Mouthful of privilege

Avtar Singh | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 01, 2017

Divided we stand: The reality of Indian education is that it isn't doing enough to level an extremely unequal playing field   -  GN Rao

Avtar Singh   -  BUSINESS LINE

It’s time we rethink just how far off the mark we are when we deem someone well-educated

Almost exactly two years ago, the Allahabad High Court caused a bit of a stir by directing all Uttar Pradesh government officials — the term was quite broadly defined, and took in elected and judicial officers as well — to put their children in the government school system. Only then, said the court, would there be any inclination on anyone’s part to take the pitiful condition of said system seriously. An occasional wringing of the hands suffices when it’s someone else’s kids getting a crap education, obviously. But when it’s one’s own progeny lining up for a dodgy midday meal and sitting out in the open, waiting for a teacher who never comes…

Did it come to anything? Did any of the judges on that particular bench have children of school-going age?

Why don’t more people care?

Being a writer — hence odd and worthy of study — I’m often asked if there were teachers who set me on my path, as distinct from the career choices made by contemporaries. Thinking back on my carelessly smug answers all these years, one word stands out.

“I was ‘privileged’ to have many such teachers,” I’ve always said.

It isn’t a bad answer. It has that whiff of modesty that everyone likes — perhaps I didn’t deserve these people who moulded my feeble clay into the man I am today. It’s a humble brag, if you read between the lines — “Sure, they helped, I couldn’t have done it without them… But don’t I rock now?”

Mostly, when I think about it now, it is just an unreflective admission of the biggest part of my educational inheritance, which is privilege itself.

Let me say it out loud: I’m expensively educated. That I had good teachers is the very point of said education. Banks, publishers’ lists, law offices and political parties are full of people like myself, privately schooled at home and abroad. We are united by this shared experience, the way we pronounce Wednesday.

“Know thyself” is a well-known aphorism from Western antiquity. Certainly Plato had Socrates use it to good effect, and what is Socrates if not a teacher? If self-knowledge is one — if not, sadly, the main — aim of a quality education, then perhaps the question should be why, even though I shared good teachers with my contemporaries, are so many of them blandly vapid drones?

I’m oversimplifying, of course. Bankers, lawyers, politicians or agriculturists needn’t be strangers to self-examination. It’s also obvious that all writers aren’t the best at questioning themselves. Indeed, it’s not the choices the bankers et al have made that I’m objecting to. It’s the pernicious belief that permeates our entitled culture that they “deserve” their successes, inasmuch as they relate to their educational attainments. This isn’t just true of the most egregiously privileged — middle-class India loves the “self-made” trope.

Zealots of the “great Indian meritocracy” share one core belief, that “ability” will be recognised and will rise to the surface. This is what I know about ability. Like most of my contemporaries, I lucked out twice when the cosmic dice were rolled. I was born reasonably intelligent, to a family able to give me the educational tools to sharpen that edge.

I’d like for us all to consider just how many reasonably intelligent children are sitting out in the open right now, waiting for their midday meal and a teacher who never comes.

When one of them makes it to an Indian Institute of Technology, to take an instance at random, we celebrate like it’s 1999. It’s not commonplace, so it’s remarkable.

That it is not commonplace, 70 years on from Independence, should be heartbreaking.

But how many hearts does it break, really, among “people like us”? The one thing that has stayed with me from George Orwell’s ultimately irritating Down and Out in Paris and London is his repeated assertion that most people think the poor deserve to be so.

Orwell was writing about Western Europe almost a century ago, but the mindset he describes could be ours. The entitled among us — yes, this includes the middle class — have grown used to thinking that we’ve earned our privileges, which merely proves that we’re among the world’s leading magical thinkers. The mirror image of the assumption of superiority is the belief that people who don’t share our lives don’t deserve them.

That belief makes Delhi’s private schools move the courts so they don’t have to take the bare minimum of underprivileged students into their precious classes, a stipulation that was part of their original charters. It makes “reasonably intelligent” people slam affirmative action in universities for letting in dalit students with lower marks, when it should be manifestly clear that the student in question hasn’t merely contested an exam, but a system and a history that would be happy for him or her to be breaking bricks or cleaning toilets instead.

One of the foundational myths of “merit”, perpetuated mostly by caste Hindu men, is that birth doesn’t matter any more. So let’s think about that, shall we? This Teacher’s Day, when — if — you remember your mentors, imagine them with an arm around the shoulder of one not as fortunate as yourself. Now imagine what it would take for that to even happen.

If those circumstances could come to be, if that child could have access to your advantages, receive your education, networks of patronage, even something as mundane as diet, then would she turn out so different than yourself?

‘Know thyself’ is quite an ask, if you think about it.

Published on September 01, 2017
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