Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why my daughter doesn't deserve school

It's a provocative title isn't that one? It'll probably set the alarm bells ringing among proponents of the right to education. I guess it may have incensed feminists as well. Some of you may call me a crazy parent. I'm quite happy to take all of the criticism as long as you have the patience to read to the end of this article. Before I put you through that misery though, let me share my basic premise. Education and school are two distinct and often non-overlapping concepts. I personally believe that the institution of school is counterproductive to the journey of education and to the irreplaceable experience that is childhood. I want my daughter to grow up as a beautiful human being. I want her to enjoy her childhood, to embrace the confusion of teenage and to follow her passion. I'd like her to learn deeply and question status quo as she grows up. School is unlikely to give me any of that. And by the way, when I say "school" I mean school as we've always known it. I'm happy to accept newer definitions for that institution. Yes, you may disagree with me. If you do, I'd love to learn from you. If you thought my article promotes illiteracy or misogyny though, my disclaimer may just prompt you to read further.

What is education?

An interesting question to ask ourselves as parents would be, "If governments across the world banned certificates, diplomas and degrees then what would we consider as education?" I find it interesting that Wikipedia describes education this way:
"Education in its general sense is a form of learning in which the knowledge, skills, and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training, or research. Education frequently takes place under the guidance of others, but may also be autodidactic (self-driven). Any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts may be considered educational."- Wikipedia
Wow! Does it surprise us that no part of that definition has school or university in it? To me education has two very simplistic sets of goals:
  1. Utilitarian: the acquisition of skills so that children can grow up and make a living
  2. Societal: the addition of great human beings to society so they make the right decisions. This is even more important in our day and age as the impact of small actions at an individual level has far reaching consequences.
So how does school do on each of these goals? Let's see.

Imparting skills - how does school fare?


If you were remotely interested in this post, I take it that you've seen Ken Robinson's brilliant talk about how schools kill creativity. If not, do watch it. The talk from 2005 was path breaking in that it brought into public cognisance what we'd always said about education. Sir Robinson, in the space of 20 witty minutes tore the education system into shreds. He called out the absurd hierarchy of subjects, the process of academic inflation, and the need for multi-disciplinary thinking. He illustrated through examples how the system stigmatised bright people, simply because they didn't conform to the mould of school. Ken Robinson was neither the first nor the last to speak about this loss of creative potential but the talk did open up a proverbial Pandora's box.

Now, you'd imagine that if school is getting rid of "the creative types" and if you had the illusion that some children aren't creative, then well - school should do well with the remaining folks. Nothing is further from the truth. Let's look at millions of India's engineers and quiz them about the application of Boyle's law in real life. You'll find that several struggle to even recollect what Boyle's law is. Take the topic to organic chemistry or calculus which some of us spent four to six years of our lives studying. The lack of intuitive understanding for these topics is striking. As people how Gandhi's declaration of Swaraj relates to independent India and I doubt you'd receive much more than blank stares. The fact is that the factory of school is meant to do one thing - maximise pass percentages. The "good schools" pride themselves on creating "toppers" - children who can get great grades in exams. Frankly this is a worldwide plague. And yes, I know Finland has a great education system but it'd be foolish to compare a country of 5.4 million people with little or no diversity amongst them to a country of over a billion that speaks 800+ languages.

When one designs a school system to maximise grades then true learning falls by the wayside and the pressure for success in exams take over. Don't waste your time with lenses - the syllabus for the exam is just about mirrors. Stop reading that blogpost about environmental justice, it's time for you to focus on math. Why do you want to learn about germination now? It isn't part of the exam papers until next year! Why are you interested in learning about communist dictatorship when the teacher's asked us to study Tughlaq? Unfortunately we don't really learn in that fragmented fashion. We learn through a deep immersive passion for things. We learn through joy, amazement and wonder. Despite their best intentions, teachers with 30-50 pupils each in dark, prison like rooms, operated through a sequence of bells, are only able to focus on maximising exam scores. Guess what children learn from this factory like environment? They learn how to obediently follow narrowly focussed orders. Passing exams with good grades is only a head fake for this hidden curriculum.
“If you sit kids down, hour after hour doing low-grade clerical work, don't be surprised if they start to fidget." - Sir Ken Robinson
In addition, schools and teachers have gotten increasingly protective of the institution as the world has moved on. Back in the day, the notion of school may have made sense given knowledge was scarce and one had to "go to school" to learn from a teacher. Today, with the advent of IT, knowledge and means of skills acquisition are everywhere and yet, most teachers haven't woken up to the world and its possibilities. I don't think technology is a panacea for learning, but it surely does change the notion of what an educational institution is meant for.

