts, philosophically understanding the curriculum and getting new knowledge automatically comes lower in the priority.
Even today I am writing about my feelings after reading a Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. As he described the situation of the education system named— banking system of education. Which reflects the same situation as we experience now. The writer not only shows the situation which is full of criticism but also gives us the solution to overcome the situation. It forces me to push myself to break the wall.
According to the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, there are two types of intellectuals born in society. One is a traditional intellectual and the second is an organic intellectual. Traditional are those who belong to that social group who hold the power. In the context of India, traditional intellectuals are historically from the privileged upper caste. Organic intellectuals are those who come from the oppressed society. Through education, organic intellectuals build an understanding of society, and these intellectuals can challenge society. Organic intellectuals can bring a revolution in the society.
All this can happen only after getting an education but the control of education is gatekept via English and the keys lie in the hands of the upper caste. They provide education in such a way that it does not inspire intellectual growth among us. Apart from that, education is not taken beyond the career perspective and limited only to the goal of getting a good job.
According to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar ‘Education is what makes a person fearless, makes aware of his rights and inspires individuals to struggle for rights.’ However, the whole lens is changed by the upper castes who are making the education system a very hostile experience for Bahujan students through the weaponized use of English. They do not train us in English fluency but punish us for the lack of it, they make us feel less meritorious and less-talented for it. It is very unfair and everything feels pre-determined. In such educational institutes, the promise of critical access appears just behind a thin curtain, but only when we try to cross it we realize that it’s actually like an iron curtain—very hard to access and get through.
Anoop Kumar shared his own experience in a speech and said that “spaces like campuses, they do not belong to us- the whole design of these spaces are Brahamanical.” He even described the lived experience with a student about how the campus makes them feel less-confident while studying. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd spoke in an interview about how English education is the main barrier, which marginalised students are facing, furthermore said that the same language of instruction is necessary to break the difference between upper caste students and lower caste students.
Being a first-generation learner and coming from a Bahujan background, the elite upper-caste English speakers appear like a homogenous mob to us. Only feeling that one gets after seeing them is that ‘they are different’. If the English language is taken seriously in early education, the journey would be different as compared to now. The English language becomes a skill for which our students end up developing an inferiority complex. This is a thing that needs to be uprooted from the mind of the students. The English language becomes gatekeeping for us and we need to break that structure and reach a space where knowledge becomes the parameter, not the language. This is our responsibility to break this parameter for our next generation, so at least they are not stuck in this cycle of language improvement. And another young student should not ever again feel scared while reading ‘The Culture Industry Enlightenment as a Mass Deception’.
1) Mathur S (2013): Kancha Illaiah: Even if 10% dalit children got English education, India would change
2) Freire P (1968): Pedagogy of the Oppressed
3) Gramsci A(1975): Political Hegemony and Social Complexity: Mechanisms of Power After Gramsci
4) Kumar A, Karunakaran V (2014):The Story of Caste and Indian Campuses
Meena M (2017): Ambedkar: An educationist of the marginalised
Durga Hole is an alumnus of Nalanda academy Wardha and is currently an educator/researcher at Digital Nalanda. Her research is at the intersections of caste, gender, savarna knowledge production.
She also has an MA in Social Work specialization in Criminology and Justice from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai