Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The fundamental issue with schooling

The village E.Palaguttapalle (Dalitwada), Chittoor Dt., A.P. is a village like many other villages of India. It is a small village of three streets, with about 50 households. This is a community of agricultural labourers. They are mostly landless and they have 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 carpentery and pottery are similarly in crisis as  the schooled youth are unwilling to do their traditional occupations. But these youth also do not get the white collar jobs they desire. All factors together have caused this severe crisis in rural employment today.

I have spent many years in this village, living as a neighbor, teaching the 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 can happen through working with children in schools. I got the local potter to come and teach pottery in the school, ‘as that would give dignity to the potter’ in schooling. I tried some other similar interventions in schools. Over time I realized that it is only in a society where all skills are valued and compensated  equally that such notions of 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 posssible. To ‘bring fundamental changes through a school’ became wishful thinking. So concerns  widened as 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 hard working, decent community  such as in a village. House chores, field works and taking on family responsibilities gives a sense of balance and proportion through 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 seeing.”

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. Every dalit child is now a college pass or a college fail.

But  we have 'schooled'  a generation  through poor schooling that has taken  them nowhere. The present youth are rendered unfit for farming and other village livlihoods.  Schooling has taught them that these are inferior occupations, and that only work done with paper and pen is respectable.  Also after spending their childhood and youth in closed classrooms,  they are physically unable to work 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 be, vastly inferior to what our privileged children access. Their traditional knowledge is also different from the school skills, and their elders cannot guide them in school 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 high quality in the literate world.
Belonging to neither world, with unrealizable dreams of a white collar job, and with a disdain for rural employments, the youth are drifting. Alcoholisim has also become common.

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

In a village a child grows in the loving care of parents and a community, and is nurtured and given a grounding in work and ethics and goodness. To take away a child of five years and put it in a physically and culturally distant school and hostel is a difficult choice, logistically, economically and from the desirability to 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 age is another unsurmountable difficulty. It is a heads you win, tails I lose situation for a village child. Also, among forty or so equally deserving and good and poor children in a closely knit community, to choose one child and relocate it into a privileged level is again a disruptive and unconscionable act.

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. 

But in the social and political situation of today it does not seem as if schools for the poor would become better than schools for the rich – to offset the complete lack of family support, the schooling the poor access has to be superior  – and give them a fair chance. Also all of India cannot become white collar workers, and all primary activities of production of food, cloth and other needs in a country cease. 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 structurally is based on our literary and modern technological skills, and thus imposes this knowledge paradigm on another paradigm that is based on livlihoods 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 internalized it and deny their own wisdom. This is a very fundamental problem with schooling and continues, however many creative and alternative  approaches be tried, and however much we include rural artisans and folk musicians as the teaching staff.

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

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

(But, 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 organize tutions for some of the village 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 hands tied behind one’s back.)

The answer to this is not simple, because … the social system is flawed, and thereby also the schooling embedded in this system.
Nothing can be done unless we see things afresh completely.  Every rural child is 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 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, and everything 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 of farming, animal husbandry, weaving are given priority. Or if we desire 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 thereat themselves become very different. The roles of the teacher and the taught themselves get reversed ! 

If our vision for the country is one where everyone should be doing a desk job, as schooling is designed on that notion,  we should be working  towards creating a billion  desk jobs, and towards 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 livlihoods, which has to fit into a paradigm of development for society. The form of schooling comes out of the form of the society.
One has to begin at the beginning. Schooling is an inbetween step in the process. All the talk about better schooling is tinkering, improving syllabii, improving delivery, unless the development model is fundamentally reviewed. 

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

1 comment:

  1. If going to school is going to make me disrespect what my parents are and stand for, my education has failed me; added to that, an 'education' that fosters ideas of non-equity of dignity across professions will by a similar token create future mind-sets that cannot augur well for a balanced society.
    The situation of parents being in dire need all the time whilst bravely putting their children in available schools, while a sad and shocking part of disenfranchised village life in India in general, is more frightening because there seem to be no viable alternatives for 'global' literacy and increased capacity to live in the so called modern world in terms of educational possibilities