English Education in India: Cannon Fodder


It was in the 1970s that in Indian universities the English departments began to be opened up. What was a shamefully colonial institution – the English department and its syllabi – began to break out into other streams of literary studies. !970s was way too late for this ‘reformation’. If we consider the changed world order, 70s certainly is a couple of decades late into the arrival of US into the superpower status. Hence, for Indian universities to look beyond ENGLISH literature in the 70s is already a sign of time lag. Secondly, becoming independent in 47, if we could not wake up to the need to come out of our awe of ENGLIT for two decades, it is again a sign of a mind shackled to colonialism. But let us leave the bygones and ask what is happening now.

In the 1990s there was a lot of talk about the crisis in English Studies in India. The funny thing is that even our ‘crisis’ was borrowed! The advent of poststructuralism had put the US English academy under pressure to move out of its humanist framework and this was generally referred to as the crisis in the academy. And, bingo, there it was in India, the crisis, albeit a decade later.

Now this crisis in India led to a lot of reviews and revisions of the way English studies was structured those days. There was intensification in the effort to make the English syllabi to include wider areas on the one hand and also to overhaul the manner in which literature gets taught in the classrooms. I am not going into that part of the debate here. But regarding the nature of the syllabi, this crisis led to a wider acceptance of the idea that there should be lot more than the staple diet of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Eliot in English syllabi even at undergraduate level. I guess most universities now have implemented this logic and have a spattering of American lit, African lit, Indian English lit, European lit, and even Indian language lit in translation. The choices here are not very radical, most simply stick to the established canon; but it is a bit of an improvement nevertheless.

This is the situation that I want to consider in this post. My experience as a student, researcher and teacher of English literature has been that exceptions apart, the western-canon, be it in British, American, African, etc., of literature is hardly suitable to us in India. I have noticed for example that teaching Conrad, Hardy, or Joyce is a sure shot way of benumbing the students. The same students who progressively show less and less enthusiasm for the text being discussed in the class wake to vigorousness if they are reading a Premchand, Kamala Das, or Khushwant Singh. This is of course no new discovery, all of us know this and people have written scholarly tomes on these issues. (I have noticed that students respond better to works by female writers than many male writers, except I think to Jane Austen).

Now what I want to share here is about the irrelevance of English Studies. I think we need to realize that literature is no more merely print lit, and hence we need to find ways of bringing in more relevant literary studies into our syllabi. This I believe applies, to a lesser degree, to all arts departments, not only English departments. One of the ways to negotiate the students’ familiarity is to bring in film and TV studies, along with our present study of narratives of any kind; bring film and pop songs, including advt jingles along with the study of poetry; bring in journalistic writing along with prose writing; and these have to be done seriously.

Sure, some of the institutions and departments are up to this already. But that is usually in places where studying Homer may also work! An elite place having radical syllabi is neither news nor radical. We need the number-rich, mass-ive state universities to do these at all levels.    

Teaching Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, William Thackeray and suchlike, not excluding Shakespeare, in a classroom today serves little purpose in terms of what the students learn about novel or narrative, or language or discourse. They would understand the mechanics of narrative and its social effect better if their familiar world of narratives is roped in during the learning process. Or else, it remains, nothing more than a disciplinary clinic – making learners passively pick up whatever rubbish that the (often incompetent) teachers throw at them. By squeezing out all relevancies from their classrooms we are successful of course in making them less and less independent and more and more submissive. But that we should not any more continue to do.

Art education in India is presently the last resort of a student; often it is the lot of the poor and rejected students to do arts. Is that why this field of education is in bad shape and receives such little attention? For art education to become meaningful it has to engage with the contemporary modes of art and entertainment; contemporary practices of texts and languages. Past and distant literatures are very useful; but definitely not enough. Got to cross the stupid colonial framework (whether of the old or the new variety) and begin to revise and devise frameworks of study that is historically and socially relevant to us.  

10 responses »

  1. I am from a non-arts (engineering) background so I don’t know about how the literary studies dept are changing but I couldn’t agree more with you when you ask for more inter-disciplinary studies, at least at the graduate. I thought it was already happening, isn’t “cultural studies” already taking over more and more than the rote studies of cononical texts?

  2. Alok, cultural studies raiding the university syllabi is merely in blue blood universities that too at PG. Rest of the places are still canon-chained. Changes are too little and too slow. Often change is limited to texts and not to the overall approach to studies.
    Thanks for the visit and the comment.

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  4. hi, the purpose of the literature study is to expand one’s horizons. whether it be khushwant, thackeray or shakespeare, exposure to these authors is a fodder for a young mind to grow out of the straitjacket imposed through the study of sciences.

    poetry is yet another tool to appreciate structure, form and critical thinking. one needs to really work to find the mind of the poet from reading his poetry.

    so in summary, if we need thinking engineers, doctors or scientist, the study of literature and poetry is but a helpful tool to attain the end.:)

  5. phantom363, I agree with you that reading literature should help to develop our critical thinking. But that would depend on how we study literature. If we engage in biographical curiosities while reading poetry I dont think it will lead to any critical thinking. Now how we read has a lot to do with what and when we read. All in all, the issue of art education is a little more complex than you seemed to be convinced it is.
    Thanks for the visit and comment. Do come back.

  6. Pingback: Focus on English – ManipalBlog.com

  7. Pingback: Focus on English | I Review Books

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