Monday, March 03, 2008

Three Conversations About Schools: Part 2

Thinking about this issue of schooling in India and privilege, I was reminded about some conversations I've had with some people that have stayed with me through the years.

The first one happened several year ago. I was having lunch with Jeroo Mulla, in the staff room of the Sophia Polytechnic. I'd studied there a few years before, but it was the first time - though not the last - that I was having lunch in the staff room. For some reason, I was telling Jeroo about Rishi Valley and the kind of school it was. No exams, no emphasis on competition and so on. She questioned me closely about methods and number of students.

"Where are the students from?"

"Well, from all over the country. Hyderabad, Nellore, Bangalore, Bombay..."

"Where is the school, exactly?

"Half an hour away from a small town called Madanapalle."

"Do children from Madana - what did you call it? Do children from there study in Rishi Valley?"

I knew where this was headed. "Some."

"What about fees?"

I told her. At least, I told her what it had been back when I was there.

"See? This is the problem. It's all very well for such schools to exist, but it's all for the privileged people. What about the children in the villages you were talking about? When will they have access to a Rishi Valley kind of school?"

At the time, I had to say I didn't know. Now I can offer something else in reply. But it is problematic in a different way that I will come to shortly.


The second conversation happened in a half-serious way. What happened was this. I was dissatisfied with the Waldorf Steiner school that my son was going to. So I went to the only other school in Hyderabad that I could imagine putting him in - Vidyaranya. It is a private school run by a trust set up by Shanta Rameshwar Rao. Shantamma, as she is universally known, is not only an educationist, but also a writer of children's books. This was a day or two after the admission formalities had been completed and I was in her office to ask her something. A parent came in to plead and beg that her child be taken into Vidyaranya.

After explaining that 1. there was no place in the school; 2. the child lived too far away and that the parent should put the child in a school close by; 3. that there was nothing different about the school so why was she so eager to have her child only in this school, (all of which made no difference to the lady in front of her,) Shantamma finally snapped.

"If you want your child to be in a good school, then start one. What do you think I did?"


Finally, in December this year, I found out that the Krishanmurti Foundation had been trying to get Ranjit Hoskote to give a talk in the KFI schools. When he was here in January, I asked Ranjit about this. He told me that they had been trying to get him to talk to the students about Krishnamurti.

Whatever initial shock I experienced wore off pretty soon. I realised that during my visit there in October, that the school in carefully avoiding indoctrination of any kind, was in complete self-denial about why they were a Krishnamurti Foundation school in the first place.


All of these conversations are a kind of context for the whole issue of privilege, schooling and education.

Make no mistake: any child for whom school-going is a given is privileged. Every one of us, no matter what our upbringing, background, economic well-being or social standing, is privileged to have completed our education uninterrupted by early (and illegal) marriage, economic necessity, work, natural disaster or war.

And yet we're dissatisfied with schooling as it is today. With good reason.

Potential students vastly outnumber schools.

Not every school is good, so parents are willing to have their children travel up to an hour each way so that they can be in 'good' schools.

'Good' is often - though not always - measured by the exam-preparedness of students. Sometimes, especially in cities like Bombay and Delhi, the measure of a good school is its age; it's record in having produced influential and/or wealthy people; and whether it qualifies as a Public School.

Plenty of schools have teachers who could do with some more learning themselves. But teachers - especially for primary schools - are hard to get. So schools make do with what they have.

So parents take what they can get, and so the admission circus that is played out every year in Delhi and Bombay.

But this is to assume that schooling is the same thing as an education. It is emphatically not. Schooling is, almost by definition, a way of making same; of ensuring that children are 'schooled', trained, to behave in a certain way, ingest a certain amount of information and be ready to recall it at need. And finally, it is training to fit into a certain social milieu that requires a certain kind learned social behaviour. Schools teach children to take their place in an adult world that is similarly constructed: where a person goes to 'work' for a certain number of hours a daya dn then leaves it behind to come back to 'their' life. That we rarely question this pattern of living is a measure of the success of our schooling.*

Not all of this is meant to be read pejoratively: there is value in training one's mind; and much of what is necessary is learnt behaviour.

Then what is education?

Every alternate school worth its salt attempts to answer this question. Depending on the emphasis of the answer, each educationist's strategy for teaching becomes different. To my mind, education begins before schooling and never really ends. The job of a school that is interested in more than curriculum and the things that qualify as extra and co, is to open a child's mind to more than the acquisition of information, and keep it open: to questioning, to experiences and to ( this is going to sound extraordinarily corny) life.

