Democracy, Representation and Schools

13 Jan

The nation weeps with the victim of the gang rape in Delhi, protesting across the country, seeking to share their anger and their frustration at the lawlessness in the land. At the forefront are the youth of the nation. India Gate was a gathering of the young people who simply tried to share their anger, sorrow and frustration. All in a peaceful gathering. At least at the begining. As a teacher, I was proud. This is what a mature, educated population does when they have something to say to their government. They come together, establish common cause and share their views. 


Then came in the ‘lumpen’ elements and the protest and its response from the police turned violent. We do not know who threw the first stone, but stones, lathis, tear gas shells led to blood and stitches. The protest was vitiated and sensible thing was for all good people to call a halt and return. In that it was quite Gandhian – violence meant that the street protests would end, while the cause remained. 


While it is possible that the disruption of the peaceful protest was organised, it is also true that our children are rarely given the chance to organise peaceful request movements at all but the most elite schools. A few schools I know actually ban petitions – it is in the school rules. The stamping down on the voice of those weaker is not an act of authority. It is an acknowledgment of the failure of respect and authority. 


If a head-teacher has to impose authority via restricting students, then it cannot be strong authority. On the contrary, if students have no means of making their needs felt legitimately, they will find other, often unpleasant ways of showing strength. 


School prepares students to participate in a democracy. They reach the age of voting as they finish their schooling. Mere textbook learning of civics as a subject is not enough to encourage participation or to show them how to lead peaceful engagement to solve their problems. Even at home, they need to engage with housing associations and these involve democratic processes. Ideally, they should feel empowered enough to represent to their local government at the very least. 


Many schools set up school parliaments or school councils to inculcate a systemic way of bringing student issues to the fore. This helps students learn how to structure their argument, how to press for reasonable change and how to appreciate the other point of view while seeking to counter it, among other things. Creating self organising groups to resolve or step up to opportunities is a great way to prepare oneself for democracy. It also about building respect for team mates, for differing points of view and for authority institutions. There are civil ways to work within institutional hierarchies and we, the teachers must train the children in these for life. 


The alternative is terrible. Citizens who do not engage in civil dialogue will seek to disrupt rules and institutions. It is they who see a break down of trust and process, and sometimes feed it. If there is no faith in voting, in representation, in petitions, in group action – then it will mean that in times of need these very people will seek to bribe and coerce. 


Corruption will end with education. Respect for women will come with education. Better economics will come with education. We hear this from educationists all the time. And in our classrooms, we look at the morality code that we seek to teach (some schools have moral science as a subject too) and despair. Teenagers are not going to listen to morality tales. And it is not going to work for them if their lessons at school do not match the world they see around them. 


But the habits of fair play and democracy will stay with them if they enact them year after year. It becomes a way of life. Inclusion and collaboration becomes a natural part of their way of working. This is what industry seeks too – they become more employable, better followers and better leaders. It takes time, true. It takes years to build it into the system. And each school will have to design their own. Some may only have class panchayats, with elections every month or two. Others may be able to run a full school parliament. Each of these steps is taking us forward to being a more civil nation. Towards dignity. 


This was published in the Times of India blogs on December 24, 2102 and is linked here:

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