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Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

An animal farm tale that’s about compassion instead of dystopia

Education has an intimate role in shaping a world where we all see how entwined our fates are

The two abandoned old horses on the road near my house have vanished. I remembered the fate of the old, loyal horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was to be traded for a bottle of whisky with a slaughterhouse. Whatever be the year, an Orwellian 1984 and that farm never seem distant.

Like the earlier two times when horses had appeared on that road, I tried to find a shelter for them. This time, there was help. After I wrote about the horses in my last column, many readers wrote back with advice. Before we could do anything, they disappeared. As the earlier two pairs had. But the fate of the six goats and the three dogs mentioned in that column is likely different—because some people care deeply, like that girl in the blazing desert.

Two people also wrote to me with other sentiments. About the teacher who was finding it hard to teach math to Class VIII. They railed against the teacher for being incompetent and against me for condoning his incompetence. Such misreading seems puzzling, unless we account for the deep beliefs that many have about education.

One of these visceral beliefs is that teachers are responsible for everything that is wrong with education. These two did not notice the most basic problem in that school near Barmer—it had no math teacher, forcing a language teacher to teach math. Such teachers deserve our commendation for trying, not our opprobrium. Accurate data is unavailable, but some estimates suggest that over 50% of middle and high school classes in India are taught math by teachers who have themselves not studied it beyond high school, leave aside being trained as math teachers.

The other is a set of beliefs about what schools should be doing. Imagine three deeply interrelated dimensions of learning at schools. The first is the content and knowledge of subjects. The second is capacities and skills, which range from communication to critical thinking and more. The third is values, dispositions and beliefs. Much of what people think about schools arises from their beliefs on the relative importance of these dimensions.

In the abstract, or in a “no stake" conversation, most people agree that learning and development must happen on all three dimensions. But when it comes down to reality, there is little other than the content dimension that is focused on, from the curriculum to the classroom practice. The capacities dimension does find some place, but it’s usually the narrowest of capacities, such as memorization and procedural skills aimed at learning the content. Rarely does it concern deeper and more important capacities, such as critical thinking, sociability, and creativity. The values dimension seldom gets anything more than a ritualistic bow and ineffective lectures on “values education". The silent consensus is: “Why talk about capacities and values, when we are unable to teach basic content?"

Too many people within and outside the field of education are gripped by this belief. It was the source of the gripe of those two, and amounts to saying, “What’s the point of children learning to be compassionate and caring, if they are not learning math?" Such an approach is as false as it sounds, it is also myopic, and profoundly inimical to our future.

False, because the learning of content and development of values are not conflicting objectives. Pedagogical practice leads to content learning; values are developed by the culture, behaviour and relationships in school. Done thoughtfully, the two are mutually reinforcing.

Myopic, because schools are the most important institutions for the socialization of children, often even more influential than parenting. Not getting our schools to shape students into good citizens is inexcusable.

Inimical and dangerous for our future, because values are learnt and developed with or without deliberate effort. All educational situations are suffused with values, and too often with the undesirable that perpetuate cleavages in society of gender, caste, class and religion, and amplify maladies such as superstition, callous individualism, and virulent tribalism. But it can be a lot worse. Schools can be used to realize Orwellian and other dystopias. It is salutary to remember that the word “taliban" means student. Systemic apathy for values in education can be quietly laced with poison.

With these unwitting choices that we are making in education, the world is being made and unmade. The fate of the horses is a metaphor for one such world. The humane world of those goats and dogs is another. Perhaps we will realize the depth of the role of education in making such a world, when we all see how entwined our fates are. It is intimately personal because we are embedded in this world; it certainly is for me.

So, I wonder how are those goats of the desert now? Of the three dogs, I saw a photograph. They seemed alright. I would like to believe that they miss me as I do them. How is the girl of empathy, compassion, and courage? The one who cares? I have no way of knowing. I think of her, and everything she faces. But I cannot reach her. So, I go back to education. At least we can try to help build a world in her image.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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