The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Indian schools take care to teach children not to rock the boat

A friend has two pictures up in his office. One, an intriguing little abstract. The other, evidently a child's work, is one familiar from schoolrooms. A house with a pointed roof and two windows, a big yellow sun. The latter, he informs visitors, is the best picture his daughter did in kindergarten. And the first one' Well, that was the sort of stuff she did before she started going to school.

What on earth do we do to our children when we educate them' What special process have we perfected that transforms a complex, mysterious vision into the stereotypical two-dimensional one we are comfortable with' Clearly, our schools manage to train right out of our children the slightest tendency toward independent thought. What we want them to be is disciplined adults, what we want them to do is fit into the world exactly as it is. Parents want education so that their children will be successful in this world, policy-makers so that the nation's 'human resource' requirements may be met. Hence the lamentations in social science and humanities departments about becoming 'irrelevant' ' to the market. Hence the transformation of English language classes even in English medium schools from reading and writing, to developing skills like interpreting graphs. English, in other words, to mass-produce skilled labour for Microsoft. Language as an end in itself' A source of creative exploration and self-definition' Come on, be realistic.

And now, the suggestion to train young people for the bureaucracy immediately after school. Good idea. Heaven forbid that any spark of dangerous questioning that survived their school education be brought to bear on the administration of the country!

Mainstream education is about 'schooling society', to draw on Ivan Illich's famous, by now quite unfashionable work; his aim was to 'de-school' society. Illich defined 'school' as 'the age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum'. School in this sense is a modern phenomenon, and it requires the mass-production of something called childhood. As Illich puts it, the few people around the world who are actually allowed childhood rarely enjoy playing the child's role. Only by segregating some human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher. Schooling then, has little to do with learning. Children learn their first language casually, and second or third languages are usually learnt by force of circumstances ' 'they go to live with their grandparents, they travel, or they fall in love with a foreigner'. Other skills are often learnt on the job. A great deal of learning happens, in short, not in school, but as a by-product of some other activity defined as 'work' or 'leisure'. Indeed, the greatest reward of human labour is the education we receive from it, and the opportunity that work gives us to initiate the education of others. No wonder, says Illich, that Marx opposed a passage in the Gotha programme that wanted to outlaw child labour, for he believed that the education of the young could only happen at work.

Too radical, too eccentric a view to be taken seriously even by today's Marxists, indeed, by any but a few, deservedly marginal people. Forlornly hoping, nevertheless, that the very articulation of these ideas may at least trigger some unease, let us move on. Can we concede that at the minimum, the current debates in India on education need to go beyond the immediate issues of 'detoxification', textbook writing and merely getting children into school' Somewhere we need to start questioning the basic premises underlying the understanding of education in our society.

Remember J.S. Rajput as NCERT director promising to protect the fragile sentiments of communities by ensuring that 'religious experts' would be consulted before making any reference to religion in textbooks' Rajput felt that there should be no disjuncture between the values a child learns at home and those she learns at school. Young minds, he held, cannot think for themselves or sift fact from fiction, and textbooks should be framed on this presumption. This is not simply a rabid Hindutvavadi view, alas. In fact it seems to reflect the common sense understanding about education that can be summed up in four words ' Don't Rock the Boat. Recently, the Indian Medical Association demanded the removal of a Hindi lesson in an NCERT textbook. The chapter is about a man catching a cold after eating an ice-cream. Various rounds to doctors fail to cure him, but finally he gets better after a neighbour gives him a cup of tulsi tea. The letter charges that the story misleads students into believing that a cold can be caught by eating an ice-cream when in fact it is a viral infection that would take at least five to seven days for remission. Further, the IMA is upset with the questions provided at the end of the chapter to assess the student's understanding. 'The question series further reinforces the mistrust against doctors, which is unacceptable to us,' says the letter.

So many questions are raised by this protest. One, about the role of 'fact' in creative writing or satire. Even if it were proved beyond reasonable doubt that ice- cream eating can under no circumstances trigger off a cold, must all fiction abide by this scientific rule' Two, how is social critique ever to be made without 'hurting sentiments' Surely some sentiments deserve to be hurt' The problem is that we are not all in agreement on which those are. And eventually, how is this rationalist view of education very different from J.S. Rajput's obscurantist one' The assumption underlying both is the same. Young minds cannot think for themselves, or decide between opposing points of view. Indeed, they should not even be allowed to suspect that there might actually be more than one point of view on the same issue.

Increasingly we find a contradiction between two aims of education even as it has been conventionally understood in India. One, education to foster the scientific temperament, to build national resources, and now, to play a role in the global market. Two, education to address the intolerance generated by the rising tide of majoritarian politics in a multicultural society. For the first, it seems we need to hand over a body of facts to the schooled ' information and specific skills, marked by certainty and bearing the label of truth. For the second, we must inculcate the notion that there might be very many ways of thinking about the same thing, that life and living are understood very differently by different groups of people, whether these people define themselves as Hindus and Muslims or as atheists. And that even if we do not understand or agree, or like it, we have to tolerate one another's views. That disagreeable views cannot simply be excised but can and will be challenged, both from inside and outside these groups. In short, the learning process is precisely about the discovery that every field of knowledge is a terrain of often unsettled debate.

This contradiction cannot be resolved. To embrace the second view of education is the only option, really. But the rocking of the boat, the sea-sickness' Better not.

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