[Food for thought] The fundamental issue with schooling in India


The village Paalaguttapalle (Dalitwada), located in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, is a village like many other villages in India. It is a small, comprising of three streets, with about 50 households. This is a community of agricultural labourers. They are mostly landless, and they hope that schooling will help their children progress. All the children go to school. The village has a government primary school in the hamlet, and a middle-cum-high school 3km away at Kothapeta. But the schooling standards are overall very poor.

There is a severe employment crisis in villages. In recent years, non-remunerative prices, scarcity of labour, low rainfall and other factors, have made agriculture increasingly difficult. The scarcity in labour is mainly due to the present generation of schooled youth, all desiring only desk jobs, and being unwilling to work in fields. Other rural livelihoods like carpentry and pottery are similarly in crisis as the schooled youth are unwilling to enter these traditional occupations. However, these youth also do not get the white collar jobs they desire. All these factors together have caused this severe crisis in rural employment today.

I have spent many years in this village, living as a neighbour to the locals, teaching their children, and have watched a generation grow up before my eyes through its schooling years.

Some eighteen years ago, when I first went to the village, to live and work there, I took schooling as an intervention point for myself and started teaching Telugu in the local school. I thought that fundamental changes could be brought about through working with children in schools. I got the local potter to come and teach pottery in the school in an effort to show the dignity of the profession to the students. I tried other similar interventions in schools. Over time, I realised that it is only in a society where all skills are valued and compensated equally that such notions of the dignity of all skills can even stand ground. The very structure and priorities of society have to change for any really meaningful interventions in school to be possible. The idea of bringing about meaningful change through the school system soon appeared to be wishful thinking. And my concerns rose as the years passed......

The story of a village …

True education is far vaster than schooling, and happens in communities and through livelihoods. Rigour, co-operation and ethics are amply learnt in a hardworking, decent community, such as in a village. House chores, field work and taking on familial responsibilities give a sense of balance and proportion through an individual’s growing years. The wisdom I see in my illiterate, unschooled, poor and landless village neighbours is something I could not hope to find in a highly-schooled society. They have the ethic and courage to share their last plate of rice with a poorer person because they see that as their Dharmam. Annasamy anna tells me, “Dharmam is to do a job well even if no one is watching.”

Schooling is seen as a passport out of poverty. In a world where 'literacy' is treated (and remunerated) as the most important skill, schooling promises degrees that will get children jobs. This schooling dream is overtly and subtly sold to the poor. No farmer wants his son to be a farmer. He wants him to be a clerk.

So our village children are all schooled. All dalit parents, at any cost, educate their children through school and college.

But we have put an entire generation through poor schooling that has taken them nowhere. The present youth are rendered unfit for farming and other village livelihoods. Schooling has taught them that these are inferior occupations, and that only work done with pen and paper is respectable.  Also, after spending their childhood and youth in closed classrooms, they are physically unable to work as hard as their parents do.

Sadly, they are also unfit to compete for the white collar jobs they dream of, because their schooling is, and will always be, vastly inferior to what our privileged children access. And given that the community’s traditional knowledge has little relevance from the schooling perspective, their elders cannot guide them in their studies. With all odds against them, very few make significant headway.

In addition, these children have also lost a sense of quality in work, which their parents and grandparents had, as neither do they respect traditional occupations, nor are they given the high quality schooling to make them achieve impressive quality in the literate world.

Belonging to neither world, with unrealisable dreams of a white collar job, and with a disdain for rural employments, the youth are drifting. Alcoholism has also become common.

Now what?

Villages are rich and wonderful places, and we have to first restore village life by ensuring rural employment, by reinforcing the sense of self-worth of the village poeple, and by reinstilling faith in their own skills, farming systems, medicine systems, dispute resolving mechanisms and other processes. All these and more have been systematically disrupted over decades and centuries. It is not external ‘teaching’, but ‘learning’ from them of their wisdom that will restore their knowledge and self-identity. Primarily, village employment opportunities have to be focused on.

