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(Mint)

Opinion | Start with schools to address the prejudices in our society

Ignoring the social aims of education deprives society of its most effective pathway for progress

Two little girls named Mary and Lakshmi, and a mazaar (tomb), protected by a great Banyan tree. That tableau in my column two weeks ago seemed so perfect in all its detail to some that they asked me if I had made it up. Perhaps just the names? Many more asked another question—how do you respond to such deep prejudice? They were referring to children in a school asserting that “you cannot be a Muslim because you are a good man".

Working with thousands of schools across the country, occasionally we come face to face with intolerable cruelty. But we encounter discrimination and prejudice more frequently. Overt or covert, mild or harsh, it lurks just beneath the surface. It is there among teachers and the communities surrounding schools. Also, in the culture of schools, which infects children. Every fault line of Indian society lies bare—caste, class, gender and religion.

So, what do we do?

First, we recognize this matter as central to our work. The aim of education is to create a just, equitable and humane society, and a vibrant democracy. To fulfil these aims, the cleavages of Indian society must be healed, bridged and eliminated in schools, which then play a significant role in doing the same for society. If our work is in education, developing constitutional values is at its core. Too many individuals and organizations working in education focus narrowly on “learning levels". For them, education is about language, math and other subjects. All that is important, no doubt. But ignoring its civic, social and human aims deprives society of its most important pathway for progress.

Second, to work on this core, we must be where education happens. This healing can only be done by teachers, which demands work with communities of teachers—with their beliefs, behaviours and perspectives. This requires building relationships of trust. It’s impossible to talk to strangers about such innermost feelings. Being an integral part of the communities that you work with is the only way for sustained engagement. Which is why my colleagues live in small towns and villages across this vast country.

Third, our team itself must have consonance on these matters. All of us are from the same society. We too carry the virus of prejudice, in some measure. Diffidence, even more. Therefore, explicit alignment with these values and a commitment to action requires systematic effort. Surely, those who join us to do this kind of work are self-selecting on these values. But experience suggests that while this innateness is important, it requires continuous reaffirmation and support.

Fourth, it requires capacity within our team to deal with these matters. What should we do upon encountering discrimination and prejudice? How does one engage on such matters? What are the philosophical underpinnings? How do we make it real and relatable? Why should anybody change at all? The requirement is of clarity, confidence and tenacity.

Fifth, when and how do we do this work? Training sessions targeted at “eliminating discrimination" have no chance of success. Integrating dialogue on these matters with daily life is far more effective. For example, in a math workshop, when a teacher says that girls just can’t learn math, an opportunity arises to confront gender biases. When in a school, children are fed the midday meal prioritized along caste lines, that is an opportunity to question this most intransigent of our cleavages. Occasionally it is possible to engage directly. For example, through developing an understanding of our Constitution. Theatre, music and literature are often very effective in animating and questioning what may not be touched upon by other methods. However, there really is no formula. Approaches and methods for each situation need to be devised, building on these basic blocks. And every instance of discrimination or prejudice must be seized as an opening.

Sixth, confronting prejudice requires courage. Challenging the deepest of beliefs within the communities that you live in and doing so persistently is very hard. Arguing for gender equity is relatively easier, though not necessarily any less complex. Caste and religion are a different matter altogether. These seem to bring out the worst demons of our nature; steadfast valour is needed.

Seventh, the energy for real change comes from empathy. However closed, senseless and bigoted the person in front of you may seem, progress happens only through dialogue. Sincere dialogue is possible only with genuine empathy. Perhaps we need inspiration from the theological notion of grace. Empathetic engagement is the only path to progress. Else you walk into one of the two traps—diminishing the person in front of you, or, fleeing from him into cliques of comfort. Both are completely dysfunctional.

Eighth, we do not work on our own. Teachers with the deepest reservoirs of humaneness, unflinching courage and fire to change this world abound in the nooks and corners of this country. We work together because this is our India.

Going back to the first question I was asked. I did not imagine that tableau under the Banyan tree. Every detail is real, as real as this India of ours that has made it so.

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

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