Does the average school offer more than a timetable for unit tests and examinations and days upon days of divided time? Of course not.

What is the alternative? Either a parent ought to concede that there's little to choose between schools; or move to a place where there's a school that chimes with one's own philosophy of education; or be prepared to redress the imbalance by starting a school that will teach children the way one thinks they ought to be taught

(and then be prepared for the deluge of other parents wanting admission; of having to decide between taking everyone in who comes and having 40 students per section and a minimum of six sections per class, or having an admission process that is necessarily exclusive; of finding teachers who agree with one's philosophy of education enough to join up and then stick around year after year; of finding a place, buildings, facilities, transport; and at the end of all administrative static, to keep the flame of the idea alive so that it lights up the lives of children as one hoped it would.)

Falstaff said, in his comment to the previous post, that"the challenge... is figuring out what to do with privilege rather than denying it." Will come to that in the next post.


Falstaff said...

Re: Conversation two, and as I said in my earlier comment, I think the problem is precisely that most parents haven't had enough of an 'education' to be able to provide one for their kids. So "starting a school that will teach children the way one thinks they ought to be taught" is not an option.

If parents did know enough to start their own schools, there would be a simpler solution: parents could rely on schools to provide schooling and fill in the 'education' gaps themselves - not by starting a school of their own (and taking on all the admin hassles that go with it) but simply by finding the time to introduce their children to all the experiences, ideas, etc. that constitute a real education. Obviously it would be more convenient if schools did all that as well, but if they didn't, parents could always take up the slack.

The trouble is that, precisely because most adults have been through the same process of schooling-not-education children are faced with today, they don't know enough to actually do this. Even if they recognize that education in this broader sense is what they want for their child (and I don't know how many do) that doesn't mean they know how to deliver it.

MM, in the post of hers you link to, talks about wanting to put her son in a school where the parents of the other kids appreciate the art on the walls and take their kids to museums and not to malls. If there really were enough parents like that out there, the social capital from that could go a long way in making up for the deficiencies in the schooling system (and frankly, there'd be fewer deficiencies, because the supply of teachers with the training to provide an education would be higher).

SUR NOTES said...

i went to the fanciest school in the city that had organised a performance by one of india's finest bharata natyam dancer for their students and parents.
if the kids were not curious and bored, the parents were ...ummm...checking their blackberries and faking snoring so that their spouse would giggle.

and the school- i had peeped into the library - i could have swooned with pleasure if sanah could visit this library, music room, science labs etc etc.

i think i will do a post...

dipali said...

Re Conversation 2:
(I grew up reading and loving SRR's
Tales from Ancient India- I must start with a digression!)

A good friend of mine actually did start her own school when she looked at all the available options when her daughter was about two and a half. Nothing seemed suitable.
(She herself has studied at very well-reputed institutions, as has her husband). They had a large house of their own, so they started with a playschool in the garage, which grew into a primary school, and now has classes upto the eighth grade. They were able to move to large enough premises, though I was very pleased to teach their for a couple of years (before the inevitable transfer). It was a very happy kind of neighbourhood school. We had children from diverse backgrounds- the children of educated professionals, as well as several less privileged children from nearby lower middle class homes. We also had to deal with some extremely strange parents, who were so marks-oriented themselves that they would argue with the teacher about every mark deducted.
It was my younger son's first school, and he thoroughly enjoyed the three years that he was there.

Of course, this is usually not an option for most of us. We try and find the best possible school among those available. In this day and age it is not always an easy thing to do. When we were transferred to Kochi from Lucknow, my elder son had to change school boards in Class X, as well as adapt to a totally different environment. We decided to find accommodation only after his school was finalised, so that he didn't have a long commute.
As it happened, the older brother travelled three-four kilometres to school, and the kindergartner did eighteen km each way. (He went to a lovely school, though, and was happy there for the next six years, till our next move).

At the very least, we do have to accept schooling as a significant part of education, as it provides the major skills/tools for learning, and if you are lucky, you may have a magical teacher or two who can transform your life.

SUR NOTES said...

ps. just read my comment, forgot to begin with 'last evening'...

Space Bar said...

Falstaff: that doesn't mean they know how to deliver it

That's the main problem as I see it. I think more and more parents are dissatisfied with schooling as it is today, and would be glad to have alternatives. It must be part of the reason why there's so much angst about getting their children into the right school.

If every school was the right school because they did not lay as much emphasis on exams and academics as they now do, it wouldn't be a problem at all, but that would mean radical education reform.

