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Matthew Arnold '09 Studies Indian Democracy and Education

By Laura Bramley
Posted August 18, 2008
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For Matthew Arnold '09, the experience of studying abroad is something he just can't leave behind. "I wouldn't be doing this research at all if I didn't go to India," says the rising senior from Cazenovia, N.Y., who is using the summer to research how globalization has affected Indian education and social freedoms. After spending fall 2007 in India and writing a research paper at the end of the semester, Arnold says that he wanted to continue the research he conducted there "in any way possible." His summer project, on which he collaborates with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Chaise LaDousa, is funded by the Research Fellows Program run by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. Arnold plans to incorporate parts of his project into his senior thesis in history, and hopes to attend graduate school to continue learning about the topic.

"In the near future, most economists forecast India as becoming the third most powerful economy in the world," says Arnold. However, even though education and the economy are closely linked in a country's development, the India's educational system is among the worst in the world. Arnold's research investigates why that is the case, looking at Indian education in three phases: the British colonial period, the post-independence period, and the current state of education. He focuses especially on the current situation, looking at private institutions and schools sponsored by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to see if those schools are making a difference to fight social inequality and allow the economically disadvantaged to obtain an education.

To conduct his research, Arnold is relying on the South Asian collection at the Syracuse University library. He reads reading works by historians and educationalists in India, as well as using his own field notes and interviews from his semester abroad. He plans to illustrate the trends of his research with the concrete examples of some of the schools he visited in India.

Arnold finds that social freedoms are crucial to understanding India's educational situation. Social freedoms are fundamental in a liberal democracy like India, which intended to respond to the needs and criticisms of its citizens. With a high rate of illiteracy like India's (in 1991, half the population was illiterate) public participation in national issues suffers. "Education enables people to be part of political debates and public action to solve social problems," says Arnold. In India, although the debates affect everyone, they only involve a tiny segment of the population. He explains that globalization has affected the situation in both positive and negative ways: while foreign NGOs have made it easier for the impoverished to become literate, they have also continued inequalities in the system, notably by emphasizing the English language. Learning English is "overwhelmingly the top priority for students," since it contributes to higher social status and career opportunities. But it also clearly divides communities into separate groups, excluding those who don't have the resources to learn the language.

The volume of information available on his subject is never-ending, Arnold says: the difficulty is to know where to turn next. On one hand, such a wealth of material can be bewildering – he has found himself "lost at sea" several times with too many possibilities – but on the other, there is always something new to learn about his topic. Arnold also notes that many of the issues India faces are not unique to that country, but are common to many postcolonial societies. In this sense, his research helps to reveal some of the broader consequences of colonization. 

-- by Laura Bramley

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