‘Where the child is without fear’

Brendan MacCarthaigh

The famous Rev Jesse Jackson, formerly a candidate for the presidency of the USA, was in Kolkata a few months ago, giving lectures on education. He was the main presenter among three other educationists who spoke about this field in India, but truth to tell, they were more interesting – I hesitate over the word ‘entertaining’ – because his American accent did not make it easy to follow all he said. Besides that, his mentors, whoever they were, clearly did not help him do his homework. He climaxed his presentation by asking the audience to repeat after him, “Every child should have a laptop at home,” which was culturally disturbing, but more importantly, socially uninformed. A few brave folk did echo what he suggested, clearly out of politeness more than conviction. What about the very many children who don’t have homes at all? To say nothing of electricity.

The other speakers had things to say, challenges to throw to us educators, but I was disappointed that there was no structure in place for interaction, because I was hoping to have someone throw light on a major difficulty our students face: the reality of India having the highest percentage of student suicides in the world, a percentage that on the government’s admitted statistics is increasing annually. In fact, the British iconic magazine, The Lancet, a decade ago (April 2004), in collaboration with Christian Medical College, Vellore, did their own research on this problem, and found that our statistics were actually worse than what government research had disclosed, a discovery that featured prominently in our newspapers.

Illustration: Vikrant Barmate

It is difficult to discuss this situation without a combination of anger and despair. It is even more difficult when one encounters proactive resistance to ameliorations proposed and demonstrated towards solutions to the problem. A few years ago on the occasion of the tercentenary of Calcutta University, a lecture on this topic was responded to by the challenge of research papers written and published. But when the lecturer insisted that in fact nothing had been attempted in schools to deal with this horrific reality, the challenge was abandoned – and the hall applauded strongly. But – whatever gratification the speaker might have felt at the public response – nothing happened “on the ground”, and the annual suicide reports continue to disturb and distress us all.

A Kolkata-based NGO was welcomed in Delhi at the turn of this century, and the then director of education in the capital implemented their suggestions by insisting that Delhi teachers take training in, and implement, the proposed alternative pedagogy, code-named Where the child is without fear. At the end of that director’s 6-year term (Dr Janaki Rajan, director of SCERT) her successor expressed his negativity by promptly squashing the system, even though more than nine lakh students were being educated in it throughout the government schools. She – Dr Janaki – published a professional before-and-after test result, showing how the new system won the students higher scores and provoked drop-outs to drop back in again! When this system was offered to the then authorities in West Bengal, the reply was that no help would be given of any sort to implement the Delhi-proven programme. It is worth commenting that Kolkata has the highest rate of student suicides of all the cities in India – and the world.

While the government’s failure to recognize the threat that the education process is in almost all their schools distresses us, perhaps those of us professionals who witness it on a daily basis might shout a bit louder towards a solution. We recognize that the government cannot officially take the blame for the ubiquitously deplored system that government schools throughout the country are guilty of, but we surely can present an alternative that has a proven chance of helping our kids do better, and have some expectation that such an alternative will be given a chance in the field, where as mentioned earlier, it has already in fact won its spurs.

The heart of the proposed pedagogy is, team system and quiz. Kids hate exams but love quizzes. Since the objective of both is the same, why not re-design our examination system? Secondly – and note, there is no ‘thirdly’ or ‘sixthly’ coming up! – they love being in teams, even the teenage girls and boys, and can largely teach one another. Within that, each youngster gets scope to improve in all sorts of social ways – confidence, initiative, self-respect, self-esteem – and the teacher has in practice much less unattractive work to do, as in correcting heaps of copies, finding the right pace at which to teach an intellectually heterogeneous class, and so on. (Of course, the teams are carefully regulated, and the details are explained in their manual, Where the child is without fear.) In view of the suicide situation, what possible objection can be voiced against such a change?

I understand that the proponents of Where the child is without fear are currently making it all into an e-programme, and have published a book to help teachers who share their concern about their daughters and sons, on sale in the leading bookshops in the city. We wish them well!

The author is a Christian Brother, who has spent half a century in India in education, involved at every level from the universities to the drains and platforms, and as a member of the NGO SERVE is still working to take the pain out of the Indian classrooms. He can be reached at macbren72@gmail.com.

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