( I suspect that many schools don't even teach the basics right, thus opening the way for extra money for 'coaching' and tuitions. It's a real racket)

Sur: You didn't say - is that the school Sanah goes to? And ya, you had me confused there for a moment!

Dipali: You're right, parents make the best of what's available. But I'm amazed that they're willing to put their children through the competitive grind so early, (in exchange for something not very great at the end of it) all in the name of education. I just feel that if so many people feel strongly about it, it shouldn't be that hard to do something about it.

Falstaff (again): coming back to a point you made that if one knew enough to start a school, one could as well leave the schooling to schools and fill in the rest.

No doubt most parents do this. But it's heartbreaking sometimes, to see the pressure this puts on the children. Teachers, being people, pass on their unthought-out prejudices to their children, and children, learning early to respect authority, find it difficult to reconcile what they're told at home with what they taught at school. Wouldn't it be better, all around, to have schools where they helped children to question things early, to discover answers for themselves, and concede that some questions don't have uniform answers?

SUR NOTES said...

no, thats not the school sanah goes to. one, because we have indian passports. and two, to afford the fees we both would have to go back to college, get an MBA, and join the fanciest MNC banks.

i just wanted to see malavika sarukkai i went.

Falstaff said...

SB: I think the part of this I disagree with is the idea that schooling and education are somehow contradictory - I see them as orthogonal. I don't see any reason why you can't be super-competitive at academics but also have a life beyond that - particularly in a context where academic success (defined as getting into a good college getting a good job) is often just about doing well in Math and Science - subjects where dogmatism is less of a problem. I don't see why being competitive has to preclude getting an education, or equally, why giving children an education has to preclude teaching them to deal with exam pressure / how to do well within the system. If anything, I think the two complement each other, since ultimately much of 'education' is simply about developing and applying your intelligence. I don't see that going to a competitive, 'big-name' schooling-focused school in any way compromised my ability to get an education, it just did very little to contribute to it.

I think moving away from that false dichotomy is part of the challenge. If there really were an inherent contradiction between academics and education, you'd think the people who do well academically (to use the thumb rules from MM's blog - who get into IIMs / IITs) would be the least educated. But on the whole, I'd say the opposite is true - in all my years of 'schooling' my IIMA cohort was probably the most 'educated' on average, of any group I've been part of.

Space Bar said...

Falstaff: Schooling and education need not be contradictory; I did say in my post that all of it is not meant to be read pejoratively. Schools perform a very important function - so important that we've forgotten how recent the present structure of schooling is.

As for competition, I'm in a dilemma here. If I said it was my conditioning that made me dislike it, I'd be damning myself out of my own mouth! :D

However, I have this to say against competition: not everyone responds to it well. This does not mean that they are not intelligent, not sensitive, not capable of pulling their weight in society. How much difference, after all, can there be between the two people on either side of a random cut off? But almost continuous competitiveness can and does screw up a lot of otherwise promising young people.

You're probably are one of no doubt several exceptions; so you, like me, are speaking from your conditioning.

dipali said...

I have so many issues with education thanks to having had a fairly decent one myself. Need to do a long post on this. Yes, competition and the rat race are painful to many, but parents are also as much a part of it as the schools are. It all boils down to the high pay-package a supposedly good education is supposed to guarantee, and how we have to give numbers to human worth. Bah.

Anirudh said...

If enough parents are interested in sending their children to an 'alternative' school started by another parent, some of them could consider a homeschooling network. Such a network would be much more flexible than an alternative school.

Falstaff said...

SB: Fair enough. And yes, I am obviously speaking from my own experience. Three things though:

a) Even if you believe (as I do not) that response to competition is an innate trait rather than a learned behavior, it still suggests that a knee-jerk assumption that less competitive schools are more 'educational' may be misplaced. For someone like me, who thrives on competition, going to a school without grades and exams may be as demoralizing as going to a competitive school would be for someone who responds badly to competition. So at the very least we need to be trying to sort kids based on response to competition before we decide what kind of schooling is best for them.

