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The May heat had penetrated the thick stone walls and double-height ceiling, melting all restraint. The tale telling began with how his stone-studded rings, one on each finger, ensured that he was never transferred out of that one school. Another teacher followed, swelling with pride on his own ingenuity in averting the evil eye by shutting down his school on every eclipse. The heat glued my eyes shut.

I awoke to an assertion that Dalits and Muslims were in general bad people, with a few exceptions like the wonderful colleagues present, while the depravity of Christians was of another order, most evident in their drinking of blood, preferably cow blood, on Sundays in the darkness of their churches. The teacher sitting next to me challenged him, “How many Muslims do you know?" He responded, “Two families." Are they bad people? “Very honourable," he said. How many Christians did he know? None. Had he ever seen a church? No. He got the drift quickly and closed the conversation with, “This is the problem with all of you; silly argumentation to refute fundamental truths."

The identifiably Muslim teacher felt obliged to diffuse the tension. He was a master raconteur. The last leg of his journey to the Yogi’s cave, along with his brother, was an on-foot trudge of 13km. The Yogi had foreseen their quest and made the brother lie on a boulder. In one flowing movement, his hand went into the brother’s chest and took out his heart. He held the heart up for 9 minutes, uttering incantations. The hand went back in, inserting the heart in its rightful place. Since that day, all of the brothers’ multiple debilitating diseases have vanished. Even Gautam, my colleague and the instigator of this session of tale-telling to excavate the beliefs of teachers, was left nonplussed by the heart suspended in mid-air.

Since that scorching day 10 years ago, I have heard similar notions from countless teachers. At their core are untruths and falsehoods. Manifesting often in the form of prejudice, superstition, and discrimination. And also acting as a filter for judging other things to be true or untrue. Each untruth readily gathers a tangled ball of other untruths. Neither this phenomenon nor this bunch of common untruths is particular to teachers. Indians typically share them in equal measure. Equally, there are a notable number of teachers who are uninfected by these untruths, nor is their mental apparatus to judge truth corrupted, like many other Indians. These two things are entwined: the capacity to sift truth from untruth, and the truth of one’s beliefs. Let’s call them ‘epistemic capacity’ (‘epistemic’ is merely a fancy word for ‘relating to knowledge and its validation’).

The insurgent mob that overran the Capitol in Washington DC capped eight weeks of a dramatic demonstration of how poor, fragile and corruptible is the epistemic capacity of large swathes of US citizenry. Millions of Americans are unable to grasp the simple truth that Donald Trump lost the election. The incendiary role of the President and his feckless cheerleaders, not just in the past few weeks, but over the past four years, cannot be overestimated. However, that doesn’t reduce the culpability of each individual involved in this crazy movement, nor explain the woeful failure of their epistemic capacity.

The institutional guardrails of US democracy are strong. Most other countries would not have survived such an assault from within. Indeed, both history and the present are strewn with the corpses of democracies felled by systematically unleashed untruths, or, withered to a charade of democracy only in name.

So, what of Indian teachers and their tangled balls of untruths?

Education is the only systematic way to develop the epistemic capacity of a people, of a country. Without doubt, along with the courts and media, the US education system has been central to its institutional guardrails—far from perfect, but delivering. But we are familiar with the state of Indian education—everything must improve.

Children learn from untruths in their teachers’ behaviour as well as from their pedagogical capacity for, and attention to, developing the ability of their students to parse inputs for truth. All three dimensions must grow: the teachers’ own epistemic capacity, her educational capacity, and the emphasis on developing the epistemic capacity of children as an aim of education. Also urgent is the firewalling of teachers’ behaviours based on untruths, which must stay outside school precincts.

From 2021, let us recommit ourselves to improving Indian education. Not with the narrow goals of literacy, numeracy, subject knowledge, or employability—all of which are necessary. But as a mechanism for guarding and nurturing democracy by enhancing our epistemic capacity as a people.

We should do this without the hubris that education can solve all, or is fail-proof. For it is not. Nor even with the illusion that epistemic capacity is sufficient. The senators in the US chamber defending the mob as it surged did not lack that. What they lacked is empathy and ethics. Education must be dedicated to what is true, what is right, and what is good. As also the wisdom to weigh the three before acting, and then the fortitude to live with those choices.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation

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