“How was India?”
my students asked as soon as I walked into my classroom, jetlagged after a day
of flying back from Delhi. I had not planned to devote class time to discussing
my recent trip to India, where a group of Montgomery College faculty and
administrators met with various officials to explore the possibility of
supporting each other’s educational goals.
However, my students’ question indicated a genuine interest
in learning about a part of the world they only remotely imagine. While they
themselves come from many different countries, most are from Latin America,
some from Africa. Asia, a faraway place they do not expect to ever see for
themselves, is full of associations in their minds that they wanted to check
against my recent experience. As the responsive and versatile teacher I aspire
to be, I altered my lesson plan for the day, setting grammar aside and creating
space and time for thinking about and discussing India.
I found that beginning to describe my experience in India
was challenging indeed. As so often happens when we try to turn ideas into
language that promotes learning, I found that I needed to be silent for a bit,
to gather my thoughts. To secure this time gap, I asked my students to write
down a couple of concrete, specific questions they have about India. Here is
what they delivered:
Is it true
that India has very many people and is very crowded?
it look like?
people our age like? Do they work or go to school or both?
daily life there? How do people live?
people believe in their religion?
they do for entertainment, fun?
In other words, they wanted a visual snapshot as an image to
help them concretize the place, but they also wanted to understand the details
of Indian life as something that is possibly very different from ours. They
were right to focus on quality of life issues, since that tells us more about a
people than any empirical data.
My students’ most pressing question was why I went to India and
what I did there. To create a structure for this very dynamic questioning, I
thought I would make that the frame for our discussion. This is what I
shared: I went to India with some
colleagues to learn about their educational systems and to share information on
how we educate in the United States. We also wanted to share as much
information as possible about the US community college system as a possible
model that might help India develop its growing workforce. It may be that India
will choose to adopt some of our methods, especially the community college model,
which does not exist anywhere else in the world.
Our discussion after this point, quite naturally, turned to
why a community college model of education might be desirable. The discussion
that followed generated more questions than answers, a true mark of critical
thinking at work:
a community college unique and beneficial?
How is it
different from a four-year institution?
a developing country be interested in it?
it do for them?
it done for us?
Our discussion of who we are surfaced as a necessary
precursor to understanding India, and it became clear that by thinking about
India we could better think about ourselves. Thanks to my recent visit, I was
able to share some information that enhanced my students’ understanding of
higher education and the ways that it intersects with all areas of life, both
American and Indian.
Community colleges, we decided, meet the needs of students
who are new to higher education and whose families cannot help them navigate.
It is a supportive environment in which students are prepared for the future,
whether additional schooling or gaining employment that will allow them to
support their families and make use of their talents and abilities. Community
colleges make sure that any lingering academic weaknesses are eliminated so
that students can enter higher education as a level playing field. They are
affordable and in addition to providing academics, they provide a community
that supports students’ efforts to get ahead. My students wanted to know: Does
India’s educational system provide such help? Do the students there need it?
Details about India became necessary at this point, so we
did some quick online (www.cia.gov ):
- India has a population of over a billion people
although it is about a third of the size of the US. It is the seventh largest
nation in the world
61% of Indians over age 15 can read and write; the percentage of literate women
is just under 48%
is one of the youngest nations in the world, with a median age of 26
spends just over 3% of GDP on education (almost half of what US spends)
main industry in India is agriculture
economy is among the fastest growing in the world
has the second largest labor force in the world
majority of Indians live in rural areas
per capita income of Indians is $3,400
of the population lives below the poverty line.
ensued among the class about how these statistics differ from the United States
and how they help us view India in a clearer light. The differences between our
two countries became very clear as we talked about the needs of Indian
college-age students. However, the picture became even more complicated once we
take into account some other facts:
- The country gained its independence from Britain
in 1947. So, we can think of it as a new country. What does it mean to be
colonized? What is the impact of colonization on a nation that needs to emerge
stronger than ever?
state of the country’s natural environment is a grave concern. Air and water
pollution, as well as deforestation are devastating the landscape and have to
be addressed quickly because it affects daily life and causes illness.
as the Indian economy is growing quickly, there are some grave problems it has
to work on resolving, such as limited work and education opportunities for its
population and inadequate access to higher education. However, assets such as
internet and cell phone access can help bridge many restrictions imposed by
rural living. Students who can’t get to a campus might be able to take online
and underpaid labor is also a big problem in India, especially for the poor and
uneducated, including children. Human trafficking is too common. It is also
very hard for people to transition from one socioeconomic class to another
because they lack skills and education. How can these children and adults be
current need, in the mist of quick growth and rapid change, is how best to harness
the workforce it has to help it through such challenges. My students offered
that community colleges would serve that need very well, since they work with
students who come in at different levels of ability. I had to agree.
The discussion we had over two hours on this day was
animated and thoughtful. It reinforced to my students the need for education
(their own and in general) as a source of empowerment. In terms of the course
content, it emphasized the need for reliable research and showed how outside
source information can help enrich our thinking about a complex subject. These
are learning goals for the course, and I don’t think I could have delivered
them in a more relevant way on this day. I was reminded that the benefits of
teaching skills in an authentic, organic context are many and that they make
deep learning possible.
We also learned on this day that there may not be any quick
solutions to problems as varied as in India and that tapping the potential in
that country’s people will need to be a concerted effort over time. It became
clear to all of us that this discussion could continue in several courses
(economics, history, natural sciences) and over an entire semester or more.
The remarkable thing about this day’s deeply probing
discussion is that it took place in EN002, a developmental writing course. Our
students are capable of excellent work, I noted with a smile…. Wouldn’t it be
great to have conversations like this one in an Indian classroom, but about the
From a lifelong learner and teacher,
English Department, Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus