Editorial: Education to Connect, Not Alienate

Make space for the traditional in modern education

The generation that grew up in the seventies and eighties, even the sixties, went through an education of alienation from their roots. The generation before them received Western education, but also had a strong sense of purpose in desiring to use their learning and education to help in the nation-building process, or, for the generation of the twenties and thirties, securing a free nation for themselves and a future worth looking forward to. By the time the seventies rolled out, although a nation had been acquired, the idealism of nation-building had been jaded by the business of surviving and nepotism. With nothing left to reconnect them to their roots, this generation was deeply indoctrinated by modern education. They learned the subjects well, but lost the perspective and worse still, because they grew up at school, as against also learning at home like the previous generations, they lost cultural nuances and even developed a bias against everything “desi”. The generations that have come since have tried to reclaim their roots, but the challenge is stiff because we have lost an entire generation to disinterest. The communication gap is now being bridged with shallow nationalism and palpably aggressive identity politics. We see this in varying degrees all over the world, across India and among the various communities which call Sikkim home or have made the neighbouring regions home. But it need not be so. A slight tweaking of how and what we teach in schools could undo the damage wrecked by the superficiality. Cultural heritage and traditional knowledge and values are best imbibed in the formative years when the pursuit of knowledge becomes instinctive. And yet, the moment a toddler steps into school, we begin the process of getting them to unlearn everything they have inherited at home and replace it with alphabets, words and numbers which they are made to learn by rote. It is ironic that where monolingual societies are trying to get their young conversant in at least two languages because of its obvious benefits, we, with children who grow up in homes where at least two languages are spoken and can pick up a third at school, begin classes by penalizing multilingual skills! And from there begins the subconscious alienation from their selfs. With their language somehow made to appear inferior, because speaking in it attracts punishment and fines, the children subconsciously begin believing everything local/ rural/ unlettered as somehow being unworthy. This is not a debate over whether local cultures are superior or whether western models are better. What this is setting out to argue is that sidelining of local references and traditional knowledge base is ill-informed and dangerous because it has been grooming generations which don’t fit well anywhere – neither at home nor in the global ranks. As the cliché goes, strengthen their roots, and they will weather through life well. As mentioned earlier, since early childhood education draws most of its influences from Western education and curriculum, it alienates children from their own culture and traditions. The morals, values and life-lessons that the story-reading sessions in schools seek to deliver definitely has many examples in the local languages and cultures. If these were included into the curriculum, children would grow up with a more confident idea of self and less suspicious of outside influences because they will have reference points from their own homes and cultures to distil and explain the world. A good place to begin will be to set aside one section at least every week where local elders are invited to narrate local folktales to children and also explain proverbs from local languages. This will make the elders feel required, make the young appreciate the depth of their cultural heritage, and will also be fun. Over time, these could be worked into the formal curriculum and expanded to cover stories of local places of interest, practices and rituals. One could also consider reworking the school timings so that the students can participate in local economies and practices more meaningfully. The current timings are too strict to allow for this. The school in a village dependent on dairy farming could adjust timings to allow children to help with livestock chores, and elsewhere, timetables could be adjusted to allow for kids to help at paddy fields or with cardamom harvests… and the options could go on. Connect them so and the children will receive an education which connects them better to their roots. Don’t do it, and education continues alienating. Formal education has its benefits and one of its strongest aspects is its adaptability. Unfortunately, in the hands of uninspired school managements, this fluidity of learning is compromised, even sacrificed. Where classrooms should celebrate learning, they end up force-feeding lessons. Where local communities should be invited to participate in how their children are taught and educated, they are made passive recipients of a centrally dictated, Department driven model of education.