Recently, I met a student of Class X in Patna. Somehow, it was possible for us to spend a couple of days together. We walked; we moved around the villages surrounding the city; and we conversed freely. I found him immensely altruistic and cooperative. What amazed me was his love for nature. As we moved around silent and unknown villages, I found him quite vocal about his discomfort with the city — its denaturalised environment, its polluted air, its anonymity or the way even villagers are changing fast and imitating urban modes of living. Yes, this young student thinks and reflects. However, during the free-floating conversation, I could also sense that he was carrying some form of wounded consciousness. The reason is that he hates his school; he does not want to attend classes; and he doesn’t have the kind of ambition that his peers normalise as something absolute — say, doing well in board exams, joining a ‘branded’ coaching centre, preparing for NEET or IIT-JEE tests and becoming ‘successful’! No wonder he feels that nobody understands him. In fact, these days, even the people closest to him have begun to see him as a ‘failure’.
My interaction with him has led me to reflect once again on the way schools manufacture and legitimise the narratives of ‘failure’. In his path-breaking book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich sought to remind us of the discontents of the ‘schooled’ consciousness. As schools in modern times become overwhelmingly powerful, begin to define what is ‘worth knowing’ through select textbooks or the official curriculum and acquire extraordinary importance in measuring or certifying one’s merit and intelligence, it will become exceedingly difficult for my new friend in Patna to escape the gaze that objectifies him, suspects him or castigates him as a ‘problematic’ child. He, it seems, doesn’t fit well into the cage of academic bureaucracy. He may be altruistic, but schools want him to be hyper-competitive. He knows about land, crops and agriculture, but schools want him to attend classes regularly and learn about coordinate geometry and trigonometry. A walk through paddy fields in a silent village is poetry to him, but schools want him to master the rules of English grammar. He can repair a motorcycle without being excessively panicky about it, but schools want him to sit obediently in the class and digest the monologue of his physics teacher. In other words, his school alienates him; it has no resemblance with his life-world. It hardly bothers to know the worth of his experiential learning. No wonder he has begun to fear schools — the way one fears the prison.
However, my new friend is not an exception. There are many children like him who hate schools. And yes, as their voices are seldom heard, they lose interest
in formal/institutionalised education. It is an inevitable consequence of a system of education that is one-dimensional, denies multiple ways of learning and relating to the world, and is far removed from the vibrancy of life. Even though in a ‘success-obsessed’ society, we seldom bother to enquire into the process of manufacturing the narratives of ‘failure’, a sensitive and radical educationist like John Holt wanted to awaken us through his insightful book How Children Fail. They fail because, to quote Holt: ‘they are afraid, bored and confused’. Yes, they are afraid of displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose “limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud”. They are bored because “the things they are given and told to do in school are so trivial, so dull and make such limited demands on the wide spectrum of their intelligence, capabilities and talents”. Moreover, they are confused because “most of the torrent of words that pours over them in school makes little or no sense”.
However, it is not easy to find empathic and sensitive educators like Holt. Instead, most of us like to valorise ‘success’ and condemn or stigmatise those who are not ‘intelligent’ enough to win the race. There are moments when I, too, begin to ask the same question: Is my young friend in Patna really ‘intelligent’? Well, if we are guided by a monolithic notion of intelligence — the kind of intelligence that is measured through all sorts of standardised tests — he can hardly be regarded as ‘intelligent’. Possibly, it will be exceedingly difficult for him to solve a physics numerical or a mathematical equation like an over-tutored robotic performer. But then, as educationist/psychologist Howard Gardner has sensitised us, there are multiple types of intelligences — yes, beyond what is otherwise valued in our times — say, logical and mathematical intelligence. Yes, Gardner helps me to value and understand my young friend’s uniqueness — the sort of intelligence that distinguishes him. For instance, his ‘intrapersonal intelligence’ is pretty strong as he is capable of self-reflection and he is aware of his inner state of being. Likewise, his ‘bodily kinesthetic intelligence’ needs to be noted as he enjoys creating things with his hands. But then, our schools, it seems, are reluctant to see beyond logical-mathematical reasoning or, for that matter, linguistic and verbal intelligence.
Every child is unique. However, as the institutionalised and bureaucratic formal education moves towards standardisation and uniformity, it demoralises young minds. With the manufactured stigma of ‘failure’, their psychic depression might turn them into lonely, tormented and eventually misdirected outsiders.
Amid the glitz of ‘success’, are we ready to question the officially sanctified narratives of ‘failure’, accept the plurality of aptitudes and life choices, and thereby save these students from the process of breaking down?
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