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What class are you in?

Educating children into a culture of equality in the face of immense inequality

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
July 23, 2009 12:27:12 am

The right to education bill was long overdue. While the quality related provisions of the bill leave much to be desired,one of its more interesting provisions is the requirement that private schools take in at least 25 per cent students from marginalised communities within the neighbourhood. Since the state will reimburse the schools based on its average spending per child,some see in this provision of the bill

elements of a voucher system. But this provision could,if implemented correctly,usher in far-reaching social changes. It will force us to confront an unspoken issue in Indian society: how we educate children into a culture of equality and reciprocity in the face of immense inequality. While there is an abstract allegiance to norms of equality and rights in a formal sense,the social mores and interpersonal norms of recognition are marked by all the disfigurements of hierarchy.

In many ways,recent social developments have contributed to the evasion rather than a resolution of this issue. One of the,perhaps unintended,by-products of the reservation discourse was this. On the one hand,it immobilised far more discomforting discussions about discrimination and the norms of social behaviour that would give minimal meaning to recognising the equal moral worth of all citizens; on the other hand,it converted what should have been a discussion about debilitating hierarchy into a political clash over identity.

Second,despite the rhetoric of inclusion,our institutional architectures were de facto creating new forms of segregation. One of the biggest worries about private education is that,despite all its promise,its capacity to segregate by class is immense; fee structures make this an inevitable outcome. Arguably,the top private schools are now even more upper class than old “convent” schools. Within the state structure itself,the state was able to give access but not dismantle social hierarchies. One of the most shocking pieces of research suggests that Dalit children were more likely to be subject to corporal punishment at the hands of government school teachers. One of the reasons for preferring private schools by the poor is the perception that low-end private schools,whatever their quality,are less likely to be degrading experiences for children. And many government institutions have also encouraged a form of segregation. There are other interesting patterns. A few years ago,it was possible for children to “mix” across social classes,at least in play; the streets and parks,forms of play,were at least temporarily open spaces for kids. Those spaces exist even less. To be sure,that form of mixing was still marked by a sense of hierarchy and power,but in an odd sense privileged kids a few years ago were more likely to have a sense of children with deprivation than they do now.

There is also a subtle transformation happening in caste relations that is positive,but still one that poses

interesting challenges for social relations. The sense of empowerment and dignity amongst Dalits has been growing. There are interesting measures of this. In many cities,the marginalised,even those in a relationship of servitude,assert a sense of dignity in one crucial respect: by their refusal to clean toilets,at almost any price. In some ways this is an astonishingly encouraging phenomenon. To invert Gandhi,the revolution is not how many upper castes clean their toilets; the revolution is measured by how many lower castes have the option of refusing to clean other people’s toilets. This change is not as widespread as one would wish,but it is clear and palpable. But it is precisely this moment of rightful reclaiming of dignity that also makes the question of social relationships across caste and class divides tricky. The worry about being slighted,even unintentionally; and on the other side an uncertainty about how to handle this new social state leads to a kind of safe harbour of isolation. On college campuses certainly,there is a subtle dynamic that often makes de facto ghettoisation a psychologically more comfortable zone than the labour of creating norms of reciprocity. These changing dynamics complicate the still powerful markers of social hierarchy; the master-servant relationship,although transformed in some ways,experientially inscribes hierarchy more than any abstract teaching of equality can counter.

How much social mixing the legislation will produce is an open question. But implemented properly,it could force parents and children to confront the dynamics of hierarchy and exclusion in a way in which they have not had to. Even the most privileged schools will have to ask: what does the pedagogy of inclusion truly entail? Our entrenched hierarchies or embarrassed avoidance of this question will now have to be squarely challenged in our schools. But we would be living in a fool’s paradise if we think negotiating this issue will be easy. At the most mundane level,schools will have to cope with

students with vastly different economic and family backgrounds; even supposedly enlightened universities have not found it easy.

Second,a lot of research suggests the disquieting possibility that students from marginalised groups under certain conditions do less well in the presence of upper caste kids. Their sense of self-esteem can be adversely affected by this social experience. And for the privileged it can,sometimes in subtle ways,provide more ground for expressing their prejudice. And it is fair to say that very few of our teachers are trained to handle complicated social dynamics; if government schools are any guide,they are perpetrators of exclusion. None of these challenges constitutes an excuse not to implement this significant step towards a common school system. On the contrary,it reinforces the idea that we need measures to reverse the trends that re-inscribe social hierarchies.

Arguably,the process of assimilation in common spaces would be made easier if the relevant criteria of inclusion were not exclusively caste. The objective should be to remove deprivations based on caste,but using the instrumentality of caste itself to address that deprivation often reinstates the very identities we are trying to dissolve. Doubtless,this is a complicated issue. But make no mistake about it: teachers,parents,administrators and students will now be truly tested in how they shape their own sense of self in relation to others. It is one thing to not discriminate,to support social the uplift of the marginalised and engage in the rhetoric of equality. It will be quite another challenge to make the school a site where all kinds of children can feel equally at home,and the promise of common citizenship be redeemed.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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