And by the way, what are the eventual results like? Across India and the US, high school completion rates are often less than 50%. School has done nothing to bring generations out of poverty. In fact, industrialisation and modern schools have only created a bigger divide between the rich and the poor. A million engineers each year are unemployed in India. China has a rising number of unemployed graduates despite being one of the largest economies out there. And the US has half of its college graduates working in jobs that don't need a college degree- over 50% of graduates under 25 were without a job. One in three American graduates believes that the education system didn't prepare her well for real life! So much for the glorious promise of jobs that follow 16 years of formal education. One may point out the odd success story and the story of how their child became a fantastic professional because of school. I argue that the statistics reveal this to be the exception and not the rule. Most children that "succeed", do so despite school, not because of it. Things are just-not-working.

School and the History of Injustice


"Once he is educated, he will leave this mountain and learn this lifestyle. He will sell our land to the company. At these schools, they don't teach how to live with nature, they teach how to live by exploitation." - Tribal Sikuka Sani on why he doesn't want his son in school
To understand the social impact of school, we need to understand its origins. Now I don't want to deny that we had some form of schooling even in ancient and medieval times in the form of gurukulas and universities like Nalanda. There is a stark difference however, between the very principles of modern schools and these institutions. We can probably touch upon that in a separate post. The modern, western school is by design an instrument of injustice. The reason for that particularly in the Global South countries, is the inextricable link between school and colonialism. The European colonialists followed a very repeatable pattern. They invaded native lands and killed people indiscriminately. They took over the land and resources to exploit for their own benefit. Following this, the missionaries arrived to tell natives that they were heathens or pagans and that they needed to embrace a new god. Alongside, the colonialists set up schools to train entire generations of natives in lessons of obedience and to destroy their native way of life. The idea was to create a people that would be so conforming to the white way of life that they wouldn't see the white man as foreign. No wonder the inaugural address of the Carlisle Indian School said, "Let all that's Indian within you die".
    The story has repeated itself across the world. In India Lord Macaulay sought to create Macaulay's children, "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect". In the Philippines, after a civilian massacre by the American forces, school teachers moved in swiftly to civilise the survivors. In Africa, the Europeans applied more brutal means through slavery and eventual Bantu schooling to serve the needs of the elite. Across the countries of the global south, the agenda of education has been quite similar. I'd like to believe that some people were acting in good faith. They believed it was necessary to civilise these brown and black people. The white man's burden was to educate indigenous people in their self proclaimed superior ways.

“You do it my way, by my standards, at the speed I mandate, and in so doing achieve a level of output I ordain, and I’ll pay you handsomely for it, beyond anything you might have imagined. All you have to do is take orders and give up your way of doing the job for mine.” - Fredrick Winslow Taylor
At the very same time 250 years ago, the Industrial Revolution was changing the world in a way that 500,000 years of human existence had never imagined. Machines had made means of production incredibly sophisticated and yet, the pace of production growth was limited by a major bottleneck. The effectiveness of the machines was almost undermined by skilled craftsmen who wanted to do a job well over doing it quickly. Their skills and deep thinking for their craft were no longer applicable. Post the industrial revolution, we needed people who followed orders. Obedience, not skill was the primary characteristic for employment. And so the workers sacrificed their creativity and skill for obedience, thereby making a deal with the devil. This has led to the system of schools that is modelled after factories. Back in the day workers sat on benches, in neat rows. That's what schools look like today. They operated in schedules dictated by a ringing bell. That's how schools operate today. They obeyed narrow orders without context. That led to the way we learn in fragments and follow teachers' orders today.

You could choose not to believe me but there's significant literature out there to articulate how school was an institution established to benefit few at the cost of many. In that, the system of school that we follow promotes the same injustice that it sought to create in the times of its inception.

So what does school teach after all?


With all this said, it's important to ask ourselves what children actually learn at school and I've come to the realisation that school is not just ineffective for young citizens of the global south - it's highly dangerous. Let me enumerate to you what children actually learn at school. And while this list isn't comprehensive, let me share with you ten deadly aspects of the hidden curriculum of school.
  1. West is Best: School teaches our children that the western model of life, is the paragon of humankind's potential. So our children grow up idolising Western cities - they've been sold on the idea of the west being so awesome, that they want to live there and work there. The accept everything that is western as superior, despite the fact that the west has serious problems with inequality, ecological balance, employment, women's rights, racism and other social issues. We look at our ways and our lives through the evaluative lens of the west. Whatever the west denounces, we denounce. Whatever the west approves we approve. No wonder every great city in India is losing its character in its quest to look like a Western equivalent.
  2. English rules the world: In Indian schools, children receive punishment if they speak in their regional languages - even on the playground. They're taught that English is a ticket to the high life. That no one will respect them if they speak their local language. As a consequence, parents too speak to their child in English if they can. This leads to a huge loss of culture through the loss of languages. India has lost 220 languages in the last 50 years - partly due to this mindless promotion of English over its true value as a link language. Language isn't just words and grammar - it holds the key to culture. Tribals in New Guinea and the Western Ghats can identify dozens species of birds by their songs; traditional healers can identify thousands of medicinal plants and how they affect the human body; the Andamanese tribes have the knowledge of how to sense natural disasters like the tsunamis. Every language we lose, eventually leads to the loss of rich culture associated with it.
  3. Your family's ways are backward and primitive: As children learn about the western world and its ways, they start to look at their indigenous ways as backward and primitive. Already, people look down on Ayurveda and glorify allopathy. They consider western dairy farming to be superior to our far diverse approaches. They think of mechanised industrial farming as a way to create better yields though traditional organic farming is far more sustainable. Children don't want to use local materials for their home any more because they're messy and awkward. Bio fuel from dung is despised because despite it's sustainability, it feels primitive. At the level of elders, this creates great inferiority as they start to believe that they know nothing and that school is a panacea for their children to experience happiness in life.
  4. Academic failure = failure in life: As Manish Jain of Shikshantar says, "One of the things that is most disturbing to me, at a level of justice and morality, is that you have an institution in place globally that is branding millions and millions of innocent people as failures." Is failure to succeed in school really the only indicator of a human being's potential? Haven't we learned from the likes of Beethoven, Tagore, Lincoln, Akbar, Edison, Einstein, Eminem, Jackie Chan, Sachin Tendulkar and several others that non-conformance to the institution of school is no measure of a human being's potential? And yet, every year we have millions of children who will not jump through the hoops of school and hence identify themselves as an "8th class fail" or something like that. How can any of us who think of social justice accept such an institution that is binary enough to say that those who conform to it are successes and those that don't are failures?
  5. Conform and get rewards: A corollary to the above learning what children learn about conformance. Those that obey the teacher's orders are those that get rewarded. Those that jump through the hoops of exams are the ones that come out on top. The learning of conformance comes from the act of wearing similar uniforms, mingling only with people who are in your age group. If you have an interest that isn't part of the syllabus, you'll most probably get no encouragement. On the other hand if you finish your borderline clerical homework the way your teacher wants, you'll receive a pat on the back. Conform to rules, conform to the bell, conform to the time table. If you play for longer than the time table allows (so what if you're a child), be ready to stand on the bench or kneel down or sit outside class and be the subject of ridicule. Worse, get caned. 
  6. Initiative is over-rated; wait for orders: Amongst the most dangerous things that school does to children is take away the boisterous enthusiasm of childhood. Someone lays out your day in a time-table. Someone decides what you study and when you study it. Someone decides who you can play with. Someone decides when you can play. If you try to do anything different, god save you. Guess what we get at the end of 16 years of such indoctrination? We get a society that takes no initiative and is ok with everything that happens around them. Let's not blame India's middle class for being apathetic to every social issue. School taught them to be that way.
  7. Be fiercely competitive: Don't get me wrong - I have no problem with competition. Certain spheres need competition - sports is an immediate one that comes to mind. Competitiveness becomes a problem when it becomes a way of life. Teachers and parents are obsessed with getting children to score the highest grades possible. Take a look at this commercial to visualise the pressures children face today. It's no surprise that children respond to these pressures by being fiercely competitive. Winning is everything - irrespective of the cost. So what if cheating is necessary to maximise your grades? Should you cram instead of learning? Why not? Especially if that boosts your scores. A central focus on competition makes for very bad decisions. Add to that the fact that schools usually are more obsessed to fill classrooms than to create great learning environments. Play spaces are small and pitiful. Hundreds of children compete for one basketball court. Guess who gets the court? The big, strong bullies? What learning does that reinforce in children? 
  8. The Triple Bind: I admittedly stole this from Stephen Hinshaw but this is primarily for the girls. I obviously care for my little girl and the advent of western education has created a new set of pressures for our girls as they hit teenage. We still want girls to be caring and nurturing. If we don't raise them this way, society looks at them awkwardly regardless of which part of the world they grow in. However the western focus of school and it's glorification of western media brings with it the pressures of looking a certain way. Girls also face this new pressure to "beat the boys" and be number one. So by the time our girls reach teenage, they have to help their moms at home, be involved deeply with the family, look drop dead gorgeous, be athletic, get super grades all while also being a size two. No wonder Hinshaw says, "One girl in four by the age of 19 will have developed serious depression, suicidal behavior, binge eating, cutting - etcetera." I believe Indian society isn't there yet, but we'll quite likely be there in another decade by the time my daughter is about to hit her teens.
  9. Massive consumption represents success: We've embraced the western economic model as our own and at the heart of the western model is the story of stuff - consumption. School by design glorifies everything including the western economy, globalisation, free markets, et all. Children, over years of education learn to value material objects deeply. Who has the latest iPad? Whose dad has the biggest car? Who has the coolest bungalow? They look down on others who may not have as much. Being mindless consumers means that you don't relate how many lives go in vain for that diamond ring or how much blood stains the coaltan in your phone or how many people were displaced for the aluminium on your motorbike. This creates a set of people that have a very different relationship to the planet than what we need in the next few decades. Nature is not an externality to the way we live our lives. All our wealth eventually comes from scarce natural resources. The forces of this world have enough firepower to destroy the planet a few times over. Our only hope is our next generation - one that questions mindless consumption.
  10. Working with your hands is stupid: The biggest bit of social injustice is what I save for the end. I work in a fancy IT company. I sit at a computer for most of the day and hardly move around. I actually have to run long distances each day to burn off the calories I eat. Society gives me a very high place - much higher than the farmer that feeds the nation. Wait - isn't that absurd? A person who slogs away to create food for the nation is lower in social hierarchy to a person that creates virtual 'stuff' in an air-conditioned office? The way we've architected our society reflects itself in how we teach at school. Children learn that working with your hands is for the lowest strata of society. They see no dignity in manual labour. The repurcussions of this are far reaching. The lack of interest in agriculture, the loss of indigenous professions, health, respect for people in society - the list could go on.
And hey, I haven't even bothered to brainstorm any further than this list. I'm sure if we thought this through, there'd be several other problems we'd be able to articulate with school's performance on social goals. In effect it's easy to see why the world isn't getting any better despite about 300 years of modern schooling.

