The First Boy Syndrome

From the country of first boys

By Amartya Sen  

From the country of first boys

AT EVERY LEVEL, Indian education is obsessed with the first boys. In the classroom, in society and in the making of public policy.

In each class, the teachers revel in the success of the first boys, and many of these young wonders recollect throughout their lives that they were first boys-no less-in their class. I remember being really struck many years ago when one of the great men India has produced, who was then the Union Minister for Education and would later become the Prime Minister, could still remember-and was able to tell me-the marks he had received in school and college. Even though, I should explain, his marks were excellent (if I am any judge), I was impressed by what could only be described as his immense modesty in remaining so captivated by his student-day grades (similar to those of other brilliant students across the land), even after he had left nearly every Indian behind in the political life of India (aside from being-I am afraid I am giving away too many clues here-a talented novelist). No, the 'first boy syndrome' is certainly big in our country, and afflicts even persons of truly exceptional achievement outside the classroom.

For individuals this may, in fact, be no more than an amiable peculiarity which need not distract us from our admiration for the persons involved. But when the first boy syndrome takes over an educational system (as I fear has happened in India), there are reasons to be seriously alarmed. The priorities can get oddly distorted when the focus is so narrow, and the concentration of public policy is so strongly on looking after those blessed with opportunity and success. Not only do the educationally advantaged go, as we would expect, to schools, colleges, universities, and distinguished technological institutes (while hundreds of millions of Indian children do not manage to get primary education), but also the educational establishments they go to are, often enough, very fine (sometimes superb), in contrast with the low (sometimes dismal) quality of Indian schools and colleges in general.

We can find a nice chain of actions and reactions here. The system makes sure that some young people, out of a huge pool of the young, manage to get privileged education. The picking is done not through any organized attempt to keep anyone out (indeed, far from it), but through differentiations that are driven by economic and social inequality related to class, gender, location, and social privilege. The privileged, to their credit, by and large do very well-they don't waste opportunities. Their well-earned success comes, first, in the educational establishments themselves, and then in the world at large, impressing Indians and foreigners alike. The country then celebrates with abandon the 'nation's triumphs'. Furthermore, not only do the first boys do well in life, they can also relish-of course with becoming modesty-the homage they receive for having 'done their country proud'. Meanwhile, the last boys, and particularly the last girls, can't even read, not having had the opportunity of going to a decent school-or any school at all. But even they, when they learn about the great accomplishments of well-educated Indians, also celebrate their achievements and take pride in 'India's success'. So everyone, it appears, is happy, and no one jumps up and down in anger.

I should explain that I have nothing against the first boys. We certainly do need them for many different purposes: for academia to flourish, for businesses to prosper, for science and technology to move on, for medicine to progress, for people to feel self-reliant and capable, and, of course, for the cultivation of quality and high standards. My questions do not arise from any sense that the first boys are letting us down, or not doing what they might be expected to do. They are doing just fine for themselves and even for others, given the circumstances, and cannot be generally accused of rapacity or cupidity.

The question that has to be asked, however, is how unequal can the edu-cational hierarchy be, without being not only terribly unjust to the people who are neglected and left out, but also extraordinarily inefficient when it is judged as a general social system. It is in that structural perspective, combining considerations of efficiency with equity, that we can best understand how-and how much-the country loses through its extraordinary concentration on first boys.

Aggregative Penalties of Disparity

Why should we, the question can be asked, particularly grumble about inequalities and gaps in Indian education when it is already achieving so much? Haven't you heard that the economy is moving nicely forward, and that our first boys are celebrated all over the world and even envied?

The most foundational issue is, of course, one of injustice. Not to be able to read or write or count or communicate is a tremendous deprivation and a great violation of the elementary freedoms that we all have reason to value and want. Serious issues of justice arise not only when a great many people are denied the opportunity of enjoying these centrally important freedoms, but also-going on from there-when the facilities to develop our basic capabilities are so unequally distributed by the society and the State. I shall try to say a bit more on this presently, but let me consider, before that, the aggregative-allegedly 'social'-perspectives that are often invoked ('fine economy', 'well-trained people', 'India twinkling', even if we must-hush, hush-avoid the polluted word 'shining'). They serve to keep our eyes firmly shut on what are dismissively called 'individual concerns'. Aren't we meant to be socially oriented? How can we miss the big picture of the nation's success, and whine about some who are left behind?

So, what does the aggregate picture look like? The Indian economy may be doing much better than before in many different ways, and yet it is still paying quite a heavy price for having a far less educated general labour force (as opposed to holders of special skills and recipients of technical training) than, say, China. For example, the commodity pattern of Indian exports is still very dependent on traditional products that need very little education to make, in addition to what can be well produced with the help of specialized skills of the privileged Indians (such as information products, electronic software, or call centre services that draw on fluency in English and the affability of style that the Indian middle classes can easily master). India has great difficulty in competing in a whole range of simple products the making of which requires basic education (and an ability to follow written instructions, but not much more), including elementary gadgets such as clocks and calculators and even computer hardware (no great mathematical skill needed there), in which China excels, and which were among the mainstays of the earlier 'East Asian Miracle'.

I have discussed elsewhere, along with Jean Drèze*, the China-India contrasts, as well as those with other high economic performers, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and other dynamic economies. The lack of general education is still, alas, an important economic constraint, and will be more and more strongly felt as the size of Indian exports expand and we need to go beyond relying on traditional merchandise and the narrow range of products fashioned out of the highly trained skills of a limited group of people.

It is also worth noting that even the extent of the success of higher or specialized education must be dependent on the expanse and previous training of what we may call the 'catchment population' from which it draws its recruits. Given the number of people who receive no school education, and the number who get really below-par instruction at school, the quality of entry into higher or specialized education is severely reduced, and this cuts into the effectiveness of these 'later' educational activities. Our first boys may have to work quite a bit harder, if they were to retain their comparative position, once those disqualified by class or gender or location or social position can enter effectively to compete with the present-day champions. The enormous waste of massive talents
resulting from bad-or no-school education cannot but be relevant even for the aggregative picture.

Even without raising the central issue of social justice, there are, thus, significant aggregative and efficiency considerations in assessing what India loses through its educational disparities, particularly from the inadequate coverage and frequently deficient quality of school education. However, questions of justice are very central in assessing the asymmetries and inequalities in Indian education, and this is where the unacceptability of the present situation becomes utterly and manifestly clear.  

* Jean Drèze is an economist and activist. He was a former member of the UPA's National Advisory Council. He is a visiting professor
at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University.