Chhattisgarh’s government schools have been directed to install a large mirror and keep nail clippers and a comb handy, so that students can check for themselves how tidy they are. Self-image is indeed important for young people preparing to go out into the world, and putting their grooming into their own hands also teaches responsibility towards oneself. But along with this very welcome self-image, three images which have nothing to do with learning will also be enshrined in school premises — portraits of the president, prime minister and chief minister — ostensibly because students are asked questions about these political luminaries. Logically and fruitfully, they could be replaced by images of Thiruvalluvar, Sugarloaf Mountain and a wombat, since students are also tested for their knowledge of literature, geography and the life sciences.
Back in the 20th century, there was a credible reason for letting the pantheon of the freedom struggle beam down upon students, who were presumed to be preparing to join the project of nation-building. However, in a mature democracy, politics and the people who drive it should be kept out of the schoolroom. Now, pedagogy should be conducted in a culture of openness and enquiry, in which children are encouraged to explore possibilities, instead of restricting them to the narrow tunnel of politically mandated projects. No credible reason remains to overawe students with images of the ruling deities of the political firmament.
The world of knowledge has enough heroes of its own. Are school students familiar with the faces of K.G. Subramanyan, M.N. Srinivas and Meghnad Saha? They should be. Images of pathbreakers like Marie Curie, Johannes Kepler and Rene Descartes grace the labs and libraries of European schools. Indian schools neglect to teach students very much about the Indian stars of the firmament of knowledge, such as Aryabhatta, Varahamihira, Sushruta and Kalidasa. By all means, let us have pictures of them put up in schools all over India, and not only in Chhattisgarh. Of the trinity that will preside over the state’s schools, only the president stands apart. On Teachers’ Day last year, he taught an excellent class on political and constitutional history in a school on the President’s Estate in Delhi. But then, his picture will have to be replaced when he demits office in a couple of months, so even that doesn’t count.