A teacher’s dream

I am sure we all have stories during covid, so here is one of mine.

Well the short version (my kids keep telling me my stories are unending) is that my 83 year old father’s bedroom AC stopped working on day 15 of Lockdown in very hot Mumbai. Most of us have a comfort level with our own beds, especially as we get older, me included. My dad is no exception and he can’t sleep anywhere but in his own room! It was a very real problem, 2 nights of no sleep can wreck just about everything.

Day 3 I wake up and see that one of our staff, Vasuda Didi, who has over the last 20 years seen countless AC technicians come and go, has decided to give it a go. As in she decided to try and repair it, and here’s the climax of the story.. she succeeded.

The back story here is that she’s a super bright woman, who in another life might have been an engineer, but instead is now a domestic worker. A wasted resource, as many are, in this country of ours.

So the point of this story is that it made me think about opportunity & specifically opportunity in Education.

Now I am sure that all you enlightened folks know and believe in equality, I know I do. We also know and can agree that humans are also inherently not equal in terms of abilities, drive, intellect, physical strength, talent and a host of other things. Each one of us is unique. But when we say we believe in equality, we mean that we believe that all humans should be treated equally and have equality of opportunity.

Now I finally come to my main point. I know what you’re thinking; my kids were right about my never ending story telling.

The question is: If your special talent, ability to work harder than others or just plain good luck helps you to be more successful & therefore earn more money, then would it be fair for you to be able to buy a fancier car or go on an more luxurious vacation than your neighbour? I would say the answer could be a..YES.

What I mean is ..I could live with that.

But.. and this is the header question; If that same wealth that you earned, gives your child access to better education or your family access to better healthcare than others.. would that be as fair? The answer to that in my mind should be an unequivocal NO.

I strongly believe that Education & Healthcare cannot & should not be differentiated in terms of grade and quality, with higher quality sold to the well heeled buyer & substandard quality sold to the poor. It is morally & societally wrong.

In a ideal or perfect world you shouldn’t be able to buy a “better education”. Every child should have access to that “better education”. The onus should be on the state and private enterprise to ensure that there is parity between each and every school and healthcare centre. A perfect world is what we should be striving for and working towards. That should be the goal post don’t you think? A truly just society requires that.

If we really want to change the landscape of this country we have to understand that education for educations sake; as in to a send a lower income group child to a substandard poorly funded school has absolutely zero value. That epitomises “unequal opportunity”, does it not ?

For education to have value, it must be, of the exact same quality (staff competency, teacher student ratio, infrastructure and so on) for every child in the system regardless of the income bracket the child’s family comes from.

“Same to same” as we like to say in India.

In short, every child most definitely and without a modicum of doubt deserves a level playing field in education. It gives him or her the best shot at changing the narrative of poverty and inequality that they find themselves in.

Now how can we make that happen?

A bold move to address this was made via the Right to Education Act 2009.

I quote here

“It requires all private schools to reserve 25% of seats to children (to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan).”

However, and sadly no surprises here, the very idea of private schools taking in kids from low income group families was and continues to be met with so much resistance by upper class India. It literally sent the whole population of private highly funded schools into a major tizzy. “Knickers in a major twist” as one of my friends is fond of saying! This resistance was across the board; from parents, school administrators & faculty.

The resistance is never outright. As in it’s never “We don’t want those poor kids in our school” (subtext is: dirty kids)

That is because we, the upper class of this country are so damn good at appearing woke and empathetic and caring, making many go to great lengths to demonstrate that this is not about their kids and that they aren’t classist.

“It’s not about us” they argue vehemently with voices full of sincerity, “it’s about them and their feelings!”

It’s a very a compassionate resistance you see. It focuses on how out of place a poor kid will feel hanging out with the rich kids! How those lower income group kids will develop a sense of inferiority! How they wouldn’t want that for those ‘poor kids’!

Never once stopping to think that maybe, just maybe, nothing could be worse than what they are already going through. What could be more inferiority building than their very hard lives! Always looking in & never able to touch.

I honestly think nothing could go wrong with giving that lower income group child a seat at the table? To my mind there’s only an upside to that. Isn’t that what equality of opportunity is?

So I for one don’t buy this myth of ‘they will feel bad’ & ‘it’s for their own good’. By saying that, we are in essence endorsing segregation. We are saying let our rich kids hang with their own kind & let the poor kid hang with his own kind. And in that way we maintain the status quo where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The very same logic should apply to healthcare too. No one should ever be able to buy better quality healthcare because they can pay more.

Sure, you can buy more or better bags, jewellery, clothes or gadgets, because you are smarter than me or you worked harder. But what you shouldn’t be able to do, is get a better education or a better hospital for your child. Those can’t be commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.

For any society to be truly civilised, that has to be a non negotiable or at the very least we should be working towards making it a non negotiable!

I am well aware that this is not an easy problem to solve. I don’t claim to have the answers. I also know that wanting it might be a Utopian dream but I do think we have to try.

Why not be the one to ask your child’s school about RTE? Check if they are complying. If not, then ask why. Speak to other parents. Maybe ask your elected officials what percentage of the GDP is spent on education and healthcare, and advocate for increased public spending on both.

Equal access to quality education is one of the best ways to help a child rewrite the story of their poverty and that’s an opportunity that every child without exception is owed.

Like I said I don’t have the answers but I have the questions and I am allowed to have dreams aren’t I?