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Educational Problems in India and the United States

by Gordon N. Mackenzie - 1959

The author presents a few facts about India, compares a few problems and the approaches being made to them in the two nations, and presents four overall impressions.

IN drawing comparisons between educational problems in India and those in the United States, I am not attempting a critical analysis of the problems to be cited.1 Nor am I claiming superiority for the approach used in either country. In some instances I will merely be pointing out what may be an imbalance of emphasis in each nation. Yet this very imbalance may tend to highlight differences and help us by stimulating questioning or re-examination of what we are doing.

I have been much impressed by numerous similarities between India and the United States in respect to many of the educational problems which are of current concern in the two countries. In spite of our differences, our separation by half the distance round the world, and the great disparity in our economic development, we have much in common. I should like to present a few facts about India, compare a few problems and the approaches being made to them in the the two nations, and present four overall impressions.


The Indian people are engaged in one of the most significant and thrilling political and economic experiments of the twentieth century. They seek to demonstrate that the vast subcontinent that is India can achieve unity, democracy, and material well-being for the 400 million diverse people who inhabit the area.

India is only two-thirds the size of the United States, but its population is between two and three times as great. It is increasing by almost 12,000,000 or roughly 3 per cent per year. This annual increase is greater than the total population of each of several modern nations.

While much of the racial history of India is obscure, there is evidence of an Indus Valley civilization from 4000 to 2500 B.C. which was as rich and varied as any in Egypt or the Fertile Crescent at that time. From 2000 to 1000 B.C. there was an extensive movement of Hittites, Medes, and Persians into northern India. They probably came from central Asia or the area bordering the Caspian Sea. They conquered the Dravidians at least in North India. In the Epic Age, from 1000 to 500 B.C., Indian society was similar to that of the Homeric Age in Greece.

A succession of invaders has added to the complexity of India's languages and religions. Today there are over one hundred dialects, fourteen recognized languages, and several religious groups. The caste system is a further divisive force, with probably 50,000,000 former outcasts or untouchables at the base of Hindu society adding to the complexities of Indian life.

India has unique geographic and climatic conditions. Its seacoast of 3,400 miles extends along two sides and a wall of the Himalayas runs along the northern border for 1,600 miles. Located in the tropics, it is plagued by heat, drought, and torrential seasonal rains, but it has been and still is a rural agricultural economy. Well over 80 per cent of the people live in villages.

Despite a rich tradition, particularly in philosophy and the arts, India is poor economically. The annual per capita income is less than $60 per person in contrast to about $2,300 per person in the United States. Obviously, there are serious limitations to the amount that can be raised through taxation on this income. Government policies are definitely geared to substantially improving the economic base of the country within the present generation.

In its long history India was never completely unified until the coming of independence a little over a decade ago. Even during British rule, there were several hundred more or less independent feudal states.

India is thus a great and new experiment in unity, political democracy, and economic development. Its Constitution is based primarily on the British form of government, but has features drawn from our Constitution.

Education at the elementary and secondary levels is a state responsibility, with the union or national government taking leadership in higher education, especially as it relates to professional, vocational, or technical training. However, the national government is more active than ours in encouraging and stimulating numerous reforms. There is relatively little control below the state level except in the larger cities. The British influence tends to dominate the pattern and program at both the secondary and the higher level.


One cluster of problems shared by India and the United States relates to the tremendous task of gearing education to the demands of a rapidly changing universe.

Many unique conditions have shaped our program in the United States over almost two centuries. We had voluntary professionally sponsored commissions on the reorganization of elementary and secondary education in the early 1900's, and reorganizations of medical and other professional programs under professional and/or foundation auspices. In the 1930’s we conducted the Eight-Year Study, a major effort in secondary education sponsored by a large foundation. This patern is continuing, and within the past year we have had a report by the education panel of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Inc., which attempts to restate our educational needs.2

While there have been demands for many years for gearing education to the social realities, the depression of the 1930's, World War II, and the Cold War since have had a terrific impact on the thinking of the American public, including educators. There is a growing recognition that changes resulting from the industrial revolution are small compared with those on the horizon as we begin to move into the atomic or electronic age. The changes in our means of communication alone tend to outmode much that we are doing in schools.

Although there is some alarm in this country about the situation and criticism is rife, there is little evidence of widespread willingness to support new or experimental ventures. In individual school systems there are exciting developments in specific areas. The so-called content areas receive frequent and thorough reorganization and teachers are being helped to make substantial improvements in subjects such as mathematics and science. Some foreign language programs at the elementary level are getting phenomenal results. Creative attempts are being made to challenge those with a great variety of talents without lessening the quality of the program for all children.

