Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 4, 2023

R is for Religion and Race 

            We had a puja  in our school last Saturday, a veritable Satyanarain katha with a hawan (a telling of the story of the god Vishnu, with a fire sacrifice). It was an off-day for students and only the teaching and non-teaching staff attended. The occasion was the beginning of the new academic year, to humbly commit ourselves to do our best in all our endeavours, and to grow and prosper through our hard work. In Hinduism this is called a Sankalp, a resolution. 

            The ceremony was rather charming with its bright colours, flowers, fruits, banana leaves, gleaming pots and platters, camphor, basil, an array of pastes and powders, milk and water, and the sacred kush grass tied around the jajman’s (sacrifier or patron’s) finger and offers of all the food, milk and water above repeatedly to the deities. 

            The deities were more charming still in their aestheticism: a Ganesh made of rice and betel nut, a Lakshmi made of a coconut, a Vishnu who was a round, smooth stone, the shaligram. They were duly welcomed and their feet washed and cooled. They were offered flowers, scent, fruit, drink, betel leaves, and all propitiations of hospitality. They were our guests. 

            The priest was young, educated, smart. He read and recited well and kept our attention. His narration was familiar, the story of various humans who had misjudged and erred, and were then made aware that they could simply worship Vishnu, listen to his katha or story and do a simple ceremony such as we were doing. The kata is a slice of the history of Hinduism in the many chapters of which different deities vie with each other to assert their status among the laity. The priest, priding himself on his modernity, gave a twist to the story several times, connecting it to the present, such as the merchant being advised that his goods’ “market value” would increase if he only worshipped right. 

            In short, the priest, as a proper messenger of the gods, conveyed that every individual, of whichever caste or class, could achieve success if they made the sankalp or resolution to do so, and also hosted the gods periodically with wise hospitality. The school itself, similar to an individual, would benefit in its work. 

            The question in today’s post is the possible value that ‘religion’ could have for children. I began with our own puja to suggest (somewhat slyly) that as long as institutions are run by humans, there can be no escape from ‘contamination’ by the need for faith, ritual, philosophy and morality. Our teachers are thoroughly secular, yet all of them voted for the puja, including the non-Hindus, when we thought of a ritual to articulate our commitment to hard work and right action. 

Nor can there be an escape from religion if you socialize and if you educate, that is, if you expose your child to any knowledge at all. It may sound like a great idea to save your child from conflictual and adult preoccupations, to somehow bring up children all pure and innocent of the troubling concepts of “the other,” Heaven and Hell, sin and punishment. And truly they are adult preoccupations. As are the very concept of God, or Gods, of sacred place or temple, of sacraments and rituals, of praying and confessing, and of right and wrong. 

            Like everything in the adult world, however, children have to be taught all this, and like everything, they can be taught it better or worse. The better way is when they are taught religion as a “cultural system.” A term coined by Clifford Geertz, a silver-tongued anthropologist, it means more than it suggests. A cultural system is complete and self-explanatory in itself. It uses its own logic that is as impeccable as any other system’s. All cultural systems are equal in their logic and complexity. All cultural systems are random and arbitrary. All include a common sense, an epistemology, an ethics, a mythology (or several), and a cosmogony. 

            Think of the riches available. Children wonder at everything and need to know how anything and everything came to be, how it works, how it ends (the Brahma, the Vishnu and the Mahesh—for Hindus). And what would happen if something bad happened. And how wonderful everything is, but also how fragile. How scary and how delightful.  

Teachers need to mine the mythology of many religions, as much as they can handle (and work on increasing their capacities all the time). They need to distance themselves from their own faith when presenting it, and others’ faiths, and teach the processes of doing so. Thus they can achieve three valuable ends with the help of religion. One, to draw the children into academic excellence by using vast storehouses of stories teeming with fascinating characters. Two, to use religion to further Critical Thinking, a job done for the Rama story by many, including Narendra Kohli with a Marxist interpretation, Ishan Shankar with an interpretation that addresses children’s questions, and our own NIRMAN’s “Ramlila Project” that taught environmental consciousness. Three, because this will be done for many religions, children will actually learn to become tolerant and civic-minded. 

            Our school puts in its Calendar the celebration, called “Party”, for the major festival(s) of six religions: Hinduism (Holi, Diwali and Dasehra); Christianity (Christmas and Easter); Islam (Id ul Fitr and Moharram); Sikhism (Guru Nanak Jayanti); Buddhism (Buddha Jayanti) and—the religion of Secular Nationalism (Independence Day and Republic Day). We are happy partying and learning enthusiastically the whole year long.  

            R is for Races. Neither the belief in Races, as in Negroid, Caucasian, Mongoloid, and so on, nor the practice of Racism based on these divisions, is familiar to Indians. No paperwork in India asks for one’s ‘Race’ and no identity politics is based on Race. Nor are  there signs, thankfully, of the concepts or politics appearing in the Indian public sphere, as do many of the least progressive practices of the West.  

            There is another kind of Race, however, that Indians believe in whole-heartedly,. This is the race with the age cohort. Right from Pre-School, parents want their children to be ‘first’. The practice of establishing ranks of first, second, third is an entrenched one in academics, and it spills over into every other terrain. If a Progressive School tries to eschew competition, all but a few parents will break with the school.  

            Nor can one wholly blame them. The careers of adults have to be built on one competition after another, starting with the race to get into a course of study, moving on to succeed in the degree, getting through the exam for a service, vying for a top position….and on and on. Newspapers in India are full of advertisements for how to run the race for success, and cityscapes bristle with billboards and posters for the same. 

            Since a school cannot change all of society, and certainly cannot fight it singlehandedly, it has to tread a fine line between teaching children to be rooted in worthwhile work for its own sake, and giving them a momentum to excel in whatever they are doing by looking over their shoulders at others.  

            R is also for Roald Dahl and Reggio Emilia, two stalwarts in children’s imaginative worlds. Dahl has created characters who battle the adult world, and he draws no lines in insisting that children are the smarter, wiser, and more gifted of the two. Indeed, his adults are satirical commentaries on all that adults do with children that is wrong. His books, particularly Matilda, The BFG, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among many others, are classics and also huge Hollywood productions. Matilda has just re-appeared as a classy Musical that is a paean to childhood and good schooling. 

            Reggio Emilia, a town near Rome, Italy, has set up a powerful model of the use of art in children’s education. Amazingly, the Municipality of the city showed the perspicacity to go all out in exploring the world of children’s imagination in both philosophy and practice. One is humbled on reading about their use of design, ateliers, the respect for environment and their belief in the verbal and non-verbal languages of children, and in children leading their own growth. Our own school can only strive to follow the Reggio Emilia philosophy to a small extent, as we can with Montessori and Dewey. Their values, in the words of their founder Loris Malaguzzi, bear repeating. 

“To make a lovable school, industrious, inventive, liveable, documentable and communicable, a place of research, learning, re-cognition and reflection, where children, teachers and families feel well – is our point of arrival.” 


Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 4, 2023

Q is for Queues and for Quotas

            In a classroom that I was observing, the children repeatedly tried to thrust their completed work at the teacher. She dealt with the chaos by checking the copy directly in front of her eyes, pleading with the others to wait, reprimanding a specially aggressive one (who may have been first, was ignored, and now was aggrieved.)

            Later I went to buy tomato ketchup. While the shopkeeper turned back to the shelves to get me a different brand to what he had proferred me first and I had turned down, a father and son arrived. They stood next to me, discussed their shopping list and the father loudly asked for a packet of savouries and a juice. The shopkeeper froze in his tracks, seemed to forget me and my ketchup order, and began to locate the snack and the juice. It took some time because they also turned down his brand of first choice and debated among themselves, the brands, the sizes and the prices. The shopkeeper kept serving them.

            At several other times when similar scenarios have been enacted I have raised my voice in objection, “Kindly serve us according to our place in line.” I have had to speak more aggressively still, “Excuse me, I was here before you.” Or even, “What is this nonsense? Why can’t you finish with one customer and then turn to another?”

            This time, with the ketchup purchase, I didn’t say anything. I was content to observe, trying to digest the logic of it all.

            The simple logic was: adults in India cannot do things in turn because it is not “natural” to do so. “Natural” is to want to be ahead and to push and shout to achieve that. Waiting in line has to be taught and learnt in school. Such a concept is not taught in Indian schools and Indians have never learnt it in their formative years.

            There are queues at railway stations, at least to buy tickets, though not to board the train. There are queues at airport counters and to board the plane. But there still are not in banks, unless that bank has a number system. There wasn’t a queue at the Punjabi Grill in Terminal 3 at Delhi Airport. There isn’t one in the fancy sweet shop I go to. Ksheer Sagar  strives to be so state of the art that they have magnetized cards the server hands the customer and the customer presents to the cashier who magically reads the blank card and pronounces the amount to pay.

            All that, and no queue! At the counter, the bigger sized humans with the louder voices—mostly males, let’s make no bones about it—grab the attention of the otherwise quite polite white-capped servers behind the counter. Several people who come after me are regularly attended to before I successfully catch the server’s eye. True, I waste a little time observing and I purposefully do not raise my voice.

            I complained to the Ksheer Sagar managers, in an uncharacteristically timid way. The managers looked blank. Their fleeting expressions read, “What the heck? A trouble maker?” I offered them some theatre classes to make their shop run more democratically and not in this old-fashioned feudalistic way. They shrugged and turned to their cash registers.

            Learning about queues is part of the larger lesson to be learnt about rules. It is a non-issue in Indian society. It is grossly misunderstood to be not an issue of teaching and learning but of morality and ethics. If I were to discuss it with, for instance my C.A. who prides himself on being a Renaissance man, he would probably say something to the effect of, “You see, what can we do; we have excellent rules in our country but people just do not follow them.” It’s always the “implementation” that is blamed, and it’s always the “others” who are not following the rules.

            I intervened in the class I was observing and made the children wait their turn. The teacher looked confused. The children welcomed the structure and also got time to do some of the many interesting things they can do in spare moments rather than compete in a boring way with their class-mates. The invaluable lessons of fairness and equality were dawning on them.

            A queue is just the right arm of democracy.

As for the word “quota,” it makes some of us shudder. It implies the absence of equality and of free competition.

The definitions are innocent enough.  According to Merrian-Webster, a “quota” is a proportional part or share assigned to each in a body; a specific amount that serves as a minimum or maximum.

            According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a “quota” is  a number, amount, or share that is officially allowed or necessary.

            In India, there have been specific quotas for certain groups of people since independence, for government jobs and admission to certain educational institutions. The Mandal Commission Report, or the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Report, was adopted by Prime Minister VP Singh in 1990. It provided reserved quotas for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Castes (OBC) up to almost 50% of all seats. This policy was not welcomed by those not thus protected and two kinds of agitation started. The earlier one was by upper and middle castes against the reduction in educational and employment opportunities for those not on the SC, ST and OBC lists. The second, later agitation was by different castes and caste clusters to be included in the Other Backward Castes list. There was also a disgruntlement against the policy by sections of the Indian citizenry for the reason that, as they claimed, the standards of training and service would fall if people were given opportunities simply according to quotas.

            There is no question that the whole experiment of “Reservations,” as it is called, is a politically ambitious one, based on the undeniable history of inequality in India that had produced a gross under-representation of lower castes and Dalits in all positions of power. The reactions to the policy and the distortions that followed were difficult to foresee. Inequality is perhaps worsening as we speak, even as many youth are now getting the opportunity to study and to work that they did not have before. Ajay Navaria’s Hindi novel Udhar ke Log  is a story of young Dalit men who are bureaucrats, Police officers and academics, all thanks to accessing higher education through the quotas offered their communities.

            I remember my surprise when the Maulana  I was studying Urdu with revealed that he was an Other Backward Caste as well. He showed me a printed list of all the castes thus included and there was his: Muslim Kayasth.

            Now, that is the stuff of comedy, if not farce. Islam believes in the equality of all. Kayasthas believe that they are God’s gift to humanity, being the cream of the intellectual and educated classes. And the well-intentioned politics of Affirmative Action in India had put “Muslim Kayasthas” on its list!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 2, 2023

P is for Pre-schools and Policy

Will this New Education Policy (NEP) of 2020 be able to solve the worst of the problems in the realm of Indian education—the absence of robust Pre-school Education in the country?

It is an exciting proposition in the NEP to group the first five years together, three of pre-school and two of classes 1 and 2, or ages 3 to 8. This gives recognition to the pre-school years, also called Early Childhood years, as a legitimate part of schooling.

At present in India, those who can afford it struggle to find a private school for their 3, 4 or 5 years old. In larger cities and metropolises, there is a range to choose from but still the shortage of preschools is palpable. In Kolkata and Lucknow, I have observed the ritual called “entrance tests” for 3 and 4-year olds and “interviews” for their parents. In smaller cities and towns, there are no preschools that educated parents could consider appropriate for their cherubs. The one prestigious English medium “convent” or “public” school in a small or medium-size city would have a Nursery and Kindergarten attached to it, with perhaps six sections and 50 to 60 children in each. Thus it would open admissions to 300 or even 400 children at one time. The number of those trying for these places—those “filling out the form” as popular wording goes—might be fifty times as many if the school has a reputation.

The demand for private preschools exceeds the supply resulting in overcrowded classrooms. This then justifies poor pedagogy, which is given the rosy hue of good pedagogy by pointing to the looming Board exams ten years later. In this version, the poor school is doing only what guardians want. Guardians are both right, and wrong, depending on who is interrogating the school.

If life indeed runs on free market principles then demand creates its own supply, and there have in fact suddenly appeared as many expensive preschools as required by the middle classes. Since no affiliation or accreditation is required for preschool, any kind of claims can be made from the simplest and most basic (suggested by the names ‘stars,’ ‘flowers,’ ‘gardens,’ ‘Euro,’ and ‘Aero’) to the most exaggerated (‘Harvard,’ ‘Oxford,’ ‘Hindu’ and ‘International.’) Knowledge about early learning is sketchy among the practitioners in these private places. There is a consensus that the front should be formulaic: a formal symmetrical building, with a gate in bright colours, ringed by flowerpots and cartoon characters, and that the promise should be of gadgetry, air conditioning, and smart screens.

The amazing thing is that alongside these private schools there are free Preschools run by the government called by the pleasant name of anganbadi,  “a courtyard home.” A scheme funded by UNICEF and WHO and launched around fifty years ago, it is well entrenched and widespread, at least in North India. The anganbadis don’t just have “education” for 3 to 5-year olds, they supply meals and keep a record of infants’ growth and expecting mothers’ health. In the fifty or so anganbadis I have visited from Himalayan towns and hamlets to those in remote villages of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, I have consistently found the workers to know all about procedures and be trained in pedagogy with a respectable repertoire of the right kinds of activities for their young clientele.

Yet, with one or two exceptions, in all these anganbadis, the children are not being given the stimulation and attention that they could in the time they spend in the anganbadi precincts. The teachers have packed away their materials in trunks in their classrooms and their teaching techniques to a shelf at the back of their minds. They are not embarrassed at being observed in an attitude of indifference and neglect of their children. They are apparently not aware that the explanations they give for not delivering what they are supposed to do not hold water.

How are these different problems, the scarcity of good, elite preschools; the abundance of expensive, private preschools; and the low level of public, free preschools for lower classes and villagers, going to be resolved in the new policy?

The New Education Policy does not acknowledge these differences in schools, including preschools. Presumably all difference in India may be ignored since India is prima facie the ultimately diverse nation. And since the market system is entrenched, and daily more so, commercially run pre-schools should of course proliferate. Coming to anganbadis, there is a conundrum. No policy can succeed if it does not state directly the problem that has been keeping our anganbadis and Primary Schools in the inferior condition they are, and then state directly the solution. The Pre-school part of the Policy contains this huge discrepancy. We know that the most crucial years of a child’s life are the ages 3 to 8. We are not inventing anything when we say that early childhood education should be mostly play, activities and projects. We are saying what every developed country, and a fair number of developing countries, have known for decades. As I mentioned above, good private schools know it as well and the whole set of trained anganbadi workers. They know wonderful songs, activities and games.

I cannot emphasise enough the need for acknowledgement of the problem. It is the first little step towards its resolution, to be followed by many more. We will fail before we even start if we simply state something as desirable and not mention that the problem has been not ignorance of its desirability but the lack of will or techniques to implement it. But, presuming we have now officially accepted what is important to do for preschool children, how do we get around to doing it?

First, we have to train our teachers to behave with children as if each was an individual, to respect their personalities, their pace of learning, their levels. Teachers will continue to act according to their own personal and social ideologies of the child. It would be a waste of time to make this into a subject of surprised discussion. Instead, we need to have strict taskmasters who make zero tolerance policies for physical and verbal abuse, for ignoring students and wasting time, for indifference to planning and teaching techniques. 

Anganbadi teachers understand progressive teaching in principle. However, it remains only an abstract idea that they can present when asked. In order to make them live out the idea, anganbadi teachers have to be converted more deeply so that they have, as the cliché goes, ownership of the idea. More about ownership under O.

What is needed is a paradigmatic shift towards a recognition that it is not clever to be knowledgeable about the problem and hide it. It is clever to state it and then mention the solution which is also partly common knowledge but kept hidden.

What I would love to see tabled for discussion is a set of points related to the politics  of education in India that has resulted in this double problem: a set of elite preschools that have half-developed but comparatively good practices; and a set of preschools for the poor whose smart, skilled teachers habitually leave their children in neglect.

Then we would see that there is a pseudo-racism in India that relegates certain people to an essential inferiority. Anganbadis are bad because village children are deemed to deserve no better. Expensive preschools are ‘good’ because middle and upper class children are valued clients and must be satisfied. As I suggested under the M for Montessori discussion, this problem could only be solved with a strict management policy that has zero tolerance for this hierarchical mindset.

How I wish that one of my favourite critics of injustice, oppression and class difference in Indian society, Premchand, the beloved kalam ke sopahi (the warrior with the pen) could be present to deconstruct in his scathing, eloquent way the poverty of the NEP’s approach to the needs of 3 to 8 year olds.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 2, 2023

O is for Online Classes

            Raise your hands, those who have never done online classes or work?

            Not a single hand raised. What a changed world!

            When Covid-19 was accepted as a reality and the protocol for dealing with it was put in place everywhere, a ripple of excitement accompanied the various ripples of suspicion, fear, worry and wonder that went through all of us. We were going to continue our work, but—online!

            Very quickly, many platforms appeared, chief among them, Zoom, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. What lovely names— we zoom away into infinity, making our own videos and enjoying others’, confronting our friends with our news and pictures, and a What’s up? All the platforms seemed miraculous. They successfully bound us together in a time when we could not physically meet and visit. Overnight we developed the vocabulary of that which was past and faraway as ‘physical’ and ‘offline’ to contrast to our new reality which was ‘virtual’ and ‘online.’

            I lived in a village during Covid, in a school that stood silent and empty for one and a half years. I would phone my class 9 and 10 students to teach them European and World History. Surrealistically, we would discuss dictatorship, revolution, socialism, and democracy. In retrospect, I understand that I should have discussed instead their lives, situations, and feelings. They would have learnt more.

            My worthy readers must know this already, but it bears repeating. India is infrastructurally weak yet in its provision of electricity, sewerage, potable water, and, of course, internet. Because phone companies have woken up to the immensity of the Indian market, millions of Indians have cell phones, including smart ones. They pay a monthly amount which seems manageable, until it is not, at which point they suspend the service for some time. There is no penalty. For an average Indian child to conduct their whole education online, as became mandatory during Covid lockdown times, is a mind-boggling leap of faith (excuse the mixed metaphors).

            That is why I was conducting my lessons by phone. None of my students had a smart phone to themselves. If there was one in the house, it was already being used by a senior person. Nor did I myself have internet, sitting in my huge classroom of a room. We had a dongle and that, too, was being shared and worked only within a distance of a few yards.

            This is the point at which a few ads should appear on this blog, selling various phones, dongles, services, advice and help. Because our lives have come to be run by the companies manufacturing all these. Children began to regard it as natural that of course the teacher was a voice, a crackling one at that, sometimes a face, and that a blurred or crooked one, with part of the screen taken up by her ill-dressed family members passing at the back, her ceiling or window, her weird room behind her.

            In turn, I could see my children at home. They were mostly village children and I had been to some of their houses. Anushka was squatting on the floor, her mother cooking nearby, her sister playing in the corner, her bag hanging behind her, her eyes on the phone, very serious, very keen, but not able to get more than a few odd sentences in the whole time. She could not take notes because she did not get things ready beforehand.

            Then I spent hours everyday monitoring randomly what my teachers were doing. They were teaching classes all the way Nursery upwards. My rough calculations are as follows: 50% of registered students could attend the classes. Of those 25% attended the full time and did the work. Others either left in the middle and/or ignored the work. Of all the students, 5-10% could follow even a little of what the teacher was trying to convey. The 25% attending properly included parents who helped their children complete their work, most of the time without understanding it.

            Definitely, one cheer for Online Classes! It doesn’t deserve three, as my favourite novelist Edmund Morgan Forster said about Democracy, and not even two. But one is fine because Online Classes did force us teachers to worry and strain.

            They were a mixed experience for parents. Some parents were in their glory as they revealed their closet selves, tutoring their children, completing their projects, making them learn and recite and create. Some were driven crazy, unable to cope with the just demands of a child suddenly left to the family’s devices. Most were probably in the middle, with good and bad days and feelings.

            The tragedy of Online Classes needs to be confronted head-on. They provide a very poor education. If we are going to use a technology that relies totally on voice, image and words, we have to develop teaching styles, content, and persona suitable to this technology. A random survey of classes and videos shows that teachers are more boring than ever, standing before blackboards, droning away in uninspiring, often unintelligible, voices. Those who fancy that they can perform, typically over-act and often branch out into commercial online classes. Those who are humble about their skills, but sincere, hardly experiment or innovate. They believe that a teacher’s job is to not to sing their own praises or propagate their reach, both of which may happen, given the nature of the internet, if they kept improving their online presence.

            Speaking personally, I read out books, told stories, taught rhymes, explained topics, all with verve and energy. I kept observing my efforts and strove to improve daily. My failure lay in my reach. Of my 200 students perhaps 20 saw my videos. Of non-students, not even my best friends.

            The technology of Online Classes does not come with an accompanying technology to make your student sit down at their desk and pay attention to you. 

            O is therefore for ownership. A good teacher creates a classroom in which each child feels that they have ownership over the space and its processes. Indeed a child should feel ownership over the whole school. The ideal school is where a student can greet a visitor, “This is my school. Come with me, I will show you around.” And everything is a ‘we’ and an ‘our.’

            In such a school the teacher makes rituals that bind the students to the classroom world. The teacher makes rules that enable everyone to participate in the everyday life of the classroom. The teacher is in tune with the moods and sensibilities of the students so that there is one holistic group called the class and not rival groups of adult and child.

            These ownership challenges that are so central to good teaching and learning are out of the question in online classes. Teaching does not lie in merely good material being well presented, and learning doe not lie in the sharpness and the dedication to imbibe this. Schooling is a “rough magic,” neither science nor art but a higher version of both, a profoundly human process in which the teacher is called on to continuously observe, interact, learn, and thus keep developing their teaching strategies.

            Those who developed Online Classes were clever and appropriate for the disaster we all went through. They were not teachers, however, and all teachers should now drop Online Classes as a needless threat to their profession. Or at least make them second to Offline Classes, aiming at the goal that Offlineis the term used normatively and Online is the qualification. It will take some doing, because linguistically speaking, On is positive and Off is negative.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 2, 2023

N is for Novels

            I was shifting restlessly among the mounds of work and activity I had set up for myself, the routines and lists, the systems and structures. What was missing—as I only know now—was a leap into the dark, away from my mundane, entrapping reality.

            I picked up a somewhat dusty book from my somewhat dusty shelves (blame the fact that our shelves are all open, not closed cupboards). It was Maitreyi Pushpa’s Hindi novel, Kasturi Kundal Base (Delhi: Rajkamal Publications, 2002). I relaxed and put my feet up. That is my privilege today. A few decades ago I might have opened the book balanced on one side of the table while I chopped the dinner vegetables on the other.

The novel transported me to a village somewhere. This novel’s village was in British colonial times, and then after a few chapters 1947 arrives and the story becomes one of  independent India. Kasturi is a stubborn girl who revolts against her family’s marrying her off to an older man for a brideprice and for constantly pressuring her to follow rules and tradition. She hates all the things laid down for a village girl. She does get married, but once widowed, follows her dream of getting an education. Meanwhile, her daughter hates everything her mother stands for and is in love with the village and conventional feminine roles.

            I may have been reading with my mouth open. I was so shaken out of my world and thrust into another vivid one that I might as well have been levitating. If I could have closed my eyes and wished, “Take me to a distant place and show me what I don’t know,” I could not have achieved my wish better than upon opening the pages of this novel.

            And yet, it was terribly familiar. The death of people, the re-location for work, the threat, persecution, and abuse of girls by men, the quarrels between mother and daughter—the setting was different, the situation eerily similar.

            That’s what a novel can do. The novelis such a powerful artifact that scores have been banned over the centuries, and continue to be today, in every single country in the world (see which has all kinds of books including plenty of novels). Banned for being objectionable to religions, communities, and ideologies, sometimes simply because they promote democracy, equality, or an urge to freedom. The novels, incidentally, are not polemical. A novel, by definition, is fictitious. Like Kasturi Kundal Base, it may have an autobiographical or sociological base, but its success relies on its ability to create a world of its own.

            In children’s language textbooks we often see excerpts from famous novels: Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, Three Men in a Boat. The excerpts fail to excite children, coming across typically as meaningless. It’s doubtful if they experience an iota of the excitement that can be had from the original novel. Abridgements and extracts should be avoided unless we are sure they are masterfully done. Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare is generally regarded as an example of a masterful abridgement.

            It’s in Middle and High Schools that children should read full novels, in whichever languages they are studying. The literature textbooks with their random chapters in those classes perform a disservice to both literature and children. With a novel to read, a child of ten and over, can travel through space and time, get all the vocabulary and grammar they need, learn the values of empathy and respect for other, be suitably mystified and challenged, learn about plot and structure, learn to express themselves and construct narratives for themselves including about themselves—that is, understand themselves better.

The New Education Policy (NEP) 2022/23 does not remember to mention fiction, creative writing, or novels, but has been praised rightly for its insistence on some radical changes  and some creative suggestions. More about education policies later.

N is for NIRMAN, or New Initiatives in Research, Management, and the Arts. It is my organization, so I am mentioning it, but there are hundreds of similar initiatives all over India and the world. Human creativity is boundless, and the desire to fight against society’s injustices is likewise indefatigable. NIRMAN, founded in 1990, fights particularly on two fronts: one of social inequality by levelling the playing field, as they say, for children of both poor and rich families. It seeks to provide a model of excellent education for all, regardless of background. It takes seriously the different kinds of inequality and then tries to overcome them. Secondly, it pursues curricula that is integrated with the arts, imagination and hands-on work, thus making learning more successful, self-driven and life-long. Such high-quality learning necessarily stresses environmental and gender consciousness, and teaches critical thinking skills.

N is for names, such as the lovely names we have in India with the N sound. For girls: Neha, Nirmala, Nisha, Nupur, Nandini, Narayani and Niranjana. For boys: Naresh is all I’ll mention, the name of my gentle, sweet father, Naresh (1924-2004), the lord of men.

In English, the sound of N comes often from the impostor, the silent k, and we can play around with children with knee, knot, know, and kneel.

Adults who are involved with education are experiencing two problems, one an old one and one a more recent one. The old one is a peculiarity of Indian cognitive and behaviour patterns but, it must be emphasized, it has serious ramifications and is not just quirky or interesting. This is the inability of Indians to say “no.” Teachers I work with will keep insisting that something is being done when it has only been planned and is not being done, often for good reasons, but they just cannot say “no” to “is it happening?”

The second problem is the news. It has always been something for the reader to interpret, being meant partly to influence, and with origins in journalists’ personal and political leanings. Now the news on television and internet is almost totally controlled by political and business heavymen. The majority of adults, including those in education, do not have the tools to be able to sift between gradations of false news.

Let us end with a pranam to Nanak, the First Guru of the Sikhs (1469-1539). Guru Nanak’s rich biography and teachings show us his multi-layered connections with Indian sant, fakir and bhakti traditions. He launched an ideology that blossomed into a whole religion. His powerful invocation of the Unity of the One Reality (ik Onkar) and the role of the Word and the Teacher are unique legacies. Guru Nanak’s dohas or couplets are part of children’s literature readings—yes, difficult to understand because dealing with the adult topics of life, death and human relationships, but evocative in their sound and structure. My own takeaway? There are multiple teachers or Gurus. Gurus are to be found in history, in books, in the classroom, around us; but beyond people, the book itself, Nature itself, life itself—are Gurus.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 2, 2023

M is for Montessori

It’s one thing to not know the name of Montessori. Most of the people we interact with, may not, and are none the worse for it. What is inexcusable, however, is when educators do not know Montessori. That is to say, they claim to be familiar with the philosophy of Montessori, and even to swear by it, but do not practice any part of it. The chasm between theoretical knowledge and hands-on practice that characterises many projects in India yawns stupendously in the case of pre-school education.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a notable educationist who started life as a medical doctor. She observed children and took on the project of developing a system of teaching for them, first with children with learning disabilities, then with non-disabled children. So successful was the system she developed that it was adopted by thousands of schools all over the world and became a brand name. She spent seven years in India, holding courses and lectures. The main points of her philosophy deserve days and weeks of study, but we can highlight a few. About children she had this to say:

Remember that people do not start at the age of twenty, at ten or at six, but at birth. In your efforts at solving problems, do not forget that children and young people make up a vast population, a population without rights which is being crucified on school-benches everywhere, which – for all that we talk about democracy, freedom and human rights – is enslaved by a school order, by intellectual rules, which we impose on it. We define the rules which are to be learnt, how they should be learnt and at what age. The child population is the only population without rights. The child is the neglected citizen. Think of this and fear the revenge of this populace. For it is his soul that we are suffocating. It is the lively powers of the mind that we are oppressing, powers which cannot be destroyed without killing the individual….

According to India’s New Educational Policy 2022 also, and according to us at Vidyashram—the Southpoint School in Varanasi from 1990, Pre-school or Early Childhood Education is crucial for the well-being of the individual. What the NEP does not spell out, but what we have been working on for thirty two years is precisely the How  of the work. How do we  apply the most popular and scientific of preschool philosophies, that of Montessori? The problems are huge.

At St Mary’s, one of the two old convent schools of Banaras, all the Montessori apparatus is securely packed up in shelves tucked away below eye level behind curtains. To my question, “Is Montessori not a suitable system for India then?” I am told, “It is very suitable. But the guardians have to be ready.”

This is the most circular argument of all. The school cannot improve and the teachers cannot be innovative because “the guardians” are not ready. This complaint ranges from “they will spit everywhere so we can never invite them to interact,” and “We can’t have child-sized furniture because guardians want full-size chairs and tables,” to “We can’t do more theatre because guardians want us to focus on the exams.” The argument is not only circular, it is in bad faith.

What Montessori proposed is disarmingly simple. Create a space for children where they can be free to pursue their own learning. Give them the right materials. Give them time. Give them the freedom to make mistakes, experiment, and learn. Make the spaces and materials like the real world. Make the spaces and materials aesthetic, that is, artistic and attractive in every way possible. 

There are certainly some beautiful schools with spaces like that. Old missionary and public schools, especially those in the mountains, are astounding in their beauty. But other schools that would like to be similarly good, such as Delhi Public School or Sunbeam or the many schools whose founders are ready to spend whatever is needed to do whatever is required in the name of excellence—all err in being “nouveau riche,” with air conditioners, smart classrooms, jacketed staff members, artificial plants and grass, surveillance, and commercial art.

And what of schools such as our own, the little model Vidyashram—the Southpoint School, with its small budget and large heart? The first thing we do is to have all the teachers on board with the Montessorian idea of childhood. Teachers go through some 100 hours of training in a year, and they learn, bless their hearts, about age-appropriate practices until they cannot forget it ever.

Second, we make our own materials that approximate Montessori equipment. Most of it is mathematical, language-related, housekeeping, or to do with the arts. Without going into details, we can share the report that laborious as it is, making pre-school materials is certainly possible.

And third, the most difficult of all, is to create an atmosphere of self-guided learning. In a good Montessori classroom, every child helps themselves to the equipment they need to learn their Maths, Languages, or Social Studies. Of course the teacher is present, ever available and watching. But it has to be seen to be believed how children can actually guide their own learning. I say it is “the most difficult” because the average adult just cannot let go of the idea imbibed via their own schooling that  a child, because small, is a lesser human being, and therefore must take in passively what is being poured into them by their superiors. Most adults in India also do not know how to make rules and then have them observed by themselves and others. While you can always have too much emphasis on discipline, Montessori argued persuasively on the basis of her research, from which she cites throughout, that children long for structure, enjoy clear rules, and are actually looking for order.