b) The interesting question, of course, is how much one's response to competition itself is a matter of social conditioning. If it is possible to train kids to deal with competition and do well academically, while also pursuing a real education, then that is unambiguously the right solution, isn't it? Clearly, neither the mainstream nor the alternate schools provide that balance today - in part, I suspect, because they see the two as being incompatible. But if we see them as being compatible then we could try to work towards making both happen, instead of forcing parents to make a false choice between one or the other

c) Finally, one has to question the wisdom of protectionism when it comes to facing competition. To the extent that economic opportunities are limited, competition is a reality that we can't afford to ignore. If we can protect our kids from competition permanently (and this goes back to the point about privilege) then, of course, it's perfectly valid to not expose them to competition. But if they're going to have to compete for limited opportunities, and compete against people who've been trained to compete all along, then one has to question the advisability of keeping them protected from that competition. It's a bit like prisoner's dilemma, really - the last thing you want to do is be the person who keeps silent while the other one confesses. It's all very well to say, "money doesn't matter" and there's more to life than getting into a top college, but in an economic context where real opportunities are limited and the gap between a top college and a second-rung college can be large, ignoring that reality can have severe consequences. Academic success that comes at the cost of education may be trivial, but education that comes at the cost of academic success may be too costly. And I think a lot of people end up prioritizing the former vs. the latter on the (only partly true) theory that you can always try to make up for your lost education once you're successful, but it's hard to make up for lost academic success.

You say in your post "potential students vastly outnumber schools". Yes. But that's not where the problem starts , is it? Do potential college seats / career opportunities outnumber high school graduates? They certainly haven't historically, and I doubt they do now. So the schooling system is simply a reflection of the larger economic reality.

Having said all that, I think it's probably useful to break this discussion up by age. Do I think three year olds should be learning to be super competitive? No. Do I think 12 year olds should be protected from competition? Not really. Managing that transition, and making sure it doesn't come at the cost of education, is, as I see it, the challenge.

km said...

Great post, sb (and great comments too.)

And yet we're dissatisfied with schooling as it is today.

Just curious - is this sense of dissatisfaction a relatively recent phenomenon? Or have schools in India (at least the kind accessible to the middle and upper middle class) lowered their standards?

And because I am not a parent, I must ask this: what do parents expect from schools?

Space Bar said...

dipali: true. please do a post!

anirudh: do people home school at all in india? i've never heard of it. when you say 'home schooling network' do you mean, more than the kids in one's own house? i'm very unfamiliar with important part of schooling is the socialisation that children must go through. if home schooling is netweorked i suppose it might amount to the same thing.

falstaff: you said 'three things'!

the thing is that excellence and competitiveness are two different things. it's possible to do really great work in the absence of competition. i think you'd support excellence over competition, wouldn't you?

if schools encouraged children to do the very best that they're capable of, without necessarily pitting each against the other and doling out praise and its opposite, children could do well intellectually without competition.

But if a school swallows the non-competitive dogma whole without insisting on excellence - demanding it - then there can only be mediocrity. I agree.

You said 'protectionism'. I don't see it that way at all. All this would do is to take away the pressure without taking away the opportunity for understanding.

Exams are no big deal - in fact, they're a pitifully inadequate measure of anything except the ability to reproduce material in a given period of time. I went to a non-competitive school and never had any trouble with any exam I ever wrote. In fact, it was only when I was in that terrible convent school that failed an exam - the only time in my life it was too!

km: if the existence of alternative schools are an indication of dissatisfaction with the mainstream, then i suppose it's not a new thing.

As to what parents expect: I'm not sure most parents know! It only seems to be clear that what there is is not the right thing. Especially if it means entrance exams and trauma for nursery.

If you're asking me, I'm happy to have my son in an unpressured environment where he's happy to discover things because they are interesting and not because he's told he must. We underestimate the curiosity of children. They want to know about everything. Instead of letting that energy do half the work, schools kill it as soon as it is seen and then everything becomes a chore; children discover they like some 'subjects' and not others. It's completely absurd.

Falstaff said...

Oh, and right on cue: a post on the Guardian Arts blog.

Itchingtowrite said...

my cousins friend did just that!! started a school
did my taking linking yours. hope its ok

Space Bar said...

falstaff: :D it always amazes me when that happens.

itchingtowrite: feel free to link up! and i did read your post...

choxbox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
choxbox said...

havent yet read the comments, look interesing. will get back later.
sorry am leaving multiple comments - this is something i have strong views abt and really can go and on about.

Space Bar said...

choxbox: as you can see, long comments are welcome here!

The school that your children go to sounds wonderful. I wish things were like that here. Well - they are, up to a point. Read the post I linked to, called A RIVER Runs Through It. Those schools work like that- where everyone works at their own pace and learning is not only classroom based.

the mad momma said...

@SB - and that is exactly what I want for my child. unfortunately few schools offer that. and along with it they offer me something i dont want - a peer group that i dont think is healthy for my child.

Pearson S said...

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Primary School in Hyderabad