When our older daughter began to attend elementary school in the United States, I was struck by the fact that the school day for all students began, hand over heart, with the Pledge of Allegiance, which was effectively a solemn declaration of loyalty to the republic. Secondly, on the very first day, the teacher taught them ‘the golden rules’: think before you speak, and treat others the same way as you would expect them to treat you.
Thus, the first lesson learned in school was a civic one: respect for the Constitution and a rule-based way of transacting with fellow citizens of the republic. In fact, the American community-led public education system started out as a citizenship training programme. The objective was to enable and empower citizens in the discharge of their civic obligations and in their quest for economic opportunity. It was a simple idea that drove elementary public education in America: an informed citizenry, compliant with the law is the best guarantor of liberty and justice.
Some years later, I was dropping my daughters off at one of Delhi’s better schools into which they had been adm-itted after we moved from the US. The picture couldn’t have been more radically different. First, it was an all-girls school. Students wore a hideous uniform and the ambience was chaotic, with girls running around, push-ing and shoving, unmindful of the safety or convenience of others. Later, we discov-ered that it was a tyrannical institution, subject to the whims of Victorian nuns who ran it.
Our daughters were traumatised because on the academic front as well, the school was a zero. The curriculum prescribed by the Central Board of Secondary Education and the National Council of Educational Research and Training was lame. The faculty did very little except race through a rote method of teaching; it was clear our daughters were not learning much and that added to their misery. We withdrew them from the school to the disbelief of many, as the school was among the most sought-after in the city.
Far from teaching students the virtues of citizenship, all that the school did was to prepare them to write board examinations to attain high scores, which ensured admission into an even more dysfunctional university system. The psychological costs that students have to pay are never addressed — simply dismissed by teachers and parents alike as collateral damage in the race to succeed in examinations. We pulled them out of this twisted system and enroled them in an international school, where they blossomed.
In the current debates over education policy, the focus has centred on reform at every level: elementary schools, institutes of higher education, vocational training. Issues of private ownership versus govern-ment control, entry of global education providers, certification and accreditation are routinely raised. What seems to have been missed completely is the civic aspects of education. Respect for the neighbourhood, city, state and country needs to be instilled at a very early age without crossing the line into chauvinism.
Sadly, most political parties, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party, have fallen into the trap of jingoism. The Congress, for its part, has a version; let’s call it patriotism in which there’s still a chip on the shoulder which prevents a realistic assessment of the Indian situation. Chest thumping or moaning and groaning about “inclusive growth” is hardly the way to instill civic values in the citizenry. The so-called ‘youth dividend’ can only be banked if the education system instills a sense of civic conscious-ness in the populace, beginning right from primary school.
The proposition is not so difficult to grasp. Civic authorities cannot prevent people from urinating, or spitting paan in the streets; from driving like lunatics, blowing car horns or jumping queues or being malodorous because they have never heard of deodorants. But schools can teach their children to respect public spaces. In Delhi, for example, the Metro is a big hit as are the new low-floor sleek buses, flyovers, expressways and underpasses, parks and landscaped streets. In the next decade, a whole generation will grow up using these public goods. What schools need to teach students is how to use these facilities respectfully.
Amazingly, none of this is part of the academic agenda. On the right, people talk about India shining with its economic growth. On the left, people talk about hunger, poverty and disease. Smack dab in the middle, we need to teach young people, increasingly more exposed to the wider world through the internet, television, and mobile phones, that the default position in India need not be poverty, filth and disease. That in fact India with its red-hot economy, could become a byword for a progressive civic culture in which egalitarianism and efficiency prevail.
Instead of going on about our ancient culture or the glaring disparities in society, India should showcase itself as the proud new country that can in the words of the 1960s anthem: “change the world, rearrange the world”. That dream of the 60s that was held out tantalisingly in the West can come true in the world’s largest democracy and second fastest growing economy.
(An edited version of this post will appear in http://www.educationworld.in, November 6, 2010.)