Interview by Shivani Nag
Shivani Nag: It would be helpful if you could first introduce the book, what led you to this book?
Leya Mathew: This was my dissertation research, at that time, there was a lot of debate about low fee private schools in India. That debate was already happening. And I am from Kerala (South India) where there was a very heated debate about state-funded schools closing down because of private schools. But the academic debate somehow did not match what I was seeing around me. A lot of it was framed in the language of school choice. The school choice literature comes from a very particular historical context in the UK and the US, where school choice makes sense. But in India, school choice makes very little sense. I mean there is this whole body of very insightful literature, but it is misaligned with what is happening. That is what led to the research.
Shivani Nag: The book engages with aspirations for English and among parents. Like you said, your work is based in Kerala, and in the North (of India) certain stereotypes exist about English being a far more comfortable language for those who are from the South. There is a certain complexity of location in the book in terms of geography, you know the dynamics of class, caste, religion (Christianity), the nature of market, and the political leadership (Communist Party). How did you listen to and make sense of the voices emerging in your field, especially because there were also multiple things shaping these voices? Also, I found your choice of “moral aspiration” very interesting, could you share some light on that as well?
Leya Mathew You’re absolutely right, what poverty looks like in certain parts of northern India in comparison to some parts of South India can be very different. Kerala has a long history of development, it’s very contested. At the same time, the intensity of aspiration is noted by others about northern India as well. Aspiration does travel across geography but the specificity of how it manifests would of course be different.
As for moral aspiration, for the longest time the title of my book was Moral Aspiration. The current title came much, much later, after the peer review. While writing, I read Andrea Muehlebach’s The Moral Neoliberal. She’s writing about a very different context, it’s about volunteerism in Italy, but the argument she made was very striking. We assume neoliberal capitalism and its accumulative impetus to be divorced from the moral. But the moral is very central to how capitalism functions as well as to how people are making sense of what’s happening around them.
In my context, whether it was mothers or policymakers in Delhi or Kerala, their expression was very, very moral. So how do you write about a moral neoliberal with all of its contradictions? Because here, you have elites and non-elites using the moral but in very different ways and with very different effects.
When elites claim that they represent the nation, they do so on the strength of their moral claims. Those who study the middle classes have written extensively about the significance of the moral for middle class hegemonic projects. The privileged middle class comes to stand in for everybody else and their agendas come to stand in for national agendas on the basis of their moral claims. The moral becomes the basis of how resources are distributed. Those are the two aspects I was trying to emphasize with the phrase moral aspiration.
Shivani Nag: I also wanted to ask you about the debate on medium of instruction, which has often and rightfully so, connected to questions around access, the accessibility of knowledge for the marginalized and for the oppressed sections. If you look at the Thorat committee report that came out after allegations of caste-based discrimination of students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the key concerns and recommendations had to do with the language gap, non-familiarity with English and the fact that institutions were doing very little to bridge that gap. When it comes to English, different kinds of voices have emerged from within the anti-caste struggles. There are those who see in English an opportunity to counter a certain form of caste-ist standardization in regional languages. Both English and the regional language can be alienating and disconnected from the context. And, of course, others have also pointed towards the epistemological functions of language, and thus the need for the language of the oppressed to be brought to classrooms. Given these debates, I was wondering how would you reflect on the question of language and access, especially for the oppressed castes?
Leya Mathew My current project is on higher education, so these are things that I have been thinking about. In hyper competitive spaces like the IITs and AIIMS, questions around language can function very differently. In mid or lower tier spaces, English can work very differently. There’s something about how the space is located in relation to larger structures, we need to pay attention to that. The schools that I’m looking at in the book are really on the margins of society. As for epistemology, one of the things that I struggled with a lot is, what does epistemology mean when you can access the language only in its written form? These were also personal questions. I studied in a village and then a small town growing up, and I could only write in English. I learned to speak in English a lot later, after I went to college in the city. If you take all of this into consideration, then what are the kind of pedagogic and linguistic spaces that can be negotiated and created? Can we creates ones which are not just welcoming but which are also serious because there’s also a lot of desperate desire for learning?
Shivani Nag: I was also thinking about bell hooks in the context of race. When she talks about English, there is the sense of this being the oppressor’s language which is still needed by the oppressed to be able to talk to those in power. When it comes to languages in India, given the very complex linguistic context we have, it’s not easy for us to clearly identify which is the oppressor’s language. In the context of caste, it’s a particular form of standardized regional language which becomes the oppressor’s language. Then the colonizer’s language can, instead, become a liberating language; our context is very complex.
Leya Mathew: It gets slightly more complicated in Kerala, because the state, the Communist Party is saying exactly this. In the book I write about how the state says that we don’t want a prettified language, we want to intentionally bring the language of the oppressed into our textbooks, and they did that to some extent. But the way it functioned; it became a very perverse inclusion of the language of the oppressed.
Shivani Nag: The private-public divide in schools almost neatly translates to the English versus regional language, and the elite – non-elite private school divide to one between those students who are coming from contexts where English is almost their first language versus those for whom English would still be an imposition. Can the question of language in school can be split off from the concern for the common school system, given that our schools are so hierarchical, and divided so sharply?
Leya Mathew: Yes, it is an extremely hierarchical system. How to work with language education within this hierarchical system if you do not have the option of common schooling is something that needs to be engaged with seriously. I think the debate misses that point, you’re very right. Common schooling has been talked about from the very beginning (independence of the nation), but never been implemented. By now, we know that it will never happen. Any discussion on language education or, for that matter, anything to do with pedagogy has to take this into account. When we have this sort of hierarchical system, then what does it mean to make textbooks for the country? Or design instruction for our country? It doesn’t work. I’m sure that even within a common schooling system there would be hierarchies. But what we have are very institutionalized hierarchies which also distribute resources in very particular ways. You’re absolutely right, I think there needs to be a lot more discussion on this.
