Turning the lens on society

Sunanda Ali

‘Culture’ is a word which means so many different things; it can mean ‘values’, ‘beliefs’, ‘habits’, ‘conventions’. It can mean the bedrock on which a society is founded, the often unwritten ‘rules’ we live by, the lens through which a country sees itself, the collective will of a particular people…

In this article I would like to briefly sketch the interface between a society and the schools in it. Any school mirrors the society in which it is set, and is a reflection of the culture it is fixed in. A school is the biggest socializing influence in our world; a child is in school in India from the age of five to the age of sixteen, and spends most of her day in school. By the time the child has left school, he/she is thoroughly ‘indoctrinated’ into accepting, believing and living according to the social mores he/she is trained in. A school can carry forward the tenets of society uncritically and make sure that each generation of students believe in them, and behave according to them; it can preserve the status quo by even refusing to acknowledge or look at societal mores, or it can try to examine, or maybe, even try to change and adapt what it sees as undesirable in society.

Yoga in the morning
Yoga in the morning
A school emphasizes certain things in society by its choice of structures. A school can choose to be co-educational or a single-sex one, it can decide which of the languages it wants to teach and its medium of instruction, it can choose to target a certain section of society from which it wants to draw its students, it can decide which subjects it wants to offer, it can choose to hire certain teachers or not, it can create and adhere to a set of practices or rituals which it can treat as sacrosanct. In all these choices, and in so many other ways, small and big, a school decides the kind of culture it wants to build in its own space, and in doing so, is also responding to the larger culture around it.

The culture the school builds and tries to retain, is also a reflection of the adults who partake in the running of it; it is also a reflection of the adults who are not directly involved in the running of the school but are stakeholders (the parents), and of the students in it. Each school is also a product of the educational philosophy on which it was founded, and the curriculum (both overt and hidden) clearly shows the influence of the cultural practices the school values.

A school is not a ‘bubble’; students and teachers are affected by what is happening around. Various events around, both big and small, can be seen as ripples in school. A catchy advertising jingle, for say, a brand of jeans, will have students humming the tune and later buying the same jeans, and because certain products bring with them certain mindsets, teachers will have to deal with these when they manifest themselves.

Part of Christmas celebrations
Part of Christmas celebrations
Any school then can make a choice as to whether it wants to examine the prevailing cultural practices and beliefs of those who make up its community. Of course, this is easier said than done, as each person is a product of the society he/she lives in and the conditioning of each person is very strong. However, a school ultimately can make up its mind as to whether it is an important function of education to critically examine the culture we take so much for granted.

This would be a demanding process. The first stage will be of reflection, where teachers and students look at how they would like society to be. If they feel a sense of outrage at what they see happening in the world, they must be open to examining whether they see injustice in their own lives (their homes, schools, etc.) and the part they play in it.

Then, there will be a need for dialogue. Students and teachers will have to talk about the changes they would like to bring about in their school first, before they can even think about seeing changes outside. These dialogues can take place informally, over a meal or in the playground, or alternatively, the school can set a special time and place for it. These exchanges can only happen after the people in the school have thought about, and talked about desirable values in society. There will have to be a certain consensus on this and, as not everyone will agree on these, the people will have to respect each other’s differences of opinion.

Gaining strength from nature
Gaining strength from nature
It would be good if schools feel a need to critically examine the culture around them and feel that they can affect it, even if it is in a small way. If schools talked more about the patterns of behaviour that need to be changed like gender discrimination, the need for greater sensitivity towards the marginalized (the old, the disabled, etc), more cooperation between people of different religions, castes, creeds, beliefs, political ideologies; and talked about the need for recognition and acceptance of the humanity we have in common irrespective of our differences, the education we impart in our schools will be more relevant to our students and more holistic.

It is clear that we cannot teach lessons on ethics and morals unless we link them to our social, moral, and economic realities. In our teaching, if we see the need to turn the lens on to social practices and beliefs in our culture, our teaching will be more meaningful and will have the potential to make a difference. Building awareness of the biases which underpin our societal mores is an important exercise and as educators, we need to see this as one of our main tasks which is more important than transmitting the content of our syllabi.

We have seen that students on being convinced that something needs to be done, take the lessons to heart and also carry them home. This we have seen, as in the case of not bursting firecrackers on Diwali, for instance. It has been said that targeting students and teaching them the necessity for basic hygienic practices like hand-washing for example, will be far more effective than trying to convince adults who are much more set in their ways. Adolescents, who generally tend to be idealistic, and have a burning desire to ‘do something’ to ‘change the world’ need to be much more engaged with examining cultural practices they/we take so much for granted. This way, they would also be thinking about whether they want to change them, and hence they will be building their world (and their future) in a very real sense.

The author has been teaching for many years. She has taught English Language and Literature (and Social Studies, briefly) in various schools. She now heads The Peepal Grove School, an I.C.S.E., residential, co-educational school in Chittoor Distt, Andhra Pradesh. She can be reached at [email protected].

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