January 14, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

The School Is The Insult

Three memories connected with schools. Bear with me.

First, a school I visited in Orissa's Koraput district. All its students lined up outside so I could take a photograph: some 25 of them, ranging in age from seven to 16. Most were barefoot. Some had trekked to school from 10 kilometres away, a distance I confirmed when I biked to their little hamlet later in the day. Their teacher joined them for the picture. Their lone teacher. Quite by coincidence, I was told, he had put in an appearance that day. His second of the week. Normally, he came in to teach, to do the job he was paid to do, only once a week. Behind students and teacher stood the school building, one room with a crumbling roof.

It all came together as I clicked. This was the only school for miles around. It was staffed by one negligent, lackadaisical teacher who was supposed to "teach" every subject to all the students the school attracted. And he was supposed to do it in a "building" where the ceiling falling on all concerned was a constant possibility.

Second, a school in a northern hill-station. It had solid buildings, students in snappy uniforms, facilities ranging from a basketball court to several computers in a room, teachers in every class and for every subject, an energetic, committed principal. In every possible respect, an utter contrast to the school in Koraput.

But when I sat in on a few classes, I got a quick introduction to how lofty are the standards of teaching in this new millennium. In Standard 8 biology, the teacher asked a girl to stand and read from her textbook. That's it. A full 30 minute period went by like this, girl droning on, teacher sitting silently at his desk, other students either following along in their books or carrying on murmured conversations. Elsewhere, a frail young lady taught fractions to Standard 5 by calling up student after student to attempt a problem at the end of a chapter in their book. No effort to correct mistakes, offer guidance, try other sums, other approaches. All this while the rest of the class talked and walked about and generally did whatever they pleased.

Third, a sandy crossroads in Purulia district, West Bengal. The man who was taking me somewhere on a motorbike braked sharply and stopped to speak to a lean 40-year-old, sitting on a bench at a small shop, drinking chai. When we resumed our journey, my friend told me: That was Pradeepbabu. Teacher at the school in town. He goes there once a month, collects his salary and comes back here to resume drinking chai and reading his paper.

These are just three, but all over the country, realities like these tell the tale of the way we educate our children. Teachers who don't teach; teacher-training courses that turn out indifferent louts rather than people who will do a critical job well; broken or nonexistent school buildings; large sections of our children not even in school; not enough schools -- even ones like I've brought to your mind -- for our kids to learn what it takes to be a citizen of this country, this world. Without needing to walk 10 dusty kilometres each way every day.

I shall assume I don't need to go on with this lament.

Faced with this state of affairs, what do you think we must do? That's easy: change the history textbooks.

What, you mean you didn't think of that? What's the matter with you?

There was a reason I used the word "easy" a couple of sentences ago. Because the problems with the way our kids are being educated are hard problems. Solving them needs hard work and tough, determined men to do it. What we have instead is a minister of human resources development -- perish the thought of calling him an education minister, where's the prestige in that? -- who prefers the easy way. A pretence of doing things. Preferably by getting a whole constituency riled over that same tired mantra all over again -- that their religion is being denigrated.

So Minister Murli Manohar Joshi cobbles together a programme to change the history textbooks. Didn't you know? We need to set right in them all the garbage put there by Marxist historians who know nothing about India's past glory. We need to remove from those texts every possibility of "hurting religious sentiments," also introduced by those same Marxist historians who know nothing about India's past glory.

And as I watch him cobble all this together, why do you think I remain sure of one thing: that if I return to that school in Koraput -- today, next week, 10 years from now -- I can take essentially the same photograph all over again? Yes, the same tumbledown building, the lone teacher if he has bothered to show up, the 25 barefoot students: do you doubt it?

To me, this is the crime in what this man Dr M M Joshi is doing. He makes no effort to address the problems millions of Indian kids must face every day.

It can't be that he doesn't know of those problems. I'm sure the minister is far more widely travelled than I am. But when I hear him rail against the textbooks, I wonder: does he see and hear entirely different things than I do? After all, I have memories like the ones with which I began this column from schools I have visited in Bombay, Purulia, Satara, Gujarat, Himachal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. The students I met needed many things, but if I had to choose one above all, it would be this: sincere, dedicated teachers. (Too often, just teachers). Not an easy need to fulfill, but that's just my point: our schools face some very hard problems.

But not once in all these schools did anyone -- teachers, students, peons, principals, anyone -- tell me that the history books needed changing, that religious sentiments were being hurt all around. Not once. Where is Dr Joshi getting his ideas from? Off the top of his ideologically fevered head? Or did I just happen to visit, as I wandered, the very schools that Dr Joshi and advisors have skipped?

It's hardly that I think our textbooks must remain untouched. If they have mistakes, if they display biases, Marxist or otherwise, please let's correct them. But so far, all we know about this correction is that every event that might possibly be perceived as damaging to any religion is being excised. Nothing else. What this leaves us with is an insipid account of history. Is it plausible, leave alone sensible, to teach our kids that our history contains not a single instance of anybody doing anything to insult any religion? Then what explains the battalions of surly folks we see around us today, the guys whose faith gets damaged when others sneeze? Did this whole phenomenon just spring up last night?

Any student who has her eyes open, who asks questions, will recognize this as a whitewash. But of course, the minister doesn't want students who question. One of his comrades recently told us that if we express doubts about the ongoing excision, that itself hurts religious sentiments. Which makes me think: people whose feelings are so easily hurt, whether they are Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Taoists, know nothing about religion in the first place.

And yet, even getting into this debate over religious sentiments is not just a waste of time, but just what the doctor ordered. Our minister wants us to wrangle about what is bias and what hurts which religion and which historian is really an anti-Indian Marxist. He wants us to do all this because -- again -- he doesn't want to get down to the really hard work his job needs him to do, that we must demand he do: lifting education out of the mess it is in.

Meanwhile, I look around at the consequences of that mess -- so many Indians living in profound misery -- and I cannot help but ask: what could possibly degrade, denigrate, disgrace, insult any religion more than this?

Dilip D'Souza

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