The best blah blee of the country

From the notice board of the university. Those who share this, perhaps are content with only reading it.

From the notice board of the university. Those who shared it, perhaps are content with only reading it.

“You are in the best *** school of the country” is the most frequent starting line in this university, when the key guys address their flock of sheep students (I am attending a university for a master degree in public policy. This is my second masters.). I wonder if boys and girls also use some version of this as a pick up line. Because, I do see them carrying the “best school…” kind of gloss on their nose tips.

This is quite a rant, but feels necessary because I have never been to any “best school” of the country ever in my life. I have been the one who went to all things average in India. A regular middle rung school, a private university for first degree, another private university for masters and then when it came to career, I was again lost in the sea of average-ness starting a company when that was not quite the thing to do.

Two weeks into the program, the Vice Chancellor walks straight into the class, in between a lecture of a professor, takes the center place and urges students to participate in an essay contest “My first day in law school”. The face breaks into a strange smile which I found hard to read. I wouldn’t have cared, but for the extreme high headed, patronizing and appallingly meritocratic feel of this place. It sets quite an adversarial and unhealthy competitive environment in the institution. For graduate students who spend just two years in the campus, this is okay and they can be indifferent to it. But for the integrated law program where 18-19 year old enter the institution and will be spending the next five years this can mean a serious impact of the institution which is likely to shape them as individuals. Certainly, there is something right that this university is doing which produces some of the most well trained and capable lawyers in the country, but as individuals who are also something besides their professions, I feel that the university ends up having a rather questionable effect.

Some of the students on campus and alumni of this university I have met, plainly said, lack a humane attitude. They are outright patronizing and carry a frightening belief that they know it all. The humility that must come along with a good education, is missing.

There is no intention to find faults with this university or with its students, it is only that the place does not quite have a spirit (of compassion, of humility) as necessary of a university excelling in legal and social sciences education.

My first day at law school, honestly, was rife with anxiety. One was constantly made aware of “not getting into trouble” and “authorities”.  It sure is not a good start if one is considering to stay or to leave on the first day at a place of learning. I was doing that constantly! The display of “shields, medals and cups” in the VC’s office were referred to and the new students were urged to win more of those!

Ironically, as a high school teacher, that very morning when one of the guys was urging the newly admitted students to get more of those medals, in the high school where I teach we were discussing the  consequences of a meritocratic education system and what kind of effects it has on the students and society. The students instinctively agreed that it puts tremendous pressure on them. One student said that his Mom would often fuss about the rank that he would get in the final exam. As long as he was in the first five it was okay, but then as he moved past rank 10 and beyond, he was pressurized and urged to get a better rank. In our school, students are not ranked on their performance, nor are they compared with their peers. It is a very learner centered, learner oriented system where each student is assessed only on his own abilities with his own performance over the year. This student then remarked that it was much better that our school (Poorna) doesn’t do this ranking thing.

That same day, in the afternoon, I was to start my master program in the university where there was this call for “become the best”, “you are the chosen few…” kind of public addresses were being made.

So, back to the point… being best is no big deal if all you produce are super sharp minds with no hearts that can feel. And the best institutions of the country should understand this very simple point. Do not carry this attitude. Your competitive entrance exams are a form of violence. They are sheer violence on students from across the length and breadth of the country who can’t get through because the odds are so unfairly stacked against them. They do not have as many sources of information to know or understand that which you test them on, before admitting them. They also do not probably have the proficiency in English language which you use in such fine measure in the entrance exams. And finally, for just over 50 seats a whole mass of them enter into this mindless game of proving themselves worth of one of the spots. It goes down heavy on those who don’t get through. The dejection is carried in the hearts for a long time in their lives. Not every youth in this country is capable of taking failure easily. Societal baggage perhaps, but it is real.

So, even if you do have to keep those competitive entrance exams which sure are a practical necessity, do not keep touting or more importantly believing that what you have admitted is the absolute best. Of what good is this discrimination? It is a plain elitist practice, in a country where there are millions of people are equally capable if given a chance, trying desperately hard to enter the universities and work their way to a better career, a better life.

My first day in law school could have been an inspiring and much joyous occasion for the promise of personal development and opportunities in life that the institution holds (and genuinely offers to those who are admitted to it) but those who run it, ruined it !

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Subject knowledge of teachers

A government run primary school in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh.  Pic: Arun Sivaramakrishnan

A class in progress in  a government run primary school in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. To understand this town better, a few of us at the university spent time at various institutions in the town. Pic: Arun Sivaramakrishnan

There is a rare corner in the Indian media (print and broadcast) where concerns about various aspects of education system in India are being pursued. This space, I am glad to see, has  a significant presence of researchers and academicians from the university I attended. Over the past year, these articles have aided my work as senior secondary teacher. Besides, reading views on classroom teaching, learning outcomes, teaching-learning process etc have helped me make sense of my experience in the past year.

This morning, in his regular column Other Sphere, Anurag Behar (CEO of APF and former VC of APU) speaks of the lack of subject knowledge among teachers in India (Read: Making Teachers Specialists). This problem he notes, is systemic – that the required qualification for a teacher to teach Grades 1 to 8 is a Diploma in Education (D.Ed) degree alone. This D.Ed degree can he had after Grade 12, in India.

He observes –

To be a teacher for Grades 1 to 8 in India, a diploma in education (DEd) is the basic qualification. These norms on qualifications and all other aspects of teacher education are governed by the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE). The entry to a DEd programme is after passing Grade 12. It is a two-year programme, and doesn’t have anything to do with subject knowledge of the future teacher. Its curriculum is designed for other educational aspects, e.g. child development, sociological issues of education, pedagogy.

