Comment

Teachers should be democratising schools

One must agree with certain aspects of Prof. Krishna Kumar’s centrepiece in The Hindu on June 30, 2012 ( >“A messy corner of India’s modernity”), on the dilemma of the schoolteacher in denying admission to child brides but at the same time examine some of his propositions from the perspective of girls who are exercising agency to continue in the education system.

As he has stated, schools are not to be seen in isolation of existing social norms and structures whether it is a question of gender discrimination, girls and child marriage or child labour. Thus, in this instance of girls in India, social norms entrenched through daily practices, culture and tradition confine the body and mind of a girl at every stage of her life contrary to the objectives of child-centred education. Therefore there is a conflict between the aims of a girl’s socialisation at home and the principles of education that revolve around a child’s agency and freedom This has to be resolved. But the question is: whose responsibility is it to resolve this conflict? Do schools have a role to play in this regard? Do teachers have a role? And what is the role of State in this regard?

In answering this, Prof. Krishna Kumar contends that it is necessary to look more sympathetically at the predicament of schoolteachers. He states that they have not been respected as professionals and in fact face innumerable odds in carrying out their daily lives as teachers. In this context, the school principal who denied admission to the married girls in class 11 at Melur in Tamil Nadu cannot be blamed. She cannot be expected to play the role of social reformer transforming society and carry out tasks of national development. Indeed he goes further and states that the school principal “is right in indicating that she is not equipped to run a school for married women. If the government is concerned about the education of child brides, it should develop a curriculum for them and start institutions where it can be taught.”

It is in the solution that Prof. Krishna Kumar offers that one has a problem. If teachers are treated as mere cogs in the wheel, there is a need to pay attention to enhance their status in society rather than decide that they are ill-equipped to handle the enormous challenges they confront in their daily lives as professionals. Whether a teacher is conscious about his or her role or not, he or she is a part of the politics of education and must take a politically correct stand. Teachers must be sensitised and even become activists if they are to address the concerns raised by Leela Dube in her article. In this sense, they need to understand their pivotal role in democratising schools and reach out to Dalits, girls, the minorities, the disabled and all other children for whose education social norms are still in conflict with the values and objectives of education. There is a role for teacher training in informing schoolteachers about the challenges of addressing stubborn issues that come in the way of disadvantaged children and their responsibility towards them. Thus having a separate curriculum or an institution in addressing education of child brides, as suggested by Prof. Krishna Kumar, serves the purpose of reinforcing the existing attitudes that such children are to be regarded as “married women.” Children, even if they are married, do not become married women. It is so important to see them as adolescents, even if they are married and not to treat them as adults. In the Melur instance, it is the girls who exercised agency and courage to seek admission in class 11 and pursue further education. It is not known how they got this strength — whether from the larger atmosphere of contemporary India where adolescents are claiming their entitlements to education beyond class 10 quite unlike the situation two decades ago; or from the persuasion of activists and any other supporting agencies, family members that have encouraged them to study even if married and dare to dream about life outside the stereotypical role of the girl child; or their own inner strength and aspiration to study further seeing the intrinsic value of education. Their education up to class 10 may have empowered the girls to continue to study even if married. It could be a combination of all these factors and more. They combated social norms to join school on a par with their peers. They sought to be regarded not as “married women” but as girls wanting to pursue education and have the same curriculum.

Every disadvantaged child’s survival in the school system is precarious. Glib presentations showing gender parity, if based on actual facts may tell the stories of millions of battles that our girls are winning to stay in schools and complete education. These children have showed faith and trust in the education system, and perhaps more faith than the system has in itself. As in the case of the Melur girls, they have paved the way for hundreds and thousands of children whose options have been closed because they are married. In fact it is the children who showed courage and exercised agency to defy norms and the schoolteacher was not burdened in any way with either taking on the role of an activist or that of a social reformer. All she had to do was to support their admission into school as she would have done for any other child.

(Shantha Sinha is Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.)

>Krishna Kumar responds:


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