Devil incarnate and minister in the UPA government Kapil SIbal owes Mint columnist and the-good-life connoisseur Shobha Narayan an apology. He has made her lose a lot of sleep over the worst law in the history of the world, the Right to Education bill.
Before you begin your judging and call her names and everything, you need to realize that Ms. Narayan is a big supporter of education.
Educators may pore over curriculum; combat staff attrition; mull over real estate and infrastructure; but they dream of catalysing change, inspiring young minds and changing the future. For people deep in the trenches of teaching and learning, this fundamental right of every child to a decent education ought to seem self-evident. Knowledge—to paraphrase Rabindranath Tagore—should be free. Yet, most educators I know are against the Right to Education (RTE) Act—for reasons philosophical and practical.
I am not an educator. I have taught classes, but I approach this debate from the point of view of a parent and citizen.
I don’t know Ms. Narayan, but I have read one of her articles. So I feel I am qualified enough to comment on the mental process that led her to the conclusions outlined in her article. Now, how many of you can dare to paraphrase Rabindranath Tagore in support of your argument, without using your fancy internet search engine? I thought so. For your kind information, Ms. Narayan has committed Rabindra Dada’s whole oeuvre to her memory. She can quote Tagore like you can quote your favorite teevee character.
Now that we have established that Ms. Narayan is a great supporter of education of all peoples, let her educate us about the realities of real life:
The human face of the RTE Act and one that stares parents in the face is the 25% quota. Affluent urban Indians—and certainly the readership of this newspaper—send their children to elite private schools. The new reality is that these schools will have to mandatorily admit a 25% quota of underprivileged children—whether it is a Sanskriti, Bombay Scottish or Vidyashilp. This mingling of social classes is certain to cause discomfort even if few parents will vocalize it. “In principle, I have no problem with this,” we will say, and may even believe it. We will call forth our childhood hardships and tell each other, “I believe that my children ought to socialize with, and learn from, all types of children.” We will feel the halo shining around our heads.
Yes! We have all been well trained by the liberal media to be politically correct and try to say the terrible thoughts that come into our head using non-terrible words. But, right now, at this moment, this great visionary is going to break out of these shackles and hit us with a truth bomb.
Of course, class has nothing to do with character. Intelligence is marginally correlated with wealth, if that. In many cases, the plumbers, drivers and dairy farmers who work for the urban elite are just as honest, if not more, than their employers. Children do learn from their less-privileged peers. But usually, such learning happens in an organic, semi-structured way—over summer holidays at grandparents’ homes when the driver’s son teaches your son how to play pithoo.
Of course. All non-elite people are honest. They never lie, cheat or steal. They are so honest that if you leave a billion rupees on the street near a whole swath of them and come back in ten years, not only will you find the billion rupees where you left them but you will also get the interest amount that you would have gotten if you would have invested the money in a high-yielding bond. Such is the magic of poverty! No, we’re not overcompensating at all. What makes you say that?
Now, don’t get Ms. Narayan wrong. She is not a racist. Some of her best employees are government school teachers!
The lady who helps clean my home, Rosie, is an erstwhile government schoolteacher, who discovered that she makes more money cleaning homes than teaching. She lives in Yelahanka, in the vicinity of a number of Bangalore’s top private schools. In theory, Rosie’s daughter, Jenny, could and should be my daughter’s classmate. Jenny is a tall, bright girl with limpid eyes and a quick wit. She smiles often and asks questions. She is polite and curious. She is of the same age as my younger daughter; and they could learn from each other. In theory.
Yes, in theory, if this were a perfect world, or if we had realized Karl Marx’s Utopia, or if all of us always did the right thing, or if wishes were horses, we wouldn’t even be having this debate! But real life does not work that way. Theory is good, but you have to be practical after all. Look, Jenny, don’t take this personally, but you’d know all this if you’d had the opportunity to have a decent education. But we can’t have everything, now, can we? Love the things your mama gave you, like your limpid eyes, your smile and a society which won’t ever let you forget where you really belong.
However, if you think you’re going to blame Ms. Narayan for enumerating all these practical problems, then think again. She is not to blame. In her hearts of hearts, she has the best intentions. She wants people like Jenny to have a good education. But the real culprit is someone else. A person so ruthless that her mere presence sends shivers down the spines of anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path. Who is this person? I’m afraid I dare not even speak her name. The only person who can even talk about her is someone who is immune to all her devilry:
Children are cliquish. I don’t like this fact, but cannot escape it. I can invite any number of outsiders—from hovels or gated communities—to my daughter’s birthday party, command her to “be nice”, and after the initial “hello”, she will return to giggling with her school friends. Lectures about egalitarianism carry as much weight as all those lectures about “starving children while you waste food” and “I studied under the street lights while you forget to switch off the lights”.
Yes. Ms. Narayan’s daughter is the real culprit. Behind that (probably!) cute face, lies the mind of a sheepish villain. This child prodigy, a ruthless doyen of child society does not play fair. She will chew and spit out children like Jenny the minute they step into her circle of influence. This is why you can’t have nice things, Jenny. Ms. Narayan’s daughter might say mean things about you.
There, there, Jenny. Don’t cry. You probably cannot afford to lose all that salt from your body anyway. Listen, don’t worry. Ms. Narayan has got you covered. Due to the fact that she is a great egalitarian, she is going to solve your problem like America solves global terrorism: by throwing money at it:
I would be willing to pay an RTE fee in addition to what my children’s schools charge me, particularly if I know that it will help a child get an education. Educating underprivileged children is a pet cause among affluent parents—and I say this without rancour.
Yes. She wants all the poor, underprivileged children to be educated. It is her favorite cause, after all. Just not with her child. She is even ready to pay up so that you can open equal but separate schools for underprivileged children. This way everyone is happy!
The RTE Act, as it stands now, seems to me to be a massive government cop-out. [. . . ] As a parent, I laud the intent. I am willing to help make it work. But as a student of psychology, I don’t think plonking underprivileged children in elite schools is the solution.
Ms. Shobha Narayan’s solution, as it stands now, is a massive cop-out. As a connoisseur of unintentional hilarity, I applaud her effort. But as someone who learned everything he needs to know about psychology from Fraiser re-runs, I think she might be suffering from a case of wanting all the poors to get off her lawn.
That is all.