The educational attainment that is required for teaching Grades 1 to 8 in India is simply inadequate. Some years back I spent some time with a bunch of senior secondary graduates who were pursuing D.Ed degree in a small teacher training institute in a district town in Maharashtra. This district is infamous for malnutrition in children in India and for agrarian distress. These boys I met were doing this 2 year D.Ed program with the intent of being appointed “para-teachers” in the state government run schools in distant villages of the state. Para-teachers was an interesting idea that Maharashtra government came up with, to improve teacher presence in its schools across the state and perhaps someone in the government also thought that this will improve teaching quality in the schools.

These boys were too young to be teachers, was my first thought. They were too inexperienced to be made responsible for education of children. Though the intent was to create a cadre of teaching assistants to help regular government teachers in their work in school, in practice, most would end up handling classes themselves as teacher absenteeism was rampant at the time. They were clearly seeing this as a job opportunity. They’d be paid between INR 3500 to 5000 per month for the work. And in the interior districts which also suffer from long running agrarian distress, this is a very decent job opportunity. Not surprisingly, several teacher training institutes were cropping up and D.Ed program was a run away hit. The fate of children in government run schools of Maharashtra’s districts was not partly or wholly in the hands of these young, inexperienced boys and girls who have inadequate knowledge. Poor training which is also a problem, doesn’t even matter.

With Anurag’s piece, I am reminded of those boys. And now, as a teacher, I am able to clearly see the kind of debilitating effects it might have had on learning of children in the schools they joined. Simple in proposition, Anurag’s observations on a teacher’s subject knowledge requirement in India being hopelessly low is single-most important factor in poor educational outcomes in schools in India.

Elsewhere, in Deccan Herald newspaper Rohit Dhankar (heads the School of Education at APU) writes on the myth of Private Schools for the Poor (PSPs) in his piece School as a Mint.  He is looking at a completely different front of the school education dynamics in India. His analysis of two categories of schools (that he sees in India) – schools for rich and schools for poor, builds a plausible case that these schools are not concerned with quality of education and contribute to the poor-elite divide in the society.

He points to a space which is not being questioned by any quarter of the society –

In spite of irreconcilable difference in their appearances, both of these schools have exactly the same notion of quality: that which gives the maximum return for the investment is good quality education. This is the market-friendly definition which is almost unquestionably accepted by the parents, the governments and the economics centric researchers in education.

This drive for profit he argues is ruining education.

Neither is concerned with the quality that helps in developing a harmonious authentic self or a concerned citizen with critical rationality. Profit motive, therefore, creates its own saleable illusion of quality and thrives on it; and, in the process, turning humans into self-seekers and deepening the chasm between haves and have nots.

Again, a rare piece of commentary on the state of schools.

Man’s search

photo

This month feels as though an overloaded truck of lessons has just showed up in my life and unloading its cargo at the doorstep. There is a speed at which events happen and the days vaporize. Somewhere in between school, work and university lies the meaning of it all, I’d like to think. But what that meaning might be or how will all of these things that I am trying to pack in a day, every single day add up, I am not sure. Two weeks went by in confusion. Last week in catching a breath, housekeeping and spending with people who matter. And this week I am just rafting in the daily rapids.

Tonight, in the university library, I was delighted to spot a familiar book. A book that has been tremendously inspiring ever since I read it – Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. And this was strangely tucked in a shelf of public policy books. What a little gem. Being unreasonable, I’d like to think that its being in that shelf is a message of sorts. For, it makes me stop and look back at the infectiously hopeful prose with which Frankl manages to convey that human spirit is indeed indomitable.

The book takes me back to these lines where Frankl speaks of success and happiness –

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

It amazes me to imagine how he lived his days in the concentration camps and what sort of will power saw him through the end of each day in those terribly hopeless places. Reading his memoir is to calibrate ones own life and its situations and realize that one can get through in a nicer, livelier and positive way. For, every situation is transient.

Sexual Harassment & Appropriate Sexual Behaviour: An alternative view (Part 2/2)

Continuing from Sexual Harassment: An alternative view, the following post traces the trajectory of the movement against sexual harassment in India.

The first major event that drew attention to this issue was FOWA’s action in the 1980s. A 1991 report from the same organization describes it as –

(…) militant action by the Forum Against Oppression of Women (Mumbai) against the sexual harassment of nurses in public and private hospitals by patients and their male relatives, ward-boys and other hospital staff; of air-hostesses by their colleagues and passengers; of teachers by their colleagues, principals and management representatives; of PhD students by their guides and so on and so forth received a lukewarm response from the trade unions and adverse publicity in the media (FAOW, 1991).[1]

A slew of cases involving prominent people in India before 1997 brought attention to harassment of women at work place. Noteworthy among these are the case against a high ranking officer of the elite Indian Police Service, another against the Environmental Minister in Dehra Dun and against a state Minister in Kerala, by their women colleagues. These in effect, brought to public attention the incidents of harassment of women at work places in India.

In terms of law, the process was to lodge a complaint under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code that deals with the ‘criminal assault of women to outrage women’s modesty’, and Section 509 that punishes an individual/individuals for using a ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman’. These sections left the interpretation of ‘outraging women’s modesty’ to the discretion of the police officer.[2]

The single most important shift in conception and legal stand on sexual harassment however, happens as a consequence of the case Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan [1997(7) SCC.323] in the Supreme Court of India (SCI). The SCI effect the now widely held and known definition of sexual harassment in India. It stated that sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as:

  • Physical contact
  • A demand or request for sexual favours
  • