There is hardly a document on education that does not designate it as a tool for social transformation. But evidence continues to mount that social transformation is a receding mirage. This chronic and mounting failure points to the disconnect between the practice of education and the social forces that militate against social transformation. The truth is that currently education serves as a means for obstructing social transformation.
Caste and class-based discrimination and ghettoization go not only against the interests of Dalits and Adivasis, but also against the children of privilege. This struck me with particular force in recent years while conducting admissions to one of India’s most coveted educational institutions. It needs to be flagged as a significant, even startling, reality. The products of privileged, insanely expensive education are failing to make the grade. Its logic needs to be heeded.
Reports on school education from diverse regions of the country provide mounting evidence that our schools — especially government schools — harbour rank discrimination. Dalit children are treated as unwelcome intruders, relegated to the rear of classrooms, disallowed to participate in competitions and cultural programmes and made to do, in places, cleaning and scavenging work. Specific instances do not have to be quoted here; as they are available readily and in abundance on the Internet. Indian schools, concludes a study on the subject, “are often sites of extreme forms of discrimination”. It is also widely known that discrimination and humiliation induced trauma is the main reason why Dalit and Adivasi children drop out of schools in large numbers.
75 per cent of the six million children who are currently out of schools are Dalits (33%) Muslims (25%) or Adivasis (17%). The fact that such children drop out of the system or exist in a shadowy fashion within barriers of discrimination, has been so far noted with grudging disapproval. That this hurts national interests by freezing a substantial portion of our social and intellectual assets is mostly glossed over. End of the day, Dalit children and children of caste privilege belong together.
Together, they constitute the total life-milieu; especially its social and experiential richness. Dalits and Adivasis are as much part of our human resources as anybody else is. This brings us to the core of the issue that concerns us here. The transformative potential of education lies precisely in its power to afford opportunities to all individuals who avail it, to escape from the limitations of the social group into which they are born by enabling them to come into a liberating contact with broader contexts. Living shut up in a small enclave — no matter how privileged — is assuredly harmful to every individual.
This is crucial to a society like ours whose real wealth is its unrivalled richness of variety, diversity and plurality. Imprisonment in the iron cages of caste and class proves self-defeating. Individuals are condemned to live and grow up in narrow social incubators and homogenized educational environments. By no stretch of imagination are they part of the sava sau karod Bharatwasi. They are denizens of scattered archipelagos of barriered affluence.
Those who are familiar with even the rudiments of human growth will readily agree that exposure to what behavioural psychologists call “enriched environments” is essential for human development. Tolstoy, though a Count, educated himself assiduously in the realities of the life of the deprived. Had Amartya Sen and Mohammad Yunis lived unexposed to the broader realities, they would not have become Nobel Laureates. Social integration has been the seed of human achievements. Social and educational incubation, in contrast, works to the long-term disadvantage of the members of ‘privileged’ groups.
It is because of this that children from such backgrounds are now losing out ‘on merit’. They have already lost the cutting edge to their less privileged counterparts. Students from a certain posh public school in Dehradun, for example, who used to walk into St. Stephen’s College in the decades gone by, are no longer making it. They have dropped out of the race, so to speak. Similar is the case with other schools. Dalit children drop out of schools. Rich children, confined to homogenized environments, do not drop out of schools, but they lose out in the race. This is already happening.
From the perspective of intellectual formation, being confined to the framework of the high caste is as bad as being imprisoned in the low. Confinement is the issue. How does it matter that your cage is made of gold, and mine of iron? Broiler chicken tastes fibrously synthetic and fish, grown in domestic aquaria, are inedible for being vapidly tasteless. There is a moral in both.
Unless the present system of school education is radically revamped, education will continue to perpetuate social dismemberment, not promote social integration. In doing so, the educational project flies in the face of every applicable legislation; whether it be the Act of 1989 to protect Dalits against discrimination or the provisions of RTE Act, which mandate every local authority to ensure that children of disadvantaged groups “are not discriminated against and prevented from pursuing and completing elementary education on any ground.”
Reforming and qualitatively upgrading government schools is an urgent need. Many of them are notoriously inefficient, caste-ridden and discriminative. The acuteness of this oppression varies from place to place, depending on where these schools are located. Between them and private schools (attended by nearly 30 per cent of the students) the quality differential is worrisome. Those who attend public schools — the most private of all schools — are on a different plane altogether.
We are, thus, forced to confront the disquieting reality that the idolization of ‘merit’ — understood in a socially insensitive fashion — is today militating against the transformative scope of education. It is in the interest of the high in caste and class to engage with the wider social spectrum and to allow their children to grow up enriched and empowered, rather than protected and anaemic.
Time will prove that such children, not less than Dalit and Adivasi children, turn out disadvantaged; except that the face of the discrimination they suffer unawares is now painted in hues of caste and class privilege.
The author is former Principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi. Email: email@example.com