A ritual that I await in my journey through Indian schools often happens in the evening. The village can pause during this time, and we have what is called a “community interaction”. It’s usually a freewheeling chat, with not just parents of students, but just about anyone from the village.
One of the common matters of discussion in all such chats is: Why do you (or don’t you) send your children to school?
From the verdant basin of the Cauvery to the heights of the Garhwal Himalayas, the answer follows a common refrain: “For a better life”. Layers of meaning in that phrase have unfolded for me in the course of every such conversation.
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A stable livelihood that pays more is one part of this complex wish for a better life. But the notion straddles hopes of every kind—gaining greater respect and more influence in the community, development of the village, quest for equity and justice, and sometimes, “how else can India progress?”
Let me remind you that these are not the tea-fuelled conversations at some university canteen, but in a village school. The hopes of our nation rest more deeply on education than I could have imagined; the hopes of the disadvantaged, even more so.
Is it surprising that similar hopes were echoed by US President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address? Obama spoke at length on education. Emphasizing its centrality, he exhorted Americans to take up teaching, “if you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child”.
From the village in India to that address, what we are hearing are the expectations from education, as they are today. These societal expectations that guide the purposes of education have not necessarily been the same through human history. They have evolved.
John Dewey, the pre-eminent philosopher of education in the 20th century, called it, in the broadest sense, as the means for “social continuity of life”. Education happens not only in school, but elsewhere, perhaps everywhere. Over the past two centuries, though, school systems have become the pre-eminent social enterprise (I am using this phrase with its original and literal English meaning, not the fashionable “social business” one) for education. In this context, Dewey explained curriculum as “the funded wisdom of the human race”.
So, whether we explicitly recognize it or not, school systems have become the primary organized social enterprise for renewal, improvement and continuity of society—from liberal democracies to theocracies. Hence, states have acquired an increasingly larger role in education, in schooling.
This has been the context for the rapid growth of schooling through much of the world in the past 150 years. The evolution of liberal, democratic and welfare societies and states have generated the notion of equitable, good schooling (a “right” in various countries) for all citizens. The role of education (and schooling) as one of the primary social enterprises needed to fulfill the society’s promises to itself and convert its hopes into reality has only grown.
If you were to Google “systemic change (or reform)”, it would prompt you with versions of “systemic change in Education”. Globally, we indeed tend to think most often of systemic change and reform in the context of education.
India, China, and other developing nations are understandably focused on building, improving and changing their education systems. So is the US— it is indeed one of the nation’s central concerns; Obama wants to “out-innovate, out-educate, out-build” the rest of the world. Turn your ears to places like Finland, Sweden and Canada, with clearly good education, and you will hear the same desire to change and improve their education systems, despite their already high standards.
One cannot think of a nation that is not working on changing and improving its education.
The reason is that every nation is a work-in-progress. It wants to improve, it has hopes and it has fears. Therefore, given the role of education (and schooling) as the primary social enterprise to fulfill the society’s promises to itself, it’s the most natural thing that we would want to improve and change our education systems—to achieve and address all this, and more.
So, when schools in India fall short of even helping our children learn to read and write, we have to see the gulf, rather the ocean, between our own expectations from education and what we actually have. It’s the same ocean that is there between the society that we want to be, and what we are.
And that is why every step on this journey of improving our education is a step towards the just, equitable and humane society that we had promised ourselves on 26 January 1950.
Anurag Behar is co-CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sus tainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at email@example.com