01.09.2013 - 13.11.2013
We in the UK may have had a few minor gripes with our education system over the last few years (I, for one, want to overhaul the language system in a bloody scholastic coup, but keep that quiet), but let’s be honest, we have one of the best education systems in the world, and we know it. Those with a less fortunate draw in the post code lottery may disagree, and would be right to, but on a global scale we’re pretty bloody lucky. And it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with I-Pads or SmartBoards. (Incidentally, I find it somewhat dubious that politicians are handing out free laptops here, in an area where there isn’t even a reliable flow of electricity – buying votes, much?)
Since I’ve been in India, I’ve been watching different groups of kids learn, and it’s been an eye-opener. The work of the DAAN Foundation in Udaipur, to which I hope to return at the end of the month, is aiming less to create an academic experience than an educational one, which is not at all the same thing. Samvit is trying to promote an outlook on life that is aware, independent, conscientious and forward thinking – things we would take for granted, like not throwing rubbish in the streets and expressing personal opinions. My time in Sandila has shown me exactly how important this is.
The kids here spend about four hours a day in government schools, with only half an hour on each subject. A group then comes to the house in the afternoons for homework help and a little extra practice, which is when I get contact with them. It’s less what they are learning that is an issue, but the way they are doing so; they learn by rote, memorising huge chunks of textbooks in English with absolutely no evidence whatsoever that they understand. The same even goes for maths, copying out sums they’ve already solved as if writing them out again would hammer home the whole principle. I even watched one girl painstakingly copying an incredibly detailed diagram of a heart, with every single line and speckle in place, but not a single label. She thrust it at me proudly, asking what I thought; when I said it wasn’t finished without labels, she told me there weren’t any on the original diagram, so they can’t be that important.
This lack of independent thought goes all the way to university level. Firstly, the resources are incredibly low (the library, about the size of that of my tiny village primary school, is open for half an hour a day), and even textbooks contain model answers that the students just highlight chunks in. Secondly, there’s a uniform. Now, anybody who’s given a passing nod to Foucault will tell you that control of the body is also control of the mind. It’s impossible to self-express when you’re part of a crowd.
So, what this all comes down to, in my mind, is a pretty sorry state of affairs. Resources and materials are one problem, but the real issue looks to me to be a lot deeper. Asha, the NGO I’m working with here, is an anti-corruption charity, aiming to make people aware of their rights, but it seems to me that until the education system permits the development of a nation of independent, analytical thinkers who ask ‘why?’ and not ‘what?’, the massively damaged political system will be very slow to change indeed. Knowing that the syllabus in the hands of these politicians, and seeing their faces plastered on the screens of every free university laptop is a very sobering thought indeed.