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The pandemic cuts to the core of our character. Of our society, our institutions, and our very selves. But that is, if we care to look. Instead of wallowing in the delusion that India is doing very well, or living with lead-blinders of apathy. The core of education too is revealed by this wound on the body of our nation. What all is in this basic character of education?

First is the brutal inequity, fragility and injustice that most children live with. A tiny sliver of students have such resources that it doesn’t matter that schools are shut; such children will also be back in school the very day they open up. But for the vast majority of children, the shutting down of schools is potentially a change in the trajectory of their lives. It is not only a loss of education today, it’s probably for much longer. And for too many, perhaps even permanently. They may never return to school or may return much later, caught in the tsunami of an economic upheaval. For millions of such children, deprivation arising from shut schools is more than that of education. It’s also a loss of assured meals and withdrawal of an anchor of support in life. Innumerable girls face social pressure to drop out of school and get married. The miasma of uncertainty is also eroding the hard-won social consensus that sending children to school must be the norm. We truly face the prospect of losing decades of gains in getting our children in to schools.

Second, education is a social-human endeavour. Physical presence, attention, thought and emotions, all must be sewn towards learning goals, step-by step, often back-and-forth, and differently for each student. This requires intense verbal and non-verbal interactions amongst teachers and students, which is possible only in groups within proximity. Online education is ineffective because of this basic character of education, and not merely because of lack of access to the net and online resources. Any harried parent who has gone through months of watching over online classes will bear testimony to this. Ask the teachers; their frustrations will burst forth. No wonder state after state that was enthusiastic about online education in May this year has backtracked and tried to implement other modes of student engagement. Such as teachers systematically going to the communities where students live and organizing classes with small groups, usually out in the open. The widespread struggle across the world to open schools at the earliest is energized by a deep realization of the social-human nature of education.

Third, education is effective only when it is truly animated by the spirit of public service. Most private schools are bothered about making money and not about education or people. Unconcerned about the dire situation of their students, they have pushed every lever to squeeze money. Demanding fees for “re-admission", insisting on parents buying net-access devices, lobbying for the charade of online education, and more. They have exploited their teachers even more than usual, cutting or not paying their salaries arbitrarily while making them toil. This usurious farce has been forced out in the open by the pandemic. Public (government) school systems, in the same troubled times, have attempted a range of things to keep their students engaged. Some have been more effective than others, but they have tried over and over. And that is because their goal is public service. As is that of a small percentage of schools run and owned by private bodies, which are truly public spirited. Unfortunately, these are few.

Fourth, teachers are central to education. Without them, there is no education. With them, education can happen anywhere, even under a tree without any other resource, as thousands of dedicated public-school teachers have shown. Parents trying to play teacher have learnt how complex and demanding the role is. It is about subject knowledge and pedagogy, but also a lot more. It is about patience and dedication, about empathy and judgment, and also about balancing all this in the service of the overall development of the child. Ultimately, it is a matter of deep human relationships and bonds. Even if unstated, these circumstances have also made many realize how poorly we do for our teachers.

Fifth, an education system is the most precious of things for any society. It shapes the future of a society and keeps it going. At the most basic level, the education system is also a vast child-care system too. The disruptions in our rhythms of social and economic life, in the here and now, have made that clear. It has also made it clear that for the aspirations and promises of our society to be fulfilled, education is the fundamental social process. Perhaps even more so than parenting.

We did not need a once-in-a-century pandemic with its devastating human toll to reveal all this about education. Our gaze would have encountered the same basic character of education anytime if we had opened our eyes and paid attention. But the lacerating wound of the pandemic will possibly let the light finally enter, to paraphrase Rumi. And perhaps the light will enter us as a people, making us more humane, and more, together. We need that desperately.

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

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