We can succeed if we have faith in Management. With the right management techniques, and the will, we can approximate the amazing vision of Montessori about the rights of children.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 2, 2023

L is for Literature

            Before we talk of literature, let us spend a few minutes on love and loss. It’s famously agreed upon that we don’t know how children’s minds work (though we were ourselves at that stage in this very lifetime). We can agree, however, on what it is that appeals to them. One of our student’s notebooks is full of drawings of monsters. Not friendly monsters, but strong, evil, threatening monsters. Another one is obsessed with Superheroes. My own granddaughter lives in a fancy world of ghosts, both good and evil, and makes rapid transitions between worlds, material ones like ours, and extra-sensory ones of her imagination.

In short, what children have on their minds is relationships, their attachments and intimacies, their conflicts and alienation. They have perceived love in the world they are discovering around them, but they have also heard of and suspect things about loss. Indeed, as soon as a two year old is first dropped off at Playgroup, or a three year old starts Preschool, they have already learnt everything they will ever learn about the betrayal of love and the predominance of loss.

If we start children off at a very early age with literature, we accomplish several things all at once. We give them super-efficient tools with which  to interpret the world. We give them windows through which to enter parallel worlds and wonder effortlessly at the similarities and differences with their own. They learn to think of their own emotions and to empathise with others’. Among a score of other wonderful processes literature enables is one called Bildung. The German term refers to the cultivation of maturity through a harmonizing of mind and body, the self and society, education and pleasure—a subtle kind of emergence of selfhood within the larger world. This “coming of age” typically takes place through challenges, conflicts, and myriads of adventures.

Everything a child encounters is teaching them something. How can we count the ways?! Imagine, then, the riches at our disposal in the form of books, literally, hundreds and thousands of them, their easy availability, and the sheer happiness and empowerment from reading them.

A popular exercise is for publishers and others to compile lists of the ‘best’ books, the ones everyone absolutely must read. Speaking of Western literature, there is a canon for a long time, a list that starts with Homer and Virgil and comes down to (some would say) Rowling and (I would say) Le Guin. Speaking of South Asian (Indian) literature, my list includes the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, both in William Buck’s translations; Pancatantra; Premchand’s stories; Tagore’s stories; any novel by R.K. Narayan; and first-rate novels in other Indian languages that await translation.

In India, we may be only beginning yet on the process of distribution, circulation, and translation, but rather than lamenting the shortage of titles, we should turn to the challenges of popularizing literature among children. Let us, all the lovers of literature, start a movement!

Two amazing writers that I want to mention are Philip Pullman (b. 1946) and Ursula le Guin (1929-2108), less popular but greater than E.K. Rowling. Among Pullman’s vast oeuvre is a trilogy of novels that weave around the themes of what is God (the Authority), life and death, childhood and adulthood, virtue and vice, love and loss. The protagonists are children, especially Lyra, a girl a young reader could identify with.

Among Le Guin’s novels, again we have an imaginary world (together with its maps) where there is wizardry and witchery, but throughoutt a search for the meaning of life and death, good and evil, human-ness and its opposite. The protagonist grows up, but starts off as a young boy going to school, and the female protagonist as a child.

What makes these novels so good, so useful, so powerful, so un-put-downable?

Unlike much of the Indian fiction in English, they are very well written. In their sophistication, they would be easy to classify with good writing of any kind, not just for children. Secondly, they are not moralizing tales, though some of that always creeps in, especially with Pullman. If we want sheer hair-raising fun that borders crazily on insanity, yet keeps teetering on the brink of reality, we have to pick up one of the 13 or so novels called A Series of Unfortunate Events by Daniel Handler under the name of Lemony Snicket. The three siblings Violet, Klaus and Sunny, who is only a toddler, take on the whole world and are better in a quiet, intelligent way than the big superheroes.

I will resist the temptation to name more books. I will quickly come back to love and loss. Children love so many things—do we teach them to differentiate and how? Children experience so many losses of prized possessions, how do we broach the largest loss of all, the death of a family member, friend, or pet?

My submission is that we adults cannot teach these things. Children’s minds are not equipped to grasp our adult formulations of love and death. Even many adults’ minds are not. Literature enters to resolve the issue of the teaching of philosophy, morals, ethics, social systems, inter-personal relations, epistemology, and just about everything else.

But wait, you need a library.

Both at school and at home we can and should have a library. Regrettably, most schools in India either have a good collection kept behind closed doors, or boast, as does a fancy school:

The library is equipped with a large number of teaching aids, charts, latest CDs, journals, reference books and multimedia kits which are a great source of knowledge for the students. [italics mine]

This has no mention of fiction, poetry or drama! Nor is this an oversight. The

preoccupation with testing and increasing ‘knowledge’ has made educators blank out on the pleasures and virtues of reading, and the true meaning of a library. I do want to mention the beautiful libraries of some schools, such as that of Wynberg Allen in Mussoorie, Sardar Patel in Delhi, La Martiniere and Loreto in Lucknow, and Vidyashram—the Southpoint in Varanasi

            Covid-19 took a hard toll on libraries worldwide. To justify budgets all libraries in the West have hugely increased multi-media resources. But the best of them have also turned to strategies to remind their clients of the varieties of literature and what they offer to big and small.

            As for home, start with one book. It builds up if you make a book the gift you expect and give. If you put aside the cost of a snack each month. If you make it part of the monthly allowance of your child. If you cut, paste, write and illustrate simple books with and for the smallest readers. Voila—a library!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 10, 2023

K is for Karve

            Dhondu Keshav Karve (1858-1962)and Keshav Shankar Pillai are two exemplary figures in the history of Indian education.

            Karve was a Maharashtrian who lived to a venerable 104 years and was given the title of Maharshi, apart from the Bharat Ratna. Rather than go through his many projects and activities one by one, let us tease out the meaning of his work in a larger context.

            In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were many social reformers, and the cause for women’s upliftment caught the notice of all. Maharshi Karve, much like Ranade, Gokhale, and Phule in the same part of the country, left a special mark. He started the first women’s university in India, the SNDT, or the Shrimati Nathibai Damodar Thakersay University in Bombay. Alongside, he struggled to ‘save’ the devdasis and set up orphanages for girls. Our question is: what motivated these male reformers in their fight for women’s rights, and what did they achieve? A feminist perspective might hold that men are after all the enemies in the conflict for gender equality. A reliance on the concept of ‘patriarchy’ as the crucial factor in our social system might not explain why men would seek less control of women.

            We are all shaking our heads by now to agree that things are not that simple. Many women have men as their best friends and quite a few men are known to demonstrate sympathy to the interests of women, at least until it impinges on their own. I would like to embark on a journey with you, readers, to create a more rigorous theoretical understanding of this man-woman conundrum.

            Let us make no mistake: the bias against women/girls trying to access public spaces, education, professional work, is age-old. The protest against this, in myriads of forms, is also age-old. The oppressors of women have been women as much as men. The protesters have equally been men as well as women. We know more about the oppression than about the protest. How does a woman with no formal education, no permission to step outside the home, no freedom to pursue any kind of dream for self-development or self-realisation, no rights to own money or property, or her own name or identity—how does a woman protest?

            She does have some sources of power. Research with housewives quickly reveals that cooking, housekeeping, childcare, are not fields of barren powerlessness and mundane mechanical activity, but full of the potential for exercising power—albeit, trivial-seeming power (exactly as most men have). We will go into the details  of such power under “W is for Women.” Let us just consider childcare and mothering here. A careful scrutiny of the biographies of the Indian intelligentsia shows us that the women in their families—sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and great aunts, daughters, daughters-in-law, and, not least, female servants, taught these men as evocatively as did their formal schools. From the women, the men learnt not only a different way of being and thinking (an epistemology, an ontology, a philosophy, a culture) but also a way of viewing society somewhat from the woman’s point of view. When many of these men became reformers active in the cause of women, it was the viewpoint of the women that they knew closely that had been shared by them typically subtly and indirectly, but in a way that aroused their empathy and made reformist action unavoidable.

            Thus it was with Dhondu Keshav Karve. To give this extra-feminist reading of his work is not to detract from the merit of it at all, but merely to contextualise it and help glimpse all the invisible women behind and around him.

            The achievements of Keshav Shankar Pillai (1902-1989) were different. Best known simply as Shankar, he was originally and finally a cartoonist who spared no one in power. He specially loved children, however, and started the Children’s Book Trust, Shankar’s Weekly, competitions for painting and writing for children, a Dolls’ Museum, as well as writing books for children himself.

            I feel we know too little about his life to speculate, as we did for Karve, where his inspiration came from. All this speculation (also called research) is for the better pursuit of these areas of activity ourselves.

            K is then for kites, kangaroos and exotic cities such as Kabul, Khartoum, Kandahar, Kathmandu, and places such as Korea, Kerala, and Kumaon. What is meant by ‘exotic’ is the distant and unfamiliar, but also the mysterious, the exciting, the tantalizing. A story set in one of these places is sure to set the heart beating. My example will be A Single Shard, a novel by Linda Sue Park set in 12th century Korea. Winner of the Newberry Medal for excellence in children’s literature it is a glorious story of a boy who sets out to master the potter’s craft and how the laborious pursuit of excellence works. Like the best of works, it makes the exotic no longer unfamiliar but close to us. A lovely novel for around 10 year-olds.

            Kumaon spells the Himalayas, snow-bound leopards, fierce goddesses, and mountain flora. We can’t go into its rich folklore here, or that of the other K places. But we can remind ourselves that kites are absolutely the favourite pastime for children at least in North India. How may we channel the energies that are bountifully abundant in the exercise of kite-flying into the joys of learning? The educator may wonder.

            And kangaroos remind us to carry the south-south dialogue ever further. The kangaroo may have been long domesticated as a zoo animal and a decorative motif for children in the West, but is nevertheless a real creature whose habits and persona are extraordinary and deserve study.

            Let us end with a cheer for the publishing house of Katha. Started as a children’s magazine in 1988 by Geeta Dharmarajan, Katha continues to produce brilliantly illustrated children’s books across a wide range of themes. It fulfills a task that in our vast country, deserves the service of scores of such publishers. And, it is well named. When we adults and especially educators, start telling more katha-s to children, then will the children of India and the world blossom and flourish!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 8, 2023

F is for Families

            The family is a much maligned monster. It consists typically of clashes between sexes and ages, and following on that, of interests and desires. The mother and father are frustrated because each often feels they could have done great things on their own, were they not bound down by the trivia of marital existence (the man), or by being forced into giving up career and freedom (the woman).  This impacts on the children. As the movie Hook says, with the captain inciting children to revolt against their parents, “They really hate you. You appeared and spoilt their lives, took away their freedom.”

            While this is of course satirical, there are some truths that will seem familiar to us. The role of the family is to civilise children. Originally in a state of savage innocence, children have to be moulded into end-products that can perform desired roles in a world already structured. They have to be fashioned into pillars to maintain these structures. They have to be reproduced into faithful likenesses of what adults consider valuable in their culture and ethics. Now children may have different values. When they are small they do not have the power to assert anything different to the adults, and can only create disturbances that are controlled through the magic activity, “discipline.” When they grow up, they themselves become frustrated adults, more and more vaguely aware of what they could have been, what they have missed.

            I want to argue that the family has a more positive role than this, even though it is undoubtedly a role of power and domination. A family is a small multi-purpose unit in which the most meaningful skills for survival are taught. Since a school is also such a training unit, the family and the school are exactly similar and indeed most of the time in competition with each other. An average child goes to two schools. The film Shankar’s Fairies shows precisely this. One is institutionalised, and is recognised for what it is. The other is disguised, and derives its power from its cloak of “culture.”  At her most vulnerable and impressionable, the child learns from this family-school how to interact with the world, her own body, and other people. The child builds up narratives of the self, that is, a general idea of who she is, where she is heading, and how to understand everything that impinges upon her.

            In the formal school the child learns specific skills, the better the school the better the skills.  The school distrusts the family in different ways. Working class families “neglect” the child and cannot do their share of supporting the child’s educational chores. Middle class families “spoil” the child and make it difficult for teachers to teach. The ideal family is one that co-operates fully with the school and is willing to follow in ensuring the child’s perfect disciplining by the school

            What is the solution to this peculiar tension between the school and the family?  First, the family should have a more specific role in the school apart from paying the fees and being the audience for annual events. Through parents-teachers associations and bodies run by parents themselves there should be a greater involvement by parents in understanding the situation within schools, with their wards, and in a changing world.

            Second, the image of the family should not be as that of a “backward” and “illiterate” entity, such as happens consistently with working class and village families. There should be professionalism on the part of the school: it knows the business of teaching all kinds of children. Part of the professionalism would be supportive relations with guardians that exclude both condescension and condemnation.

            Third, families should realise that they cannot have it both ways: to reproduce their preferred relations of gender and age hierarchy, and to be modern citizens in a globalising world. To be modern, adults have to give space to children. They have to resign themselves to individualism, to choice-making, and to challenges to authority. Everyone is equal in modernity, whether girl or boy, younger or older. If the family does want to teach an ethics of respect, it has to learn to do that in ways that do not subvert the more important lessons of modernity.