What's the alternative then?

My daughter is just five and half months old so I have a lot of time to think this through. I realise though, that I'd be very unhappy if my daughter ended up having to suffer a factory school. Do I have a clear alternative in mind? Frankly, no! I know that my family may have preferred factory school because of the 'formula' it provided. They did the best they could for me. Today, I realise that the formula isn't working and really, education is a dynamic activity which we can't boil down to the simplistic progression structure of school. I'm exploring several different options, including alternative schools like those from the Krishnamurti Foundation or the Steiner Schools. I do have a few things in mind that I want my daughter to get out of her education - and I'm particular about these to the extent that I'm more than happy to homeschool her if necessary.
  1. Enjoy her childhood and grow organically
  2. Develop a respect for nature
  3. Experience the dignity of labour
  4. Build respect for tradition and indigenous livelihoods; learn extensively from them
  5. Gain mastery over all our family languages - Hindi, Bengali and Marathi
  6. Pursue knowledge for its own sake - not for curriculum
  7. Discover the ability to follow her passion without fear
  8. Question the status quo of the current world
  9. Learn to work with others, not against them
  10. Apply her learning in real life through inter-disciplinary challenges
And this journey isn't going to be straightforward. I expect to face new challenges every day. That's why I'd like to go along and learn on this journey with my daughter. This is not a well charted route - I don't know how to begin or how this will end up, but isn't that what parenting is all about? Isn't it far better to look at every day as an adventure than to give up your lives to the predictability of an institution? I surely would prefer the former.

Over the last few years I've grown more passionate about education than corporate learning and development and about social and economic justice more than just the business of IT. So pardon me if the bent of my posts seems very different from what I've posted earlier - maybe even contrary. I don't expect to keep the pace of posts I once had on this site but I do intend to post more about the issues that interest me right now. I hope you stay with me on this part of the journey as well and please feel free to tell me what you thought of this post.
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