Education is the key – a truth that has come up over and over again whenever we have gone into intense debate over any issue. It is the only bulwark on which one might harbour any hope for the future. Children need to be educated in the real sense of the word, not as fact spewing machines, intimidated by authority, unhealthily competitive, low in original and creative thoughts, fearful of judging, eager to follow instructions, and with a greedy eye for the short-term meal ticket.


The Right to Education Bill was mooted three years ago when the Reservations Issue was in full spate, with protests and self-immolations happening in the student community. The Bill proposed that underprivileged children should be given 25% reservation in elite schools. There must be no admission selections based on any kind of interviews or donations. Free education is the birthright of children upto grade 8. The Bill was forgotten, and since has been sluggishly lying around waiting for the elections to resurrect it in the form of “reforms” that the government would like to impress on people’s recent memories when they cast their votes.


Be that as it may, it is still a blessing that it has raised its head and there is once more a revival of the primary school reservation issue in the news.  Imagine children from the slums sitting with the richest kids and learning from the same texts, the same teachers.. I cannot think of a more beautiful scene. And it has taken us a whopping 62 years to even reach this place limping along.. will the Bill see the light of day? It is time to cross fingers and toes on that question.


I remember the children of elite schools being depressed at the thought of sharing their space with slum dwellers, the owners and heads will probably be depressed at the dip in snob value, and the politicians might have a nagging worry about empowering the illiterate masses. However, if we can swing this, we might be able to get to a level of some degree of betterment in our fortunes.


Government will of course have to invest in food, uniforms, transport, extra tuition and counselling for these children. I hope they don’t scrimp on it and set it up for failure, so that they can all go back to their comfort zones of snobbery, vote banks and campaign bribes.


What one also needs to redeem is the education itself. Are we going to have more lemming-like hopefuls in the job market, who have poor communication, organizational and leaderships skills, or are we going to have well informed thinking and creative young adults who feel the dignity of labour, have wonderful means of leisure, are comfortable and balanced in diverse circumstances in their lives, and are able to look forward to the future with a sense of equanimity and fulfillment?


This is only possible if we do something about the curriculum. The first thing to do is not to dumb down children. There is a tendency to get children to parrot information and to assume that they are incapable of understanding. This is how the teacher mafia makes sure that their own lack of knowledge is not exposed and they have something to do to justify their existence, and any unpredictable questioning does not damage their egos.


Next, we need to change methods of teaching so that we don’t put a mass of information on the kid to churn out at the opposite end in exactly the same form and call it an examination. We need to make sure kids know concepts which means that in geography they are aware of how landforms are all we might really need to predict climate, crops, flora and fauna, people, food, occupation and lifestyles. In History, children need to use multiple sources to form their own conclusions so that we are aware of how the partition of India is viewed by historians from Pakistan, British records, old newspapers, memoirs of both Hindu and Muslim leaders and posters, painting, movies of those times. In languages, we need to have viva as one of the core examining tools so that we know the kids can speak and articulate in the languages they spend a lifetimes on. In science, we need to build curiosity about the world around them so that they see in everything a hidden experiment waiting to be done and in maths, a connection to life that is as old as we are. Can we achieve this?


I have just overhauled the language curriculum in one school and in two years of its inception, English there has topped 2000 of the best schools across the country in an international standardized test and left its competitors far behind by a huge margin. Was it easy? No. But it is a test of stoicism to achieve what was thought to be impossible. It can be done. The trick is to change the comfort zones of teachers, parents and children. They will never then go back to the substandard. I am proud of this effort because it tells me that this can well be a microcosm for the country. To set up a culture of competence and excellence. How many times we use that as jargon. How many of us will bite the bullet and strive all the way? If our leadership deems it so, trust me, we will kick and scream but we will be dragged to the post. But will they do it?


I would like to introduce real education in the form of awareness of rights as in RTI, and consumer forum work, election manifesto reading, constructive protest procedures, understanding basic law, political science, women’s rights, inheritance laws, property acts, sociology and rural development and demographical study as part of learning. Meditation must be made compulsory like sport. Basic life skills as in how to help someone injured, how to inusre and invest, how to use self defense in practice, how to read between the lines, how to preserve one’s health and dignity in a sexually promiscuous society, how to parent, how to pursue goals without flinching, how to gain and keep friends.  They can well be part of a language or social studies curriculum. A film study programme or a visit to the courts can motivate them. It is imperative that all high schoolers do a celebratory rail yatra of select villages and hotspots where India is both struggling and making progress. How does the farmer live? How do women save? What kind of arts are struggling to survive? What kind of innovations have local communities achieved? How well are we doing in science?


The new kid on the Board block is the IB programme and running up close at heels is  Cambridge Education. What do these mean? Most Indians believe they are examinations that do not need extensive study. They are wrong of course. A different approach perhaps, more thinking but not less study because you can’t think unless you have explored several points of view. They have begun using them as buzzwords to mean a good phoren education and seeing it as a magic wand to enter the realms of foreign universities and great jobs. And, they are not wrong entirely. So let us see what they mean?


First, these courses are frightfully expensive in doing the very things that commonsense must dictate to us as easily feasible if we had the will. Both programmes are about skills rather than content because if you have the skill you can be an autonomous learner. They are both about social consciousness and empathy. The IB also has a component where the philosophy is reflected upon in Theory of Knowledge, which is looking at different sources of information, looking at perspectives, questioning the truth and validity of popular opinion, understanding how we believe what we believe. Open ended and exploratory it builds thinking and character.  The programme has a greater level of difficulty and sophistication in the language, arts and the social sciences segment because these are disciplines with a multitude of skills and nuances as opposed to exact sciences which have boundaries in their early study. Music, art and sport form the other area that cannot be neglected as extra stuff. They are the very soul of our leisure and enjoyment in later life. To appreciate them better through knowledge is more of what we should seek, than perfecting their nuances ad nauseum and getting  deemed unfit in a particular aspect.


The Education department will do well to take several leaves from these Boards and design our curricula to meet such objectives. Then we will have our own homegrown curriculum that is affordable, spirited, positive and make our children thinkers, reflectors, doers and leaders.  And what is more, that will include our slum children – and soon our tribal children, who will be more enlightened, less discontent and proud of their heritage, culture and country.


“Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake!”


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