India is facing this same world, but with a somewhat different perspective. Ours is a new nation, with a strong tradition of education and learning. India has extensive plans for industrialization and improvement of every aspect of life, and education is seen as being essential to this whole process. But India must first develop the economic base which will permit the kind of education it wants and needs. Only slightly more than half of the children of primary school age are in school and less than 15 per cent of the secondary school age group are in attendance. Most Indian states are making an earnest effort to move toward primary education for all. Yet the need for scientists and engineers is forcing the national government to make professional and technical or engineering education an area of high priority in terms of financial support. The presence of half a million liberal arts graduates who are unemployed presents a major problem not only because of the presence of a large and able dissatisfied group but also because of the unwarranted or mistaken prestige attached to the Bachelor's degree and the need for redirecting the thinking of Indian youth and their parents.

The Indian government has made use of national commissions as a means of starting basic reforms, but these have been official government commissions. The University Education Commission in 1948 and 1949, and the Secondary Education Commission, 1952 and 1953, charted major reforms at these levels. The basic or elementary education which has received the support of the Indian government is an extension of Gandhian ideas and has been furthered by a series of committees with special assignments. As a result of these national planning efforts, India is moving toward a five-year primary school, a six-year secondary school, and a three-year degree course at the university level.

The University Grants Commission has been the national government's major agency for continuing the study and financial support of university education. All-India Councils have been established for technical education, secondary education and, in 1957, for basic education as the means of stimulating developments in these areas. Through support of pilot projects, research efforts, workshops, seminars and publications, the national government has been fostering reforms envisaged in national commissions' reports. However, states do assert their autonomy and many of the large numbers of privately managed schools and higher institutions follow rather independent lines of development.

Basic or elementary education lays stress on education through crafts. These are the simple, prevalent occupations of the communities, largely rural, in which the schools are located. The idea that these crafts should be productive and assist in the support of the school is still stressed. Correlation of other subjects with the crafts is emphasized as well as a community focus. Efforts are under way to create an eleven-year school, thereby making secondary education a six-year program. General education, including expanded programs in the social studies and the sciences, is receiving emphasis in both secondary schools and colleges. The new multi-purpose secondary school offers programs in technical subjects, agriculture, home science, business, music, and art. This is a radical departure from the English grammar school type of secondary education which exists throughout most of India.

Methods of teaching are receiving attention, with problem-solving and other higher mental processes being stressed in the effort to move from a memoriter type of teaching and learning in which great stress is placed on lectures or a single factual text.

Foreign languages are of great concern in India, too, but not for the same reasons as in the United States. The 1957 Hindustan Yearbook lists 59 different Indian languages or dialects, each of which is spoken by more than 100,000 persons. The same Yearbook indicates 720 other Indian languages and dialects which are spoken by almost 3,000,000 persons. Indian policy provides that children shall be taught in their mother tongue during the primary years. If it is different from the state language, the latter is introduced in the third to the fifth class, or grade. Private societies are permitted to conduct secondary schools in the mother tongue and receive state support. However, study of the regional language is compulsory in the secondary school. Hindi, which is scheduled to become the national language, is the mother tongue of less than half the Indian people. Its teaching is being encouraged in much of the country and sometimes adds a third language. University education is generally in English, especially in the science areas. Language problems at this level have resulted in earnest efforts to introduce English in the first or second year of the secondary school. This detail indicates the tremendous language time burden with which the Indian schools are struggling.

Most visitors to India catch a certain spirit of educational reform. The needs of the new India are continually being studied and heroic efforts are being made to meet the challenge of the new society which has been blue-printed in great detail, but which no one can fully foresee. Many leaders of India appear to have an unusually broad perspective—a world outlook, as it were. They also have a sense of mission and discern an international role for India. They see education of a new and unique type as contributing to the way of life which they are so diligently seeking.

India has a delinquency or discipline problem, but much of it centers in that highly selected segment of the population in the universities. They call it indiscipline. Often there appear to be political overtones, and it may well be that adults are seeking to marshal the boisterous enthusiasm of youth behind their causes. Massive efforts at youth athletics and organizations, reforms in teacher-student relations, the introduction of pupil-personnel services, and other educative means are being used to grapple with the problem.

Very serious and complicated inter-group problems beset India. Language, religious, and caste differences frequently flare up. I presume the future of India may well depend upon the willingness of members of various groups to submerge these differences. The Constitution and statements of national political leaders are very clear on these differences. Cast-ism is illegal, but giving the vote to the untouchables sometimes places the smaller Brahmin group at a great disadvantage. India has made a very interesting series of moves in seeking to bring about equality. Their objective is to assure equality of opportunity and to right past wrongs by providing scholarships and other kinds of assistance to the former untouchables and the tribal peoples.

India, like the United States, has a serious teacher shortage and an inadequate salary policy. Attempts to transform liberal arts graduates into teachers have met with only limited success. A further difficulty arises because teachers in general are not trusted in professional areas. The examination system is by and large the determiner of students' success.