Shivani Nag: Since you brought in the question of pedagogy, there is also an imagination of the nation in textbooks. Another school ethnography around aspirations for English that I found engaging was by Shalini Advani and that book, Schooling the National Imagination, was located in the North Indian context. Given the concerns around language imposition that have again come up with the National Education Policy and the resistance from the southern states, how did the relation between language aspiration and a national identity unfold in your field?
Leya Mathew There’s a lot in Shalini’s book about how the nation is imagined, particularly through textbooks, but she also talks about how the classrooms themselves didn’t fit into that imagination because they were on the margins of society. I don’t talk about nationalism in the book but where it comes through most clearly is in the CBSC high school textbooks, the Main Course Book, where immediately, this techno-science nation emerges.
The other reason why I could not really think about nationalism in the context of my study is perhaps because the nation is implicitly Hindu, and Hindi-speaking these days. Sanjay Srivastava demonstrated some of it brilliantly in his book about the Doon School. My context was neither Hindu nor Hindi speaking. Your question makes me reflect on why nationalism did not come up as a theme for me.
There is obviously more sub-nationalism than nationalism in terms of language identities if you look at South India. For the Kerala State and for regional elites, and remember these are people who are bilingual and very comfortable with academic Malayalam and academic English, there is definitely a feeling of imposition (of Hindi), as well as mechanisms of responding and resisting. But these concerns are very distant for those who are not imagined as part of the nation to begin with.
Shivani Nag: When one tries to engage with questions around aspirations, looking at them not just in (marginalized) communities, but also in leadership, that is important.
Moving forward, I was also thinking about how the medium of instruction question in schools cannot be insulated from the question of medium of instruction in higher education. You know language diversity in school systems does not carry over to higher education. In India, higher education is even more exclusive, I think we can confidently say that at least 90% of it is in English.
Leya Mathew: And the sciences, engineering, medicine, architecture, all of that is only taught in English. Like I said, I’m studying higher education now and in a state (Gujarat) where regional-medium education is very strong. I see it unfolding in a much more complex way. These are high achievers from Gujarati-medium schools, they’ve made it to a premier college at the regional level. So those from regional language instruction may have other resources that they can mobilize. Another important factor to keep in mind is that this is also a time of increasing unemployment, when even a professional degree does not lead you to a decent job. What does the cultural capital of English mean if it just leads to a precarious labor market, so it’s complicated.
Shivani Nag: The whole idea of language and socioeconomic mobility must be getting affected in so many ways, with the decline in employment opportunities.
What were some of the major insights that emerged from your field research that perhaps also took you by some surprise? There are certain expectations that one has, I’m very interested in knowing what the surprises were.
Leya Mathew Fieldwork always surprises you. Even in my current project, I went in thinking that those from English medium schools would have everything lined up for them, and it was a big surprise to learn that English did not get you anywhere. In terms of the book, I think the most surprising part was, I thought if you were deprived and knew you were deprived, you would respond with anger. It seems very naïve now. At the Malayalam-medium school, there was a lot more hope and aspiration. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that and I remember having a lot of conversations with my supervisor about that. People’s lives always surprise us, there’s much more happening in anybody’s life than what theory can capture. And I think that’s also the interesting part of doing research.
Shivani Nag: Absolutely. The complexities, the nuances take very different kinds of shapes. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity of engaging with your work. It keeps reminding us to not be just rhetorical with research. It is important to listen to what your participants and the context is speaking.
One last question: educational research in India is focused on outcomes, achievements, certain statistical measures, how do you see the role of ethnography? When you try to convince policymakers, they want data or solutions in the form of step one, step two, step three, so if you go to them with a very rich ethnographic work, it impresses them, but it also makes it difficult for them to pick out two things that they can apply towards.
Leya Mathew Yes, policymakers want numbers and steps, but the policymakers I worked with were ethnographic in their sensibilities. Most of the people I’m writing about in the book, they were not looking for numbers. My issue was different. The issue of numbers definitely is there, I’m not discounting that, that’s definitely a hegemonic discourse. But we need to recognize that the critical is an equally hegemonic discourse. We need to hold these two hegemonic discourses together instead of pitting them against each other. It was very troubling to document how critical scholars ended up creating such violent pedagogies. Like you said earlier, one has to listen very carefully, not take anything for granted, whether it comes with the label of critical or radical, instead, really listen and observe and see what the critical turn is actually doing in the world.
In terms of what you can apply, it’s very simple, there should be a functional library, I mean people have been saying that for the longest time. But in a context where English is being understood as socialization, to remember that you also must teach how to read and write became a fresh insight. We have now come to assume language to be oracy or the ability to socialize, we forget that literacy is something that is taught and learned, not acquired. I’m not saying something new, but something that is being forgotten in a particular political economic context.
Shivani Nag: Any last comments or reflections on your journey from the field to putting it out in the form of a book?
Leya Mathew I’m grateful that it got published. I couldn’t have asked for a better series, when I read the series editors’ preface, I was very touched. I’m very, very grateful that it all came together. It’s also important to note that writing a book needs a lot of institutional support. Academic careers also, it boils down to numbers, what are your publication numbers and how does it work for NAAC and CAS. Unless there is institutional support, it’s extremely difficult.