Sunday, October 14, 2007

The role of education in the struggle for rights.

This weekend we had a wonderful event 'Show of Hope' in Austin. The idea of the event was to get the community of Austin to come out and express the different talents they have. We have videos that we played at the event. They give a general idea about Asha and the event.

As part of the 'Writing' category I had submitted an entry. The judge did not award me a prize, But I did have fun participating in it! Here is my entry that most folks were asking me about -

The Role of Education in the Struggle for Rights

I sat down to write on this topic and realized that I actually have a lot of questions. I might not be able to go far without getting those answered. The first step was to understand what education meant in a universal sense.
Webster defines education as the process of educating or teaching. Further, educate is defined as “to develop the knowledge, skill, or character of”. If we try to further define the words ‘knowledge’, ‘skill’ or ‘character’, the meaning of education gets more debatable. In fact, the meaning of education is probably one of the most controversial and time old problem we have had. Socrates believed that education was about drawing out what was already within a student. Based on this definition, one would call learning to use a spoon to have soup the last thing that would count as education. But, what is education might depend on who chooses to define it, in what context its imparted, the teacher and the student. Lets just change one variable in our example - the student. If the student were autistic and aged 28, learning the basic skill of having soup with a spoon could actually build confidence and promote a cascading effect on cognitive development. So, isn’t the exercise bringing out what the student already had within? Universal education might be a goal for many nations, but are we really sure if the meaning of education is universal? Is education actually defined by the complex beliefs arising out of values and experiences of the person defining it? What are the chances that a professor in IIT Kanpur, a high school teacher in a government school in Kanpur and an old farmer in a nearby village in India give the same answer for their perception on education?

Thankfully, history has been a wonderful teacher and I didn’t have much problem understanding what struggle for ‘rights’ meant. Almost every day, many souls of the human race have made it pretty clear that not all humans are really human after all. They call it ‘culture’, ‘way of life’ or just ‘law of nature’ – some in the human race deserve what they get because they were just born that way or born in the ‘wrong’ place or family. For every form of inhuman discrimination that exists, history has shown that a call for emancipation of the suppressed follows. My next hurdle was in understanding what role education plays in emancipation. The best way I could understand this was to actually work through some real life issues related to discrimination.

In every aspect of life and work, there passes hardly a day without the bias for gender. So ingrained is this bias that it has seeped into the very essence of how 'man' communicates. But, to address our goals, I would like to take a more straightforward example of 'dowry' in India - a practice of giving money and gifts to a bridegroom for accepting a bride. This basically reinforces the prejudice that being a woman is a liability and the 'owner' needs an incentive. As the practice grew stronger and prejudices thrived through the years, the sex of the child being born started determining whether the child would live or not. When the practice of female infanticide driven by pressures of dowry came to light, mainstream media was quick in pointing out the 'backwardness' and 'lack of education' in the rural masses. Very true indeed. But, do we proclaim that doctors, engineers and many professionals from various walks of life are as uneducated and backward when they claim dowry from their brides ? Does holding a doctoral degree necessarily mean education, leave alone 'higher education' ? Female infanticide is a thriving business for a multitude of doctors in the cities. Selective abortion by scanning for girl children is after all a more 'educated' approach!

Martin Luther King Jr. on the 'Purpose of Education' mentioned "We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction". Rosa Parks' education played a critical role in her decision to not give up her seat on December 1, 1955. Makes me think if it was education for the world through this simple act of defiance. Well, at least to some of the world. Racism and bias based on color still runs through the very fabric of society. For instance, consider the much touted 'Fair and Lovely' cream or the more recent 'Fair and Handsome' product made in the state of the art 'scientifically advanced' labs. If we were to ask the superstars in the advertisement of these products about their views on racism, I am sure we would have such a passionate response on how unfair and backward the entire notion is. They would further stress on how important it is to 'educate' the masses on these inhuman biases. Then, it would be time for their photo shoot and time to get back to displaying the million dollar 'fair' faces to proclaim that being light skinned is the way to be successful and attractive.

One can spot a woman or a person's skin color in a crowd and discriminate against them blatantly. But, just looking 'normal' or being 'normal' doesn't always save one from prejudices. Its amazing how sometimes discrimination can occur in such fine granularity that even the thought that we all might look, eat and live alike doesn't matter. One can be condemned to a life of subhuman existence just by virtue of her or his birth. Welcome to caste based discrimination in India. Caste is described by Oxford Dictionary as "each of the hereditary classes of Hindu society, distinguished by relative degrees of ritual purity or pollution and of social status" and as "any exclusive social class". So, rigid and ingrained is this system of calculated discrimination that changing religions does not save you from being spotted as an inferior being. Over centuries, generations of dalits and lower caste communities have been systemically sidelined. Even touching someone from the lowest caste or coming in close contact was considered highly 'impure'. Horror stories abound - not just in the hundreds of years of history but, every day till date. Again, the idea that such a systemic discrimination occurs is very easily ignored or refuted in present day India. We are oblivious to its endearing presence in every aspect of our life. Marriages happen only within one's own caste in the garb of 'preserving one's culture' or 'compatibility'. The judiciary system, the administrative system or the 'creamy' strata of society seldom sees a deluge of the suppressed castes. Yet, our young 'educated' minds striving to make a world of their own contend that 'merit' and not affirmative action should decide opportunities for the oppressed. So called 'struggles' occur to reclaim respect for 'merit'. What is 'merit' ? Do we believe that people who are born in a higher caste are 'meritorious' by birth ? Can enjoying the unspoken privileges of being in the 'upper caste' and higher echelons of society give one the right to talk about merit? Stereotyping and generalizing people from a particular caste comes rather naturally to many folks in society. Isn't attributing lower 'merit' to the underprivileged caste implicitly espousing stereotypes ?

The concept of discrimination probably is more universal than the meaning of education. While I only started with a few examples, there is much more to discrimination. The disabled seldom get the rights they deserve. A curable and controllable mental ailment might still disenfranchise an individual. The rights of indigenous tribes and local inhabitants are gone with the dust when huge projects displace them. Is it surprising that these projects almost always make communities which own the least sacrifice all that they have for the greater common good? Who then is further in the process of education ? The indigenous tribes who learned to live in tandem with nature over centuries in a sustainable way or the intellectuals who wanted to meddle with nature to only fail every time.

As I tried understanding what 'struggle for rights' meant, I couldn't help but notice that almost always any change in the socio-economic situation of a deprived community is in fact a 'struggle'. Almost always, it boils down to basic necessities that most of us reading this piece are privileged to have. So, in essence bringing about a socio-economic change is a struggle for rights. Even so called benign acts of providing basic schooling for underprivileged children is a struggle. Whatever happened to the 'Right to Education' in India ? So, I still ponder at the end of this piece on what education means and more specifically how it influences emancipation.