Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Education should not be India’s top priority in this hour of crisis
Migrant workers walking along NH24 near New Delhi earlier this month. (Photo: Hindustan Times)
Migrant workers walking along NH24 near New Delhi earlier this month. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

Opinion | Education should not be India’s top priority in this hour of crisis

Nothing much will be lost if schools stay shut a bit longer but we must not let Indians go hungry

Twelve-year-old Jamlo died walking home in the searing Indian summer sun. She was among the hundreds of thousands who walked and are walking still, forced to flee the cities to the only places they can trust: homes that they had migrated from, hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. While millions more try to survive wherever they are, picking on the wreckage of their livelihoods. Hungry today, fearful of tomorrow, haunted by the spectre of a plague, and completely uncertain about life. This is our India now.

Why grudge those few who still enjoy wine-and-cheese evenings with friends on Zoom? Those who lack even a modicum of empathy for Jamlo, or, who won’t lift a finger to help the lady who used to iron their clothes as she scavenges for food today, can be ignored. They may have their private miseries. I learnt about the perils of comparing pains and tragedies a while ago from a wise one. All this should be accepted or ignored, so long as people recognize what has become of our India.

But deniers, there are aplenty of what we have made of ourselves. Many are guilty of lacking empathy, but most are sensible even if somewhat uncomprehending of the severity of the devastation across the country. Some of the latter lot have asked me, “So what should be done about education of children?" My response has surprised them—we should do nothing about education. If children are not taught for a few months, nothing dramatic will be lost. Nothing that cannot be regained in the ensuing period.

Let’s first guarantee that people have food, get them home, and ensure that there is no repetition of what has happened over the past few weeks. Unless we get a grip on these bare necessities, there is no point in bothering about the education of children. Roiled by uncertainty and deprivation, no child and family can focus on it.

Even more perilous are the thoughts of “online education" that many espouse while schools are shut.

First, the basics. Online education is ineffective. The education of a child requires intense social interactions between the child and a teacher. The child’s physical presence, attention, thought and emotions must be carefully guided through multiple steps, often back-and-forth, towards the immediate learning goals. And then sequences of these goals are sewn together into the complex tapestry that makes for education. None of this is possible even faintly through online education. Education is a social and human process; technology cannot mediate it effectively. All theory and empirical evidence tells us the same, though this is not the place to recount that.

Children learning to bake from the net is wonderful, but it is not education. Heavily marketed apps may help a child learn something, often because of energetic parents, but that is also not education. Online resources are useful tools, but are also not education. The word “education" does not mean mere learning, which can be of many sorts, both desirable and undesirable. Education specifically means systematically achieving the age-wise curricular goals of our schools.

Second, any attention to online education diverts scarce resources and energy down a cul-de-sac. Worse, just the act of ‘doing something’ lulls those in roles of responsibility into a false sense of achievement.

Third, the pandemic and the lockdown have magnified every vulnerability, amplified all inequities, and sharpened chasms of discrimination. Online education will be just one more vector that exacerbates the deep inequities in education. Access to such social and physical resources, as required for online education, are a pipe dream for most Indians—when they are struggling for food. Online education in these times must not even be contemplated.

What should then be done about school education? After the “bare necessities" are taken care of, schools should be opened up immediately. Without doubt, experts in epidemiology should weigh in on this decision. But there are three reasons to act with speed.

First, most schools will not increase the risk of coronavirus infection spreading. This is because they serve very localized communities, where kids intermingle all the time. Schools that serve wider communities can be opened with significant physical distancing norms, including, for example, operating on alternate days for half the students. Second, schools could be the real front-line for awareness generation and ownership building among communities for the country’s campaign against covid-19. Third, as my friend Prof. Ramachandran, a veteran of restarting schools in every conflict zone across the world in the past 30 years, says, “There is no better anchor for peace and stability of a community, than functioning schools." In the long campaign against the pandemic ahead, communities will need this strength.

But let me end with what I would have not said even in my worst nightmare ever—let us not worry about education. Let us focus everything on penance for Jamlo. Not one of our fellow citizens should be made to walk home, nor remain hungry. We have burnt down enough of India’s soul this summer.

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

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