Indian School Education: “Mainstream” and “alternate”

The mainstream Indian educational system is, to my mind, utterly stultified. We follow an ancient tradition, but not ancient enough…we follow the old British school system, not our own Vedic (or any other equally old) kind of education. We place extreme stress on rote learning, and make only token concession to modern methods. In fact, it seems to be nothing but memorizing facts, and repeating it in the all-important examinations. Shakespeare and Euclid are not studied for knowledge, but to get a few more marks in the exam…and they are studied with “key books”.

A friend of mine,

Sumeet Moghe

was mentioning on a nature mailing list that we belong to, that schools like

KFI

stress living in harmony with nature, and so “green” their campuses (both the Valley at Bangalore and Rishi Valley in Anantapur have done this.) This led me to muse on the “alternate” methods of school curricula available today, in urban India.

KFI in Chennai was elitist enough that after getting admission for our daughter at the beginning of her school years, I decided on Rosary Matriculation School instead. I thought that since she had to join the rat race, with parents in the middle-class bracket, she had better join a “regular” school.

She did go to an “alternate” school for a year, when she joined “Vikaasa”, run by Madura Coats (then) in Madurai. She was happy there, but when we returned to Bangalore and we put her in Sacred Hearts, she was extremely unhappy for 6 months, until she took her guitar to school one day and quite suddenly settled down…and started loving the school. (Sacred Hearts was at the end of Convent Road, where we lived, and it was a major plus that she walked to school and back, and came home for lunch every day.)

The learning was certainly very rote-memory oriented, and extremely strait-jacketed. Individual thinking was (and is, even more so now) actively frowned. The phrase “in your own words” had no meaning in this system. A lot of obsolete, unnecessary, and boring information was thrust down the children’s throats. I remember teaching her a Hindi lesson called “Cycle ki sawaari” before an exam, and her realizing, for the first time, that it was a very humorous piece! She also had NO Hindi poetry in school…imagine learning a language without its poetry!

However, in the larger scale of things (and especially in the matter of thinking for herself) I don’t think she missed out on anything by our choices…she also chose to go to Frank Anthony’s and not to Valley School or Aditi for her +2. She loved it there, too…and she regularly attends gatherings of alums of both schools…in fact, I am close friends with several of her FAPS classmates (it’s great fun when the children turn into adults, it’s like getting new people to meet!) It was she who decided that she would go to the US for a liberal arts degree in the US…and that certainly broadened her horizons, and her thinking, further.

However, in those days, the class strength at SH was about 30…today, one has to pay through the nose to get a school which gives a class of only 30 students. Even there, the pressure for academic performance is inordinately high.

Today’s alternate schools also seem to bow, inevitably, to the “marks” pressure in the higher classes, and parents routinely cancel music, games or other classes so that the children can “prepare for the Boards”, which is like a severe illness that the child, the parents and the extended family go through. It is very impersonal, and unfair examination, and it’s the luck of the draw as much as the child’s rote memory which decides what the academic performance will be….and whether the child will obtain those all-important “marks” to enable admission into the next round of our “education”. We do not even teach our students how to access information, which I think should be the main thrust of education today. There is no liberal thinking at all. Even initiatives in this regard are quickly reduced to token gestures, which sink into the general morass of “get more marks”.

Another problem with many “alternate” schools is the elitism associated with them. They easily charge about ten times what a mainstream school would charge, and very often,produce children who are very snobbish indeed, caught in their own bubbles of wealth and privilege, paying lip service to the “hip” concepts going around, but totally out of touch with realities.

But a new irony is taking shape these days, in the form of volunteering. Many people (including myself) volunteer at the “less-privileged” schools, and sometimes I find that children from a very disadvantaged socio-economic background are being exposed to concepts and fields that their more allegedly-privileged cousins in the “regular” schools do not get. Most of the mainstream schools do not, for example, suppor nature trails for children, even when a teacher uses her own initiative to take them on such trails, they make it clear that they will have nothing to do with such outings. So it’s the children from schools like Adobe Parikrama or the Ananya Foundation who are exposed to art, music, and Indian culture…how strange!

One of the problems, of course, is our over-population..when demand exceeds supply, such problems are bound to arise, and quality suffers for the sake of quantity. I wish I could find a way of establishing a chain of schools (many of them) which could provide education and knowledge to students across the economic spectrum.

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