1990-05-29 00:00:00

Jesuit Father Thomas V. Kunnunkal, 64, is chairman of the Indian government´s National Open School and was recently appointed to a federal committee which will review the country´s education policy.

An educator for 33 years, 22 of which he spent in schools, Father Kunnunkal has also served as president and executive secretary of the Jesuit Education Association of India, a coordinating body for the 101 high schools and 25 colleges run by the Society of Jesus in India. The following interview with Father Kunnunkal appears in the May 26 issue of ASIA FOCUS.

ASIA FOCUS: What has been your experience in the educational apostolate these past 33 years?

FATHER KUNNUNKAL: The longer I stay in education, the more I realize that it is an effective instrument for development and empowerment. I see fewer distinctions than I used to between various kinds of involvement such as social action, pastoral work or education or even work in an administrative set up, as I am now in.

I find my work very priestly. I don´t have to jump from one sector (religious) to the other (secular) as the distinction between the two gets thinner. Education for me is spiritual involvement.

What are your responsibilites as chairman of the National Open School (NOS)?

The appointment was the result of a project the Indian government had asked me to prepare on the NOS. My responsibilities as its chairman are to set an alternative open learning system at the school level and liaise with state governments to open such schools at the state level.

We aim at providing a second chance to the thousands who wish to continue their education.

How does the open school supplement other education schemes?

Frankly, the formal system has failed to educate our people. In actual terms, the majority of the students who enter formal education drop out before they have had even five years of education.

To cope with life today a person needs about eight years of education in language competence, basic awareness and understanding of the world of science and technology, functional number literacy and enough social studies input.

Not just formal education, such an education will also provide a personal and national sense of identity to the person, through cultural and value inputs.

The formal system helps only about 20-25 percent of people. Hence the urgent need for an alternative -- not just an alternative examination system but an education system.

While the formal system is institution-based, the open system which has a lot of flexibility tries to respond to the needs of the individuals and regions. The minimum age for admission is 14. The average age of the open schools student is 20.

How will the new system help India´s illiterates?

One institution cannot solve all the country´s literacy problems. Open learning is basically self-learning and hence presupposes that the student has had basic education. We accept students who have done the equivalent of primary education. We even accept a self-certificate about this level of education.

An important reason for poor results in literacy work is lack of motivation of learners. They are asked to become literate with no scope for continuing education.

The open school establishes a link with the National Literacy Mission to help students join either the formal system or continue with the open system through the open university.

How does the open school fulfil the need for overall development of the child?

That is a pertinent point. Open school students are grownups and have had a certain amount of general growth earlier, unlike the young in the formal system. But it is important that the element of skill is also introduced into the very curriculum of the open system.

We plan to replace 40 percent of curriculum content with applications related to life situations and conditions. This will increase the student´s competence. In the formal system an average student has little problem-solving ability as the system does not provide it.

Then there is the question of values and attitudes which forms the third dimension of total education, the other two being knowledge and skills. This is a tough area in a distance education mode.

Through a certain amount of compulsory project work, built into the curriculum itself, we hope to bring in some measure of value education.

Does the open school cater to underprivileged and marginalized people?

The open school is not meant for the well-to-do, but essentially for dropouts from the formal system.

Already 37 percent of our enrollment are female candidates, about 20 percent are scheduled (low) castes and tribals, and a small number are handicapped.

Our student profile includes: under-matriculate primary teachers, housewives who have time to continue education, soldiers, unemployed youth and those in pursuit of a better job that comes with better education.

Have you been able to implement the Jesuit "option for the poor" through this job?

As an outsider inside the government system, I have found a tremendous amount of acceptance. As I do not have the compulsions of career promotion, as others in government do, I can also make decisions and sometimes displease the bosses. So far they have accepted it. I do not know how well.

I find the open school a practical means of enabling the poor to become self-reliant. We have now 150,000 students on our active, cumulative enrollment list, much more than the total number of students in all the Jesuit schools and colleges in India. The enrollment has been leapfrogging in the past two years. Last year 66,000 students joined the system and we hope to cross the 200,000 mark this year.

How can the Church help?

I already find many priests and nuns from different parts of the country coming forward to help open school students by establishing learning support study centers.

As the numbers increase we will need many more such accredited centers which will provide learning supports, without commercializing the situation.

The NOS will provide some financial support and some will have to come from students. I look forward to the partnership between formal institutions, voluntary agencies and society and the NOS.

I even think this outreach to the poor, through non-formal and open learning, should be seen as something of a social obligation for those in the formal system. In the process, such contact may also help revitalize the formal system.


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