The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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State of war on the system

The ills are many and the worries unlimited. But much is also being done in the field of education and alternatives are on offer, says Brendan MacCarthaigh

‘inquilab zindabad!’ My problem is, having heard that cry a thousand times, I still don’t know what the particular inquilab is. I’m sure it isn’t really against pedestrians, against cyclists, against motorists, although they — we — seem to be the only ones suffering from it. Well, if it isn’t us, then who has rebelled against what'

In the circle of education there is the same cry. The only difference is, the enemy is clear, and the kind specific. The enemy is the system-as-is, and the kind is the life of our students. And today, I want to tell you about how that battle is being fought, and where it’s losing and where it’s winning — and where you, dear reader, have a role.

I can be short about the first part, i.e., where we are losing the battle. No, no, let’s be quite specific — who are ‘we’' ‘We’ has two meanings here — we, the parents/teachers, and we, the NGO, that has taken up the cudgels on behalf of our kids. Why, what’s wrong with our kids, why do we have to take up any cudgels on their behalf'

Whew. There’s a thing in my trade called teaching backwards. It means, you go into a new group of senior kids to teach them, say, that it isn’t good to start off a string of sentences with an adverb clause. Then you discover that they don’t know what a clause is, so you have to go back and teach them that. While doing so, you find they haven’t a clue what an adverb is, so you have to go back… You get the idea' Well, that’s how I feel just now, that I have to spell out this stuff backwards. Specifically (again!), why do we have to take up cudgels on behalf of our kids'

Because they are in deep trouble. Familiar ground' Yes, indeed — overloaded syllabi, overloaded school-bags, overloaded private tuition which is flourishing anyway, and the looming threat of either outright failure, omigod, or of doing less well than hoped/expected/demanded. Anticipating any or all of the above, the kids phone us in SERVE a lot, with the frightened tale — now that exams are approaching — that concentration, remembering and understanding are simply non-functional properties, and often enough that on top of that a crush has started or another one bloodily ended.

Then there are peripheral agonies like family wars, classroom alienation, fears of pregnancy or STDs, the whole teen thing of waking up to confusion, desperation, bafflement, and hormonal mayhem. Out there is the izzat issue, the kid must do well to protect not only her/his own izzat, but also the parents, the household, the caste, the religion, the huge raft of pride-cherishers who stand upon this one victim’s percentages.

This is, of course, ridiculous. No youngster — nor oldster — should have to carry all this load. But year after year, we watch them like sheep being driven to slaughter, we work up our own parent/teacher blood-pressure, we want them, wish them, will them to do better, and however prettily we might verbalise it, we force them to get that damned credit. The threat of simply not making it is too much for most, we get genuinely distraught kids hanging on to their sanity, drawing strength from God knows where. Sometimes you’d think that even God runs out of sources for them. And they commit a terrified suicide, in hundreds per year. Kids. Kids!

So what cudgels can we take up, you and I, for these perky but scared youngsters' And I tell you, in this piece I am thinking only of the youngsters actually in classrooms, not the millions in West Bengal alone, who have never seen the inside of a classroom, and not the drop-outs (a staggering 9.1 million, as reported from the Centre-funded Sarbasiksha Abhijan). It is worse than war, this sort of neglect. But let us confine ourselves to your and my youngsters, actually in school. The cudgels.

One is, the causes of the psychological savagery that is going on are identified. Two is, those causes are being responded to and substituted by alternatives that are not just less savage, but totally benign. And three, the bottom line still is that the youngster knows as much as the (admittedly absurd) syllabi demand, and can present it on request.

Much is being done actually. There are lots of counselling services like our own in place. Schools have brought in counsellors as part of their staff. The state government is actually, if with sinful tardiness, getting round to improving things after their fashion. Certainly the Open School, despite the bad-mouthing it gets from supercilious circles, is offering excellent opportunities and excellent courses to those of our students who, for a thousand reasons, cannot fit into the normal school structures. And even though the remuneration is belittling, insulting and cynical, the DPEP system, where it is actually functioning, is helping a little.

But again, these are all just brushing the surface. What is needed is a new system, not just a new syllabus. What is needed is not new formulae, but new pedagogies. And here is the good news. In late November, there was a conference organised by SERVE held in the auditorium of Loreto House led by Dr Janaki Rajan, director of Delhi’s SCERT (the state counterpart of NCERT). Her follow-up speaker was our own Shubhra Chatterjee of Vikramsheela, and the chairperson was Prof. Surendra Munshi of IIM, Calcutta. So, pretty heavy stuff.

The invitees — all educationists — who came to the lectures on the Saturday evening were encouraged to come on Sunday morning to discuss some of the more important issues raised. Sunday morning' Discussion on education' Well, believe it or not, more people turned up on the Sunday than had come on the Saturday!

The lectures did of course confirm for us that something is rotten in the state of education across the country, and in West Bengal, particularly. What I want to offer here, however, is the reassurance that better things are available, and, if not your children, then at the very least your children’s children, can look forward realistically to a system ‘where the child is without fear’. Back in January ’01, this is what Dr Rajan wrote to SERVE after we had presented a workshop to SCERT in the Capital: “Thank you very much for bringing us so many new and great ideas in the context of exam-less and enjoyable system of education… We now dare to hope that at last, there is an alternative – a genuine child-friendly way of learning in our schools.”

We are not so fatuous as to pretend that this is the only system worth paying attention to. Our point is only to say, yes, our children need help, and YES, help is available, and is in fact being explored. These are some of the ‘cudgels’ on offer. We are hoping that what has happened far away in Delhi will be welcomed on our own doorstep here in Calcutta soon.

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