When our older daughter began to attend elementary school in the United States, I was struck by two things: first, 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. Second, on the very first day, the teacher taught them “the golden rules:” think before you speak and treat others the same way in which you would expect them to treat you.
Thus, the first lesson learned in the school was a civic one: respect for the constitution and a rule-based way of dealing with fellow citizens of the republic. In fact, the American community-led public education system started out as a citizenship training program; the idea 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 laws, is the best guarantor of liberty and justice.
Some years later, I was dropping my daughters off at one of Delhi’s better schools to which they had been admitted after we moved from the US. The picture couldn’t have been more radically different. First, it was a school for girls only; students wore a hideous uniform and the ambience was chaotic, with girls running around, pushing and shoving, unmindful of the safety or convenience of others. Later, we discovered that it was a tyrannical place, subject to the Victorian whims of the nuns who ran it.
Our daughters were traumatized; on the academic front as well the school was a zero. The curriculum as dictated by the Central Board of Secondary Education and the National Council of Education Research and Training was lame. The faculty did very little but 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; 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 their students to take board examinations in which only very high scores can ensure admission to 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 at examinations. We pulled them out of the twisted system and enrolled them in an international school, where they blossomed.
In the current debates over education policy, the focus has centered on reforms at every level: elementary schools, institutes of higher education, vocational training. Issues of private ownership versus government control, entry of global education providers, certification and accreditation are among others that have been raised. What seems to have been missed completely is the civic aspects of education. Respect for your neighborhood, your city, your state, your country needs to be instilled at a very early age without crossing the line to become 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 is still a chip on the shoulder that 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 succeed if the education system instills a sense of civic values in the populace, beginning right from primary school.
The proposition is not that difficult to grasp. Civic authorites cannot prevent people from urinating, defecating or spitting paan on the streets; they cannot keep people from driving like lunatics, blowing their horns or jumping a line or being smelly because they have never heard about deodorants. But they 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; new flyovers, expressways and underpasses, even parks and landscaped streets and slick new bus stops. In the next decade, a whole generation will grow up used to these public goods. What schools need to teach them is how to use these and not be vandals.
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 world through the Internet, television, and mobile phones, that the default position in India need not be a poverty, filth and disease. That in fact India with its new and shiny economy could be an example of a new 21st century civic culture in which an egalitarian and efficient ethic prevails.
Instead of moaning on about its ancient culture or the glaring disparities in its society, India should showcase itself as the new shining country that can in the words of the 1960s anthem: “change the world, rearrange the world.” That dream of the sixties that was held out tantalizingly in the West can come true in the world’s largest democracy and its second fastest growing economy.
An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, November 2010.
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010