Educating the Nation: Social Transformations, New Aspirations and Changing Local Identities in India

Educating the Nation: Social Transformations, New Aspirations and Changing Local Identities in India

Key words: India, school, universal education, social mobility, family, first generation school-goers


Educational enthusiasm in the countryside

Modern Expert Public School: “Please! Contact in the Office as Soon as Possible for Bright Future of Your Children, Because Best Quality and Best Education is Only Requried (sic) to Develop the Mind of Your Child.” This is the inscription, written in white on a red background, on the already dilapidated large billboard which, from the top of its two bamboo stems, welcomes us as we enter the classroom of a private school in Bihar. In this northern Indian state, such billboard, which offers a variety of educational opportunities in more than a rough English, is far from being an exception. Advertisements for schools or other private education centres are scattered all over the landscape, both urban and rural. From tall buildings along a road, a wall where they are painted or glued in series as posters, an electric pole stuck between a betel merchant's shack, a chai seller's stall to the trunk of a lonely tree in the middle of a field, the advertisements for these schools and private study centres try to draw attention everywhere. They give themselves suggestive names such as 'Mat's Guru Rahul Sir Classes', 'Ambition Success Centre' or 'Royal Academy', and boast such extraordinary merits as being “The first-ever event on best learning practices around the world”, “A pioneer institute for success”, “100% Job Oriented” or “ranked as one of the top 100 schools across India”.

‘Modern Expert Public School’ and its billboard, Bihar Campaign, India (© 2017 / I. Čápová)


Within the Indian states, Bihar has many demographic indicators such as poverty, unemployment and illiteracy. While it has the highest population density and growth (from 82 to 104 million people between 2001 and 2011) within the Union, its structural shortage of jobs makes it a notorious supplier for the seasonal poor, unskilled labour force of India's megacities and even the Gulf countries. Moreover, nine-tenths of its population is rural and particularly young (one-third is under 15 years of age), with the highest rural illiteracy rate within the Union, which is 40%. The proliferation of advertising described above, while not exclusive to the State, is nevertheless particularly intense and reflects the existence of a very dynamic market of educational offers, from kindergarten to university entrance exams and state civil service competitions.

More than a simple request, these advertisements explain through their vocabulary - "modernity", "development", "success" - the existence of a dominant imaginary linked to the school and several subjective representations acting within the local population. Indeed, despite the extremely deficient direct previous contact with the school on the part of families, expectations related to education have considerably increased over the past two decades and the launch of a proper programme of universal access to free primary school in 2001[i]. Although the ethnographic fieldwork that I carried out in Bihar makes it possible to affirm that parents today massively adhere to the opportunity offered to them to send their children to school, this dynamic, nonetheless, raises more precise questions. What hopes do these families, practically deprived of educational capital, have when they send their children to school? What is their daily conduct regarding schooling and formal education in general? Finally, and on a more general level, what social transformations and real changes in people's lives are taking place as a result of the current democratization of education and mass schooling in contemporary India?


The map of the literacy rate by states in India. With a literacy rate of 63.8 %, Bihar is 10 % below the national average.
(Source: National Commission on Population, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, Based on 2011 Census of India data).


The history of mass schooling in India and families' motivations

The profound transformation carried out by the school began to materialize in these solid buildings, most of which were built between 2000 and 2010. The pink colour of their facade, which has become emblematic, and the size of the buildings make them stand out from afar, especially in the villages where they contrast sharply with the rest of the more modest and dull buildings. However, the school’s appeal is not only due to its free schooling but also due to the material and symbolic infrastructure's presence. Another reason for its appeal is the particular incentive programmes, such as the distribution of free lunches, scholarships, textbooks and uniforms, which the parents of the pupils, which I met, found very appealing. Above all, the Mid-Day Meal, the famous free mid-day meal provided at the school, has alone been responsible for a significant part of the enrolment increases, especially for girls from low-income families (Afridi, 2011) over the last ten years or so. Some girls are sent to school with their younger siblings so that they can both benefit from the free lunches, even if they are too young to go to school. In many public schools, the number of girls now outnumbering boys is even higher, because families send their boys to private schools as a priority and only send their sisters to private schools when their finances allow them to do so.