In a village, a child grows in the loving care of his/her parents and the community, and is nurtured and given a grounding in work, ethics and goodness. To take a child away for five years and put him/her in a physically and culturally distant school and hostel is a difficult choice, logistically, economically and from the desirability of removing a small child from its home. But once a child studies for some years in the local Telugu medium school, for it to move into another higher quality English medium one at a later stage is another insurmountable task. It is a ‘heads you win, tails I lose’ situation for a village child. Also, a system that sees one or, at most, two children succeed to any extent out of a batch of forty or so equally deserving, good and poor children is inherently unconscionable.

The immediate answer seems to be that village schools have to improve. The government has to be made to deliver, and that concerned people have to go and work in villages and help to ensure better schools is clear.

But in the social and political situation of today, it does not seem as if schools for the poor could possibly become better than the schools for the rich; to offset the complete lack of family support, the schooling the poor access has to be superior to that of the rich, so as to give them a fair chance. Also, all of India cannot become white collar workers, with all primary activities such as the production of food and cloth in a country ceasing to exist. We finally need a system where various occupations can co-exist with equal respect and reward.

Apart from that, present day schools themselves are designed in a framework that considers literacy as the primary skill, and at a deep level, reinforces the prejudices between the schooled and the unschooled. This is because the villagers are the ‘taught’ in the schooling system, and the others are the ‘teachers’ or ‘administrators’The modern school is structurally based on our literary and modern technological skills, and thus imposes this knowledge paradigm on another paradigm that is based on livelihoods like farming or pottery. Those of the dominant paradigm are considered learned, and those of the others are deemed ignorant. The saddest thing is that those of the non-dominant paradigm have internalised it and deny their own wisdom. This is a very fundamental problem with schooling, and continues, however many creative and alternative approaches are tried, and however much we include rural artisans and folk musicians as teaching staff.

Only in the overall model of a confident and prosperous village, with full employment potential, can good education for children also be had. Only then can we really address children, their schools and their futures in any truly relevant way. Only then can schooling, education and livelihoods be synchronised.

And that is the only answer– to work towards building villages rich in employment opportunities and dignity.

It must also be kept in mind, however, that, given the present reality, we have to, and do try to support talented older children, who given a chance can place themselves in a better course with better prospects. Also, we do try to organise tuitions for some of the kids, with some of the educated village youth. Caught in the system as it exists today, we do try to intervene where we can. But it is like fighting a battle blindfolded and with both hands tied behind one’s back.

The answer to this is not simple, because the social system itself is flawed.

Nothing can be done unless we see things completely afresh. Every rural child is today being schooled to move away from rural occupations.

Is it possible? There is no policy that can absorb all the rural children into white collar jobs.

Is it desirable? The potter, weaver and dryland farmer have a high degree of skill that supports their very important occupations. These are sustainable practices that do no harm to the earth, as opposed to many modern technologies. A vibrant village economy, incorporating all these in meaningful ways, can generate many more such occupations that can gainfully employ its youth.

And to truly answer these questions, the development paradigm, the economics, everything in fact, has to be looked at anew. Based on the development paradigm, production methods and inbuilt subsidies have to be evaluated, and also ‘who learns what from whom’.

We need to decide if we desire a gram swarajya model, where village skills like farming, animal husbandry and weaving are given priority, Or a model where factories and IT are given priority, or both, and in what proportion.

If the gram swarajya model has a significant place, then the learning processes themselves become very different. The roles of the teacher and the taught get reversed!

If our vision for the country is one where everyone should be doing a desk job, as the current schooling system seems to be designed for, we should be working towards creating a billion desk jobs, and importing many of our basic requirements.

Schooling is only a part of the whole, and will fit into the societal model we choose. Schooling has to fit into a paradigm of livelihoods, which has to fit into a paradigm of development for society. The form of schooling comes out of the form of society.

One has to begin at the beginning. Schooling is an intermediate step in the process. All the talk about better schooling at the moment is about tinkering, improving syllabi, improving delivery, and it will continue to be so unless the development model is fundamentally reviewed. 

'Schooling for all' shorn of perspective is a death knell for all.


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