Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The greater role of schools and teachers in shaping democracy

On 18 April 2019, I voted in the 17th general election for the Lok Sabha of India in a polling station at Jakkur Government School in the Bangalore North constituency. Your polling station is also likely to be in a government school, since a large proportion of polling stations across the country are in government schools.

There are public schools within a kilometre of every habitation in this country, and it’s easy to convert them to polling stations. The 2019 general elections have over a million such stations. In the last elections in 2014, there was a similar number and over 3.7 million personnel were deployed within these stations to conduct them. This is without counting the security forces outside polling stations.

A very large number of the personnel at polling stations are government school teachers—the estimates range from 50%-65% of the total. That implies about 2 million teachers are working to make our elections happen. They play crucial roles within these stations. They are the presiding officers and polling officers, with a mandate to ensure that each citizen can cast his or her vote, and that at the end of the polling day, the electronic voting machines are delivered to secure storage.

Government schools and teachers forming the backbone of Indian elections is practical, and apposite. In this instance, the expedient action is also the right thing to do. This is not an accident—it is a result of the deep design of our democracy.

The centrality of education to our democracy is explicit in the thoughts and actions of all its key architects. From Bhimrao Ambedkar to Jawaharlal Nehru, all envisioned education as the energizer of democracy. Political democracy could be achieved based only on social and economic democracy—all of which required the transformative power of universal education. The egalitarian, plural, humanistic and moral ideals of our democracy can be directly traced to Mahatma Gandhi. He believed that “right education" was essential to make democracy function.

Schools as energizers of our democracy are thus a part of its deep design. Universal access to education, with government schools in all habitations, is the foundation of an effective and vibrant democracy. So, it is only appropriate that schools host the elections and teachers run them. However, this is only one function of schools and teachers in a democracy. Their roles have at least four other key aspects.

First, they educate students on democracy. What is democracy? What are its institutions? How does it function? The history, principles, mechanisms and realities of our democracy. The role of a citizen, their rights, responsibilities and obligations.

Second, they animate students with the ideals of our democracy. What is India and who is an Indian? How can we become better Indians? How can we make India better? Knowledge of democracy is not enough; there must be the force of desire to make it function.

Third, they develop and organize the capacities required to participate in a democracy. Basic literacy and numeracy are a start. The ability to ask questions, assess alternatives and think critically; to make constructive contributions in everyday life as a citizen; and to navigate the dense fog of propaganda and misinformation that electoral politics has become.

Ambedkar didn’t mean this directly, but these three aspects of the role of teachers do resonate with his “educate, agitate, organize", almost as though he was exhorting teachers to galvanize democracy.

And fourth, teachers and schools are agents of the social and economic transformation that we have envisioned in our constitution. I can do no better than to quote John Dewey, perhaps the pre-eminent western philosopher of democracy and education, on this matter: “Every society gets encumbered with what is trivial, with dead wood from the past, and with what is positively perverse. As a society becomes more enlightened, it realizes that it is responsible not to conserve and transmit the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as to make for a better future society. The school is its chief agency for the accomplishment of this end."

Our schools and teachers are far from this ideal. While many do well, and many more try, most fall far short. It is not their fault. The role that schools and teachers have in the deep design of democracy is irreconcilable with the reality of what we have done to them. We have underinvested in them, undervalued and made them unimportant. Those teachers who discharge their roles well do so while battling these contradictions, lifted by little beyond their indomitable human spirit and some exceptional coalitions of support.

In the religion of democracy, schools are its temples, and constitutional values, its sacred goods. We have failed in realizing this and must do so now. Not as antiseptic sites of blind worship, but as bustling temple-complexes. Flooded with dispute, debate and fun. With a million paths in the quest for democracy. Temples that would bring to life what the Mahatma sang as he marched to Dandi: “Ishwar Allah tero naam, sabko sanmati de Bhagwaan".

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