With the schools by and large seen as nodal centres for delivery of content and tukdas of knowledge, the children's own range of expression is not given due attention. Even within the academic area, reading (taking in what others have written) has more weightage than writing. Most of the work done as writing in schools is merely copying or regurgitating the text. Increasingly, the individual is seen as a consumer and the child is considered a prime target for consuming the products, as an influencing agent in the purchase of commodities, and as a future purchaser in the growing market economy.

But what happens to the content the child wants to write, to express, to communicate his thoughts and feelings, his or her responses while interacting with the society s/he is a part of from the time of birth? The child's own expression through any medium, be it writing, hand skills or art or theatre, is hardly given the space and time required. Even if the time is carved out, for these arts they are mostly driven by a need for the school to showcase the talents of the children (the school's products) for ‘Open Day' or ‘Annual Day' shows and competitions. Not many attempt to listen or read what the child has to say and share. What are his or her thoughts? What can s/he contribute and produce? When and who will make this as a norm in a child's life at school to enable the child to be a constructor of his/her own knowledge, while interacting with the environment; where expression in a variety of ways enables to make meaning of one's universe and leads to a better understanding of the world and society?

On the other hand, India is a rich repository of culture and expression fulfilling a human being's needs to communicate, to express and relate to others. Every community and region has its own means of expression in a variety of forms and these continue to play a role, though diminishing rapidly in the last few decades, within the social group. However, with culture being usurped by the government departments and the cultural czars and czarinas for display and demonstration, rather than being an intrinsic part of a community, many forms are losing their intimacy and meaningfulness and are becoming merely public performances and pageants.

A struggle

The communities who are generally poor, usually suppressed, are at the end of the tether and see their individual or community expressions as a means for making some money through the available patronage; but because of the struggles and indignity that they have been through in their daily lives, do not wish it upon their children and see schooling as a way of escape from their persistently difficult lives. Coming back to the beginning, of the role taken on by schools — instead of offering a basket of learning skills to empower the children and unleash their potential; schools end up using language, knowledge to belittle, humiliate and use these as ammunition for making the children and their families feel even more disempowered.

Languages, mathematics and other subjects too are not taught with a proficiency that would enable children to have a conceptual understanding; so a mechanical way of learning sets in as a pattern from the early years onwards. The skills that the children already have, even the mastery of their spoken language learnt unconsciously, effortlessly and beautifully from their families are not considered as an important base for building further academic structures; nor is their self-worth validated by giving importance to the child's home language.

Trying to understand through the cultural prism, the school as an institution as it exists today in most parts of India, instead of providing for a blooming of cultures, seems to corrode and erode while undermining and even negating the cultural self of the child and its family.

Realising the wide chasm in this area, the MHRD set up a CABE (Central Advisory Board of Education) committee with Dr. U.R. Ananthamurthy as its Chairman, with a focus on “Integration of Culture Education in the School Curriculum”. This was done in tandem with the NCF 2005 brought out by NCERT. The recommendations in the report are thought through and pragmatic, though broad as the whole country was taken into account. But being only an advisory committee it is for different departments, schools or states to make an actuality of these concerns of this national level committee.

Taking into consideration the state of the schools in this domain, how one could create the space for the arts, aesthetics, crafts and cultural expressions within the school, for the children along with their communities, needs to be explored. It could be worked through in different pockets of India, so that a cogent framework emerges along with a set of guidelines for operationalising it for the majority of the children, be they in public or private schools, rural or urban or semi-urban areas. Otherwise, instead of education being a means for empowering, enlightening, it will continue to be a weapon to make the child feel diffident; oppress the communities by disconnecting the links to one's culture, one's life by systemically limiting the means of expression to the barest minimum.

Possible objectives

One of the objectives of the cultural arts programme could be to be able to create a space within the school, within a cluster of schools, so that there is a link between the social and cultural environment and the children; so that children are in touch with a variety of cultural and aesthetic expressions, including oral traditions, craft and art work, hand skills and creativity; those available within the immediate local environment and in the wider society.

Another aim of the curriculum for the arts could be to enable the child's learning and life to be a continuous stream and not view as compartmentalised.

To perceive cultural expressions as a means for the child's self development in the process of becoming a multifaceted individual needs to be given credence.

To understand that language learning is not only for communication but for enhancing cognitive skills, that help to build problem-solving capacities, thinking skills and imagination.

To focus on the process of learning, rather than seeing expressions as only performance and demonstration of learning

To work on the pedagogy of cultural expressions, using the language syllabi as an entry point perhaps for short term processes to be set in motion

To develop a pluralistic curriculum for cultural expressions as a long term goal

To celebrate, nurture and promote cultural expressions of marginalised groups by bringing them into the folds of schooling and making it available to the next generation

Arrive at guidelines that could be applied to different systems, programmes and regions, so that age-appropriateness; ways of integration into the life of the school, linkages between community and school could be evolved

In alignment with the National Curriculum Framework, in consonance with the RtE and the urgency of bringing quality education to the majority of our children, using expression that is within the reach of a child's hand and life could be a means to actualise the aims and goals advocated

To enable the teachers and the education community to appreciate the arts and thereby encourage children to express themselves not just at annual day functions but as part of the school routine everyday.

If these aims, goals and objectives of developing a curriculum for cultural expression are worked through by a group of people representing different streams and stakeholders, an enriched curriculum for the state, for the country, including different schools, different ways of being could be arrived at soon enough; offering children many possible ways of being refined persons in touch with their world rather than being only exposed to a restricted and regimented school environment

As a child in a school asked when they were told to walk from one location to another in the compound, ‘do we walk in a line or can we walk like human beings?'

Amukta Mahapatra is Director, Schoolscape, Centre for Education, Chennai

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012