I write with a plea with schools across India. More than anywhere else, to schools in Delhi, possibly the city ravaged worst by the Covid-19 pandemic.
When summer vacations end and our children resume their lives in little boxes on screen, please do not continue to live in denial of the destruction of lives around us – in the relentless obsession to continue business as usual for exams and the syllabus.
I write this not as an educationist but as a parent. I’ve lived through a year of online school for my two children, one in junior school and the other in the first year of middle school in this city. And it has been a year of a strange, near-total denial of the great catastrophe that has been ravaging lives and altering the course of human history in an irreversible way.
In a recent article, with a voice of intense pain and dismay, the academic Apoorvanand had pointed out that “Indian universities are pretending everything is normal as the world around them is collapsing.” From refusing to give a respite to students from incessant classes and the pressure of exams to turning a blind eye to social and economic disasters around them, the writer brought to the surface the insensitive and tone-deaf nature of university administrators and their refusal to take into account the destroyed or permanently altered lives of millions of citizens, countless students and their families among them.
I’ve experienced the same in the culture of online school that has occupied my children this past year. First, I have not heard any teacher, in any class, discuss the pandemic with the students. Acknowledgement of its reality has been limited to purely perfunctory queries about who is sick and who is not. Not a single teacher, in this whole year, has taken out two minutes to discuss what this pandemic means for human life – for our mental health and madness, for our nation and the world, for our families and communities, for anything at all.
Pandemic-speak has been strictly limited to instrumental talk about the best possible platform for online learning – the relative charms of Zoom, Google Meet, and MS Teams – of the urgency of uploading .pdfs of homework, of the indispensability of extra classes, and extra-extra classes, of weekend-school, and the importance of not missing a single unit test.
What are we trying to achieve here?
Children don’t understand the world economy. They may not understand the arcane realities of viruses and laboratories. They will not understand the gesture of responsible action of one government, and the insensitivity and irresponsibility of another.
But they understand the loss of life. They know when a grandparent dies, or when a classmate loses a family member, or when just about everybody they know fall seriously sick. By now, they also understand what it is to spend a whole year cooped up home, never travelling anywhere, barely seeing anyone, giving up all outdoor activity, playdates, sleepovers, practically all social life beyond the confines of home and immediate family. And these are the lucky ones.
Even without understanding the scientific reality of the pandemic, or the economic and political devastation they have caused, they feel its impact on lives, in whichever circumstances the sickness places its deathly hand on them, and in ways their age and cognitive abilities allow them to frame this disaster.
And yet schools, much like many of our universities, carry on as if none of this matter. What matters is how much extra time one needs to put in to complete the syllabus. How many extra Saturdays does one need to spend sitting before the screen.
Complete the syllabus! This is the eternal war cry of Indian education. “Let not one chapter be unfinished.” What’s a few deaths in the family? What’s a year of cramped, impoverished existence? We finished syllabus, grilled the children through every single unit test. Mission accomplished.
As I said, these be the lucky children. Reality stares us from all direction – of children to share the single smartphone in the family to attend classes, children who make long treks daily or climb treetops for the best bandwidth, children who peer at tiny screens from tiny rooms where whole families lead constricted lives. Does it matter? it doesn’t – because prayer at the altar of syllabus and examinations must go on uninterrupted.
What I ask for is simple, easy to offer. Please take time out to talk to the children about the pandemic. This is more than a fight between MS Teams and Zoom. Please let some of the syllabus go. Because if you don’t, you’ll be losing one of the greatest learning opportunities in human history, of all the learning trauma can give us.
Imagine a school in Western Europe between 1939 and 1945. A school that is fortunate enough to continue instruction throughout the Second World War. Now imagine teachers so hell bent to complete the chapters on the French Revolution that they cannot bring themselves to talk in class about what is happening around them.
Imagine another classroom lucky enough to continue instruction through the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. Imagine biology lessons going on there without any mention of the H1N1 virus, the deadliest known to humanity. Because it’s not on the syllabus. Let the unit tests run with what is on it.
This is the situation we have in many of our schools – certainly several schools in the national capital from what I see. To put it simply, this is pedagogy without a historical consciousness. Teaching that refuses to take into account the change and destruction of humanity around us.
This is a complete refusal to take into account the human toll of the pandemic, and the effect it may have on the mental health of our youngest members who may not be able to analyse it on adult terms but who are not exempt from its effect – who are sometimes its most vulnerable victims.
Beyond that, disturbing as this might sound, this is the destruction of a great learning opportunity – of what it means to live through what is (hopefully) the greatest global catastrophe of a generation.
If they are lucky enough to grow and thrive, what will these children tell their children when they ask: “You were a child in school during the terrifying Covid-19 crisis, weren’t you? What was it like?”
And yes, the fortunate ones will say, “We did extra classes through the Saturdays and finished the syllabus. And we did not miss a single unit test.”
As I said, these will be the fortunate ones. How many who survive this pandemic will survive this education?
(With research input by Harshita Tripathi. Saikat Majumdar writes about arts, literature, and higher education. He can be reached at @saikatmajumdar. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook India.)