Fourthly and finally, the school should actively import images, language, and values from the world of home and family. I do not mean the literal replacing of “Little Miss Muffett” by a little Indian girl. To learn about distant places and times is an empowering thing. I mean to plan imaginatively how the big distance between our homes and our school campuses can be made smaller and the wall between them removed so that the child feels that indeed it is one world with different agendas and not that adults are confused and block out reality.

F is for the important art product, the Film. The funny dance “You gotta pick a pocket or two” that Fagin does in the musical “Oliver!” is more than just a funny dance. It is a mockery of the adult world that has built structures that cannot sustain themselves, reducing adults to prey upon children. The adults depend on the children’s agile bodies and minds to earn, rather than nurture them as is the children’s right. All this is explicitly portrayed by the actor Ron Moody as Fagin. Starving boys singing “Food! Glorious food!”—the musical has squeezed into it more social commentary than long speeches or essays. Because a film reaches more people in today’s visual age, it has more power than any written version.

            Indian films and other performances are recognized as great the world over. But surely there is something strange that Indian films are mostly one kind of film? Where are the films for children? Ah, you say: there is a long list of films in the archives of the Children’s Film Society of India. And there are recent ones….

            But when was the last time you saw children, your own or others, excited by a movie specifically for children, keen to watch it, to discuss it, to see it again, to own it, to talk about it? When my own children were small, I would have loved to have them watch Indian films of the calibre of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh. In the absence of any such, they watched Winnie the Pooh. Again and again and again.

            There is something greater than the family, greater even than films, and that is friends. No one has fathomed what gives friendship such a special charm, but my own shrewd guess is that it is the escape valve that we have permitted ourselves in this tight structure we have built called society. Friendship goes beyond caste, class, community, gender, and even age. It is like a magic click between people; there is no matching of horoscopes, no eternal bonds, no obligations, just a mutual pull and a commitment with no names.

            We have been hosting Food Fairs for some years now. Sometimes called “Healthy,” sometimes “Nutritious,” the story is the same: how to reach the right balance between what is good for the children, and the chips and chocolates they seem to crave. My granddaughter, with no teaching from us, asked for cakes and sweets since she was two. Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape explains that homo sapiens evolved to becoming addicted to sweets from ape ancestors who survived on the sweet fruits of the forest. One way or the other, we continue to often frown at children’s snacks, promote fruit, and hold seminars on “Arhar ki dal,” our metonym for healthy eating. Come to the next Food Seminar!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 8, 2023

G is for Globalisation

            Here is the truth. I wished to write “G is for Gandhi” and to make a persuasive case for how Gandhi is relevant for our present-day dilemmas. Knowing that some may think that case was a weak one, I watched Lage Raho Munnabhai again to see how popular culture tackled the same subject, and was left refreshed but not quite convinced. In respect to the changes taking place in our country, therefore, let us face squarely the truth that “G is for globalisation,” which, since our Father of the nation loved truth always, he would also acknowledge. We could then connect our globalisation to Gandhi—or perhaps to our global warming and our need for a green planet.

            Our educational system was already globalised two hundred years ago. This happened formally in the 1830s and 1850s, and then in an escalated way after that. Everyone need not know the names of Thomas Macaulay and Charles Wood. But they should know that between them these two officials ensured that education in India should we such as to discourage all manufacture at home, while promoting consumption of foreign goods. In the case of India ‘globalisation’ came directly from the utilitarian philosophy of the East India Company and the British Crown. This was supplemented by a cultural chauvinism that credited British and European knowledge with everything good and downgraded Indian sciences and arts.

            A new global knowledge came to be enshrined in schools once the first universities opened in the 1850s. After that there was no fighting the global in India. But Indians put a new twist in the meaning of ‘global.’ A simple example is the case of medicine. There had been medical professionals and medical science and practice in India for centuries. Now, these older professionals came to co-exist with modern doctors and medical practice that had its roots in the West. An educated doctor in India was the same as an educated doctor in England or America, except that she was more global. She knew about the vernacular practices of her own country that were totally different to western ones. She knew they were around and she herself practised them or not as she chose to. Thus, in different professions all over the country, Indians are ‘global’ in this special way.The consciousness of educated Indians for at least seven generations has been a global consciousness.

Now, globalisation can flow in one direction of power, or it can be more egalitarian and flow in two. Post-colonial India is in the position of being able to produce and market what will bring it profit, rather than what someone else decides it should produce. Thus, it can market technology service and make profit from it. Its older globalisation has created a base of liberal learning and English that can result in further, more voluntary globalisation.

            But what next? Is Indian education prepared to deal with the world as it is now emerging and the rapid and unpredictable changes that characterise it?

            Hardly. Indian education has become split into levels each with its own problems. The lowest level, of government schools in town and village, is nowhere near appropriate for a modern country, leave aside a globalising country. These schools can barely cope with treating children as human beings to be respected, and they would then have to move on to educating them with imagination in the necessary skills of the 21st century.

            Interestingly, most private schools have a similar problem: they are not victims of poverty or government control, but they are victims of an old mindset. Instead of rationally confronting their needs to produce certain kinds of citizens and developing the techniques for it, they are caught in a web of tired methods, failed ideas, and imitative practices. They are not even honest enough to admit their failure. Their products are smart and global only if they, with the help of their families, have personally worked hard for their success. The schools, left to themselves, could not produce graduates equipped with the 21st century skills of language, communication, self-confidence, flexibility, and the ability to learn constantly and lead change. Whereas schools took the lead in creating modern individuals and a democratic society in the US and Europe, in India the task is undertaken by families and private efforts.

            Then there are the elite schools of India that give it its image of success, of trained professionals, of English-speaking literati. We could be tempted to give full marks to these schools for their work in providing a global education. But there is one problem. Our colonial-global history has made the educated classes of India very comfortable with Greek philosophy, French fashion, British law, American music. But these educated classes are still not exposed, in school or college, sufficiently to Indian schools of philosophy and law, Indian traditions of design, and hundreds of Indian performance genres. We like the freedom and power that comes with the global, but fashion and films aside, we still do not want to explore the riches of the arts trampled over by European boots in case it makes us smaller than we are. We are afraid of the parochialism of nationalism.

            We were. Now a solution is being advocated that is itself small-minded, largely ignorant, and unnecessarily vengeful and aggressive: the Hindutva phenomenon.

            Gandhiji was against the hateful politics of revenge. Among his many well-worn sayings is, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

            On another note, is it possible for an educational system to produce geniuses? No, of course not. But suppose we undertook the fantastically challenging task of designing curricula that conceived of the world as an integrated, unified entity of which we were integral parts, and launched a terrifically serious campaign to have all children educated in an environmentally sensitive way?

            Then the citizens of tomorrow, that is, our children, would become truly global citizens who could save the lovely Earth from global warming and greenhouse effects. Go, Generation Alpha, Go!

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