India is struggling very actively with its examination system, which has a strong standardizing and formalizing influence on the educational program. It is destructive of personalities of students and their parents. (The British, whose system was imposed on India, have had the same problem.) It appears impossible for the Indians to do away with the system. Recognizing its power, however, they seem to be on the way to using it to reform their educational program. A major effort is being made to create tests which will measure the attainment of the newer types of objectives which are talked about so freely but now completely overlooked in the examination process. One form this effort takes is workshops with teacher-training college staff members. Simultaneous attention is being given to learning experiences appropriate to the goals sought and tested by the examinations.


First, I wish to comment on the balance between local and national influences on education in India and the United States. The absence of a tradition of local government in India presents certain obvious contrasts to our situation in the United States. The princely states provided a feudal or authoritarian type of government in large sections of India up to the time of independence. The village panchayats had limited responsibilities and no taxing powers. Efforts are being made to encourage the development of local government agencies.

Local tradition in our country is a strong bulwark. We should carefully safeguard the full measure of local control of education that we now have. Sound education necessitates free and responsible teachers working with maximum independence.

Apologies are sometimes made in India for the extensive participation of the national government in educational matters. The newness of the country, the need for speed, the greater taxing power of the national government, or limited resources are often advanced as excuses for national efforts. I was impressed, however, with the great potential in national or state leadership in education.

In the United States we have been so fearful of federal intervention that we have frequently refused to face the problem. Actually we have, through various nongovernmental means, attained broad national acceptance of common goals. We have accepted nationally sponsored research but there has been very little of it—possibly not enough to concern us. Our textbook and materials producers have had a remarkable influence in standardizing and nationalizing our schools.

Professional organizations of all types have achieved remarkable vigor and results in spite of limited financing. Private foundations likewise have had great influence in the direction of unifying or standardizing our program on a national basis.

The means we have used to further education in the past may not be entirely adequate for the years ahead. I firmly believe we should give serious attention to three lines of effort to be sponsored by federal government funds:

1. Financing of a minimum basic program without federal control.

2. Greatly expanded federal support of educational research which would test some of the major hypotheses relative to the consequences of alternate patterns of action.

3. Federal support of broad-based policy considerations which might lead to stimulation and coordination by consent. It is nothing short of amazing that in a country such as ours there are no major government-supported studies under way exploring the educational needs in the years ahead. The present proposals for federal scholarship aid appear to represent an opportunistic approach which may well endanger the future of our country unless they are based on sound studies of needs in all areas.

Second, I wish to comment on the pattern of public support for private education in India. That country has been blessed by a strong tradition of private support for education and social welfare. Many individuals with or without wealth are devoting their resources to educational ventures in true selflessness. The demand for education has so far outstripped the resources available that numerous schools have been established as private business ventures. Religious groups and private societies of all kinds have created their own schools. In a city like Madras, the great majority of the secondary schools are privately managed.

The Indian government, lacking the resources to provide for all of the education desired, has generously contributed to various private groups and in some cases provides almost complete support for such institutions. In the United States we have what appears to be growing agitation for government support of private or parochial education, and some forms of assistance are now given. We also have growing advocacy of special public schools for the gifted or for other specialized groups.

In our country we have firmly established the right of parents to send their children to schools of their own choosing. I vigorously support this right, but I believe there is a serious question as to the extent to which children can attend schools sponsored by various special-interest groups without contributing to disunity. Public schools have been a powerful force in binding together an extremely diverse population. Some of our greatest problems have occurred with groups which have not had the opportunity for association through common schools.

In India there are indications that the separation in schools is doing much to foster the disunity which the country is struggling so hard to overcome. Just how we can overcome the dangers of disunity, misunderstandings which result from artificial separations among a people, and gain recognition of the potential strength which ensues from a use of differences, I do not know. I do believe, however, that one of our most serious national and educational problems, here as in India, centers in our handling of the private-public support of education. I would hope that representatives of our major public and private and parochial educational interests could be brought together to face squarely the implications of the policies we appear to be developing which lead to greater and greater segmentation and divisiveness in our educational provisions for children and youth.

Third, my experiences with the examination system in India cause me to be apprehensive about the increased use of standardized examinations as a basis for selection and for the determination of an individual's future. We have made great progress in using guidance to select and distribute people. Certainly these efforts can be improved. The introduction of widespread use of examinations for selection and scholarship purposes endangers, I believe, our whole educational system. There appears to be ample evidence that it is not a sound and efficient way of proceeding and that it results in great injustices to individuals.

Fourth, my observations in India give me a renewed belief in the necessity of a well-prepared, independent, professional staff in our schools. While this is dependent to a very large degree on public understanding and support, have we done all that we might as a profession to encourage able youth to enter teaching and thus to raise ourselves by our own bootstraps? Increased respect will have to be earned. It cannot be bestowed by high salaries. I hope that we as a profession will give closer attention to our present and potential role in American life and to the ways and means by which we may serve better.

1 Dr. Mackenzie served as educational adviser to the Government of India in 1956-57. He is head of the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia.

2 The Pursuit of Excellence, Education, and the future of America. (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1958).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 60 Number 7, 1959, p. 378-384
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4350, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 3:58:48 PM

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