By Rahul Panda
A couple of months ago Madhu, one of my fifth-grade students, complained: “Sir, he teases me all the time. You should do something about it.” I suggested that the best way Madhu could deal with the said tease was to ignore him. People say mean things to illicit such reactions, I told Madhu, in terms he could comprehend. “But, Sir. He does it all the time,” Madhu persisted. “Just keep ignoring him,” I said pseudo-sagely, “what do you have to lose?” Without a moment’s hesitation Madhu replied, “Sir, I am losing patience.”
For a while, I thought this dialogue qualified as standard fodder for a humour column in Reader’s Digest. However, over a period of time Madhu’s retort compelled me to contemplate something deeper: the ductility of Indian tolerance and patience. How far are we, as a people, willing to stretch ourselves to ignore or bear injustice before we snap?
If contemporary events are any indication, it can be safely assumed that people’s forbearance and fortitude has reached the yield point. Be it the mass mobilisation against corruption, the Maoists-led tribal agitation, the assault on the Minister of Agriculture, or the numerous farmer suicides across the country – one gets the impression that something is snapping. The mood is also reflected globally. Take the Occupy Wall Street protests or the so-called Arab Spring for instance. What’s bothersome is this: we seem to have developed an immense capacity to look the other way when it comes to the issue of children’s education.
How has the free, compulsory and nearly meaningless (if not entirely useless) education provided in government schools failed to stir the collective conscience? Perhaps because the establishment has done just about enough to string people along. The midday meal scheme is, to put it mildly, a devious masterstroke. For (the government may argue) what use is teaching a kid who doesn’t even get two square meals a day. Fair point, I concede. But a counter to that would be: what use is feeding a kid once a day without teaching him anything and eventually leaving him to fend for himself with little education and no skills to find meaningful employment? A classic case of feed a fish or teach to fish. In the case of government schools, however, even the quality of the fish is suspect.
The more germane question is: although freebies like midday meals, free uniforms and books may have increased the levels of enrollment and retention in schools to an extent, have they actually improved levels of academic achievement? The answer is, unfortunately, a resounding, reverberating no. How can children learn when no one’s really teaching?
Why does this no fail to incite the youth’s ire? It is because educational inequity has always been a subliminal issue. And that could be attributed to the fact that its effect cannot be readily quantified. We don’t know what loss the nation incurred when a primary school teacher in rural Bihar wrote “Mego” on the blackboard and then pronounced it as “Mango” for the class to repeat after her. With their low motivation levels, inadequate skills, methodologies borrowed from the Old Testament and one-tattered-size-fits-all approach teachers in schools -public and private alike- are failing our students, and miserably so.
The scale of the problem of educational inequity in the country is too immense to wrap one’s wits around. To say the least, and at the risk of sounding tedious, it’s a no-brainer that it has now become imperative for the country’s top bananas (if I may be allowed that expression) to come forth to try and solve it. We need more people teaching in classrooms than the ill-informed yet enthusiastic crowd that spilled onto the streets during the anti-graft campaign. And even then we’d fall short by a huge margin.
Even as I write this I am conscious of the twin pitfalls: romanticism and idealism. One must have very little time for people who keep branding various movements the next “freedom struggle”. Also, let us not delude ourselves into believing that a small group of people -no matter how spirited and efficient- can solve this problem. It would not only require the participation of our best minds but also a consecrated effort on the part of the government. But to get the conversation started on a national scale we need to first build that critical mass of leaders who can help facilitate that dialogue. We need serious contributors to this growing force. On a micro scale, this is a war that can only be won by winning the everyday battles that play out in classrooms. Battles against vacant stares and absenteeism; against non-cooperative school managements; against parents who believe that teachers are akin to babysitters and schools facilities meant to lock their children up for a few hours every day.
Why then would anyone with a privileged education (read – in their right minds) disrupt the flow of their career – blooming or thriving – to get into something this demanding? For want of a better answer, I can only quote the Finnish saying: Because only dead fish swim with the flow.
Have I been too strident or is it just my impatience asserting itself?
(The author is a Teach for India Fellow)