Updated: July 13, 2021 8:51:06 am
The conviction and sentencing of a policeman for the murder of George Floyd signifies a major success for the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. However, the question of why racism persists in America, despite a prolonged and serious effort made in the education system to address the issue, remains. The usual response among people who work in the field of education is that education never got a real chance to succeed. Their argument is based on the premise that for education to be successful in its social goals, there must be a consensus among political, economic and cultural policies. This may be asking for the moon, but there is some truth in the contention that education cannot work in isolation. If discrimination against a certain group is rife in the economic and political spheres, schools alone cannot remedy it. Thus far, the case is well-made, but a deeper look is necessary to appreciate the kind of effort that those involved in education make to mitigate prejudice and also to recognise the limitations within which they function.
Someone without any prejudice whatsoever must be a remarkable person indeed. Does such a person represent an ideal educated society? This question promises to take us to the deeper meanings of prejudice and other such mental states that look similar, but are, in fact, quite different. Being a partisan is one such candidate. Prima facie, it looks as bad to be partisan as it is to be prejudiced. Both terms suggest that they obstruct impartial treatment and come in the way of justice. However, being partisan also suggests being wedded to a cause, while retaining the awareness that there are people who are opposed to this cause. The much respected American journal, The Partisan Review, symbolised this approach. In India, Ashok Vajpayee, a former administrator and major poet, started a magazine called Poorvagraha. It was a bold title to choose as many thought that it conveyed the editor’s prejudiced view towards certain camps in Hindi literature. For Vajpayee, however, the title indicated his commitment to a wider definition of literature and its role in society. This kind of partisanship has found appreciation in many spheres of public action, including diplomacy, economic policy and education. Basically, it means taking a stand rather than holding a bias against something.
Of late, racial and religious prejudices have dominated public attention in different countries. My main point is that the term “racism” is much too general to accommodate different kinds of prejudices, and even the term prejudice or bias does not accommodate the different kinds of dislikes people may have towards certain other groups or causes. Certain Western countries, which were believed to have overcome impulses to settle historical grievances in a dramatic fashion, have recently witnessed riotous toppling of statues. From Bristol to Charlottesville to Toronto, statues of historically significant individuals have been vandalised in various degrees of expression of violent revenge. The sudden discovery that these statues marked official recognition of people who were racists by our current standards is apparently responsible for these assaults on stone and metal. The satisfaction that such acts provide is undoubtedly greater than that which corrective commentaries on plaques or in textbooks might give. However, this kind of satisfaction has diminishing returns. This is also true when it comes to changing names of old cities, towns and railway stations. On the day it is accomplished, it seems a feat of decisive governance, but then the hunger for change shifts to other things.
Like race, religion remains an important axis of prejudice in all parts of the world. Attitudes towards religious groups other than one’s own, often reflect deep prejudice internalised in childhood. The process whereby this absorption of a prejudice prevailing in society occurs is not open to analysis, partly because it happens in extremely subtle interactions between the adults and the child inside the home space. In fact, when such processes are pointed out during teacher training, students find it difficult to believe that such a thing is possible. The attempt demonstrates the popular hope that teachers can counter prejudices prevalent among the young. A considerable effort has been made to turn this hope into reality, and by all accounts, some success has been achieved, especially in the context of gender bias. Negative attitudes based on religion and caste, however, are rather different. These categories of prejudice are rooted in collective identities formed over long periods of history. These are transferred to each new generation by means of what can best be termed perceptual history. It is a simplified version of the knowledge of the past that a community holds and transmits through religious activities and different cultural media.
Teachers do not usually acknowledge the social predispositions that children acquire from the religious and cultural life around them. It is these predispositions that turn into long-term prejudices, encouraging the stereotypes that teachers are exhorted to combat. Their task would have a better chance of success if they recognised and, critically engaged with the perceptual histories the children have internalised. This is easier said than done. Any engaged pedagogic effort creates local ripples, which can turn hostile in an environment charged with polarities and sensitivities.
Schools do require some appreciative understanding from society if they are to pursue child-centred learning, wherein the learner does not just acquire a readiness to regurgitate but rather makes some personal sense of what is taught. There may not be total consensus between the goals of education and those of political and other social institutions, but a certain scope for freedom to function with intellectual acumen is necessary for dealing with entrenched prejudices.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 13, 2021 under the title ‘Lessons against prejudice’. The writer is a former director of NCERT. His latest book is Smaller Citizens
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