When asked why she goes to school, my six-year-old niece replies confidently, ‘To play.’ There is a delicious sweetness in her answer, one that is yet to succumb to the ruthless, outdated rat race the Indian education system has become.
For most pupils, there is something exceptionally beautiful about the teacher who doesn’t just prepare them for financial stability, but for life. This is exactly why Harry loved Dumbledore, why my dear friend, Nitesh, has students sticking adorable love notes on his office door. Why my father, the vice-principal of an engineering college, has old students coming back with a box of confectionery every now and then. Why I can never forget the professor who, after seeing me broken down on campus grounds, took me to the cafeteria, bought me a cup of chai, and asked me what was wrong. The demand for empathy in education is rising at a rapid pace, and perhaps some light can be shed on its restructuring by understanding the millennial/gen Z zeitgeist.
For years I have watched, as a student and a teacher, how the emotional needs of our children have been neglected at home and in educational institutions. Once, after a nervous breakdown, a college counsellor told me to pray so that my problems would go away. When I finally had the guts to tell my mother about my post-traumatic stress disorder, she told me it wasn’t real. That if I stopped talking about it, it would go away. This isn’t new. When I talk to my peers, I hear similar stories. There is a whole generation of youngsters dying to be heard and yet unheard, only to eventually become terrified of co-existing with their complex emotions, only to eventually turn to all kinds of distractions, toxic habits and addictions, including social media. When the news of a nineteen-year-old’s suicide flashes on the screen, my aunt shakes her head and says, ‘kids these days.’ The response is disheartening, when it ought to be: what flaw in our education system or home environment has caused a child to self-sabotage like this? But this continues to be a criminal offence, and a sin. As per the National Crime Records Bureau, one student in India commits suicide every hour. And yet, the conversation around mental health is still strained, and mostly ignored. We’re not weaker, the times are just lonelier.
The transition into adulthood isn’t an easy one. It is filled with chaos, inherited grief and realizing you’re not ready for any of this. True scholarship is the pursuit of the heart’s incorruptibility. In business, there are two objectives that must be fulfilled at the end of a process: the output, which is the set of tangible deliverables, and the outcome, which includes growth in behaviour and knowledge. While devising the storytelling module for Girl Rising, a non-profit focused on girl’s education and empowerment, I realized how education also followed both these models. If an adolescent from Peru was taught rhetoric, the output would be the well-written, well-delivered speech, and the outcome would be her newfound confidence. In a classroom that discusses the importance of safe spaces, every student would know not to interrupt her while she speaks, to honour her, to not laugh at her when she makes a mistake. Listening is a holy love language. So is appreciation and kindness. A purposeful learning culture nourishes compassion, a trait incredibly valuable in a fast-paced digital world that so easily fractures our self-perception.
Even Moral Science classes with deeply ingrained religious messages based on ancient and derivative ideas of good and evil, are obsolete. While there is sanctity in good character, figuring out what ‘the right thing’ means to each student and having the courage to do it must come from wisdom, self-awareness and accountability. Not fear. The ideal classroom must become a laboratory that offers tools to develop individualistic moral judgment. We must teach the young to explore their own personal principles like dependability, humility, loyalty, among some noble others. To seek courage, integrity, authenticity, accountability, even forgiveness when they are ready. Not outward beauty, not external validation. To not be afraid to apologize and change behavioural patterns that are toxic to themselves and others. A good classroom has daily mental health check-ins just like attendance. A good curriculum focuses on inner work as homework. Supports education on privilege, on what it means to be anti-caste allies, LGBTQIA+ allies, or allies to women. Why can’t we have academia that allows time and space to discover what students believe in, to know what their own boundaries and deal breakers are? That educates them on their rights – not just constitutional, but also their rights to safe spaces, to say no, to receive emotional availability from loved ones? Why can’t we build a system that is concerned with the health of their home environment and is tuned in to their individual traumas? One that helps them cultivate honesty and the daring to engage in proper communication?
It is a shame that while education has adapted to COVID-19 by shifting to zoom calls and introducing into its framework the latest technology like mobile apps, podcasts, e-books etc., it has still not adapted to our emotional needs. It still humiliates on the basis of bad grades, turns a blind eye to blatant bullying, pretends to have no role in shaping a child’s mental universe. We need to demolish old structures of guidance and make way for a system of education that is relatable and in line with the times. One that encourages students to prioritize their happiness, make healthy life choices, and above all, reconnect with their inner child – the one that goes to school 'to play'.
(Megha Rao is an author, performance poet, leading podcaster and workshop facilitator. She recently released her debut poetry book, Teething, with HarperCollins India)