By Basav Biradar
I was lucky to study in a residential school run by the central government more than 25 years ago, before the boom of private schools.
Now, there is no dearth of private schools, many of which are international schools, and some are even run by religious or spiritual institutions. It seemed like a good thing initially. Privatization and liberalization was a seeming revolution in education with students having several schools to choose from. It seemed like the education system was coming of age in India.
But in the last couple of years, thanks to Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and my interest in conducting heritage walks, I have had a chance to interact with children from some of the popular private schools in Bangalore. The pressure to be profitable means that such schools price admissions to meet targets. This in turn seems to result in a majority of children from one particular economic class being in similar schools.
All this doesn’t seem to be wrong, but these interactions have left me with doubts about the new wave of education system. The more I interact with students, the more I feel that these schools are the modern examples of exclusivity or if I can call it that, segregation.
Let me give an example. In one of my Tipu Palace heritage walks in Bengaluru, as soon as we started talking about Tipu Sultan, one student shouted “He was Anti-Hindu”. I did not think much of it but in few minutes while I was explaining a war situation, he started shouting “Allah O Akbar” and laughing. This time I stopped him and asked him why he did this. He retorted that this is what Muslims say, at which, most of the students laughed. Pitifully, so did the teachers. I singled out the student and reprimanded him saying his behaviour might make some of his classmates feel uncomfortable and that mocking a religion is not good behaviour.
Before you point out that this is a trivial matter, I am talking of Class 7 children. During the course of the tour I learnt that the class did not have the diversity needed for the students to organically learn about various facets of our society. Upon probing further, I also learnt some of the students were children of Indian origin but born in USA or UK. It struck me then that even though these students are studying in India, they are living in islands of comfort and prejudices provided by their parents and which do not intersect with cross sections of Indian society.
Of course, the prerogative of the what and how of children’s early education lies with their parents, but this encounter made me think: Don’t we want our children to be aware of our country as it is? Is it that we feel safer if we put them in schools where children from the same economic and family backgrounds study? In a few years, will we not have created a more divided society, one in which various communities have never come face to face with each other? What is the responsibility of schools? Where do children learn their prejudices? In this particular incident, I was disappointed that the teachers did not seem to be worried about such behaviour.
While the questions were still bothering me, I got an opportunity to interact with students from a government college on a heritage walk elsewhere.
When the introductions were made, I realized that there was a good mix of students from different backgrounds. The names indicated Hindu, Muslim and Christian students. While some could speak English quite fluently, others could hardly utter a word; which I inferred was an indicator of their parents’ economic class. They all seemed to be at home with each other. Some in burqa, others in salwar or trousers. I forgot to mention, it was a women’s college.
On another occasion, I went to a small town school, which also had a similar mix. It was Parents day. Since it is a residential school, parents get to meet their children once in two months on a Sunday which is known as Parents day. There appeared to be a reasonable degree of diversity amid the lack of facilities, teachers, and choices of subjects.
Students in these schools and colleges will probably learn more on their own as they build friendships without the barriers of caste or class. But what happens when they meet their counterparts from the high end urban schools in a professional situation tomorrow? Or will they never meet?
No matter how hard people who are conscious of privilege try, they often ended up taking their privilege for granted. Privilege shows in the school’s objectives. High end urban private schools want to cultivate alternative learning by having field excursions and giving choice of electives while small town schools and coaching centres prepare children for competitive exams which will ensure students a job.
As we celebrate our 70th Indian Independence Day let’s spare a thought for our education system, especially middle and high schools. Education is supposed to open children’s minds to the world, but we seem to be conditioning minds and putting blinders on them in the name of safety and protection. Children, who are literally the future of our country should be at the centre of our policy-making, but apparently our policy makers do not seem to think so.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.