B is for Books
If we are worried about education, we need to worry about books. One difficulty that is already age-old is that ‘books’ become equated with ‘textbooks.’ Time and time again you can go to a bookstore or exhibition and have the shock of discovery that books for us mean mostly prescribed textbooks, textbooks struggling for acceptance, reference books, and guides and keys written to make school learning easier. Many bookstores simply do not have books for children at all except for the same old best sellers and familiar classics. As for school libraries, good ones exist only in the topmost elite schools. In other good schools, there are a few shelves of Encyclopedic literature and General Knowledge kinds of books. In the less than good schools, there are no libraries.
What kinds of books dare one dream of? Specifically, fiction. Books that tell stories, that have plots, characters, conflicts and outcomes that set the mind free to wander in other worlds. These books could be science fiction thrillers, fantasy stories, mystery and adventure tales, social narratives, school stories, fairy tales or picture books. The greatness of fiction (both prose and poetry) lies in the quality of life it creates. Like skies and breezes, friends and love, it gives us intangible value in our lives that makes us smarter, better, more capable people. Those who think only instrumentally, imagining that focusing on a course of study will enable you to master it, do not realise that the instrumental often exists in disguise. A good engineer is one who reads only engineering books. A brilliant engineer is one who loves fantasy tales as well.
In India we had a renaissance in literature in the nineteenth century and most Indian languages witnessed a spurt in creativity especially in prose stories and novels. In English it came about less smoothly, and later. But in all cases, there has been an imbalance, greater than in other countries, with the writing for adults outbalancing the writing for children. As a result, children have today either very little to read for pleasure, or imported popular books in English, often not those rated the best in the anglophile world. As a result of this, children in India for several generations now have been growing up in a situation of ‘booklessness’ with reduced imaginations and sensitivity to their worlds. In turn they become less creative about their worlds—they cannot quite process them and articulate them. In this regard we have to be unabashedly nationalistic. Without suggesting competition or conflict with any other nation’s literature, we have to insist that the children of our country deserve to read, indeed to be immersed in, stories about their family lives, seasons, peoples, and encounters, and not only those of other places.
The more powerful argument to make is that this nationalism is not in an abstract pursuit of the lost glory and splendour of our country. It is important because we want to be counted among the developed world. Development means certain facilities, including roads, bridges, airports, smart cities, schools, libraries, publishers and citizens who are aware of their country and the world. Modernity, which we are certain that we hanker for, means to give respect to the individual, to allow her to dream and to strive to fulfil that dream. Democracy means not only that every citizen should have sufficient to eat, but that every citizen should have sufficient mental food. This mental food does not come from the internet.
India’s children need books. The intelligentsia of the country, all those professionally concerned with education and reading and writing and the many professions of engineering, medicine, law, management, as well as business, must at least acknowledge the value of children’s books. They must engage in debate and discussion about them in public forums such as the newspapers, and be the advocates of further writing, publishing, marketing, purchasing, and circulating books for children. India’s publishers need to realise that books are not equitable with textbooks. India’s potential writers need to feel the urge to write the thousands of stories waiting to be told. Illustrators need to know that the scope for them is unlimited. India’s government agencies need to recognise, subsidise and reward India’s writers and illustrators as essentially contributing towards development, modernity, and democracy. Kudos to the publishers, authors and illustrators who have made a beginning!
Equally, parents need to know that they are caught in a pre-modern mentality that assumes that for success in exams the child needs to be glued to the school books. We are all for success in exams, but this success is also at least a function of wide-ranging reading and the knowledge and confidence that generates. There are no shortcuts to this, such as through the internet.
This ‘B for Books’ is so overwhelming in its importance that I have hardly the space left to speak about Bags, that less-than-carefully thought-out aspect of our educational system that ensures that children and their parents feel important carrying oversize, overweight bags to and from schools. It is one of those products of poor management and poor leadership that abound in our public life. All are ready to complain of it and none to take action regarding it. The few schools that intelligently dispense with the apparatus of the overweighted bag, are treated as alternative schools. Meanwhile, a full, weighty bag has become the synecdoche for a full, weighty education.
Basic Shiksha, or Basic Education is the system of mass public schooling in many parts of India. It is heartbreaking in its failure. The Blame for the failure is totally cyclical: the parents blaming the government, the government blaming the teachers, and the teachers blaming the parents. The solution does not lie in simply more teachers or more training. It lies in the will to success. Then the administrators would make schools work as happens in any sphere of work. And teachers would be taught or forced to not behave as if the cliental of Basic Schools was predetermined as inferior and doomed to failure.
Our last word should be reserved for Banaras, Bengal, and Bangalore. The three regions mark three different phases in India’s educational history. Banaras was for centuries a centre of learning which every student and scholar felt it important to visit. It was a place of schools, colleges, experts, writers, researchers, libraries and archives, to say nothing of public spaces for oratory and debate. With the entrenchment of the colonial system came colonial education, now known as our modern education. Bengal became the centre of this, accompanied by the above-mentioned Ranaissance. Every city in Northern India had Bengali teachers and professionals. In the educational field everyone followed Bengal’s example (soon matched by that of Bombay and Madras), such as in the setting up of universities, the thrust for reform in girls’ education, and the learning of English.
Bangalore is a beacon light of the late 20th and 21st century information technology wave in India. The city is already advanced in its numbers of innovative and progressive schools. But it could be a model for educational change in another way as well. If Bangalore can do certain things for the technology industry, obviously those of us concerned about education and children could do similar things in the sphere of education. Clearly, Indians are as ‘smart’ as they choose to be, and there is no reason why this should be reflected only in the IT and not the educational industry. And we should acknowledge an inherent limitation: we cannot hope for a ‘smartness’ proportionate to our numbers if we do not attack the rottenness at the core of our national education. Bangalore, or we should say, the Bangalore Syndrome, teaches us that radical change is possible in education—it simply has to go beyond politics. Hats off to Azim Premji Foundation and University, both in Bangalore, and may they be replicated by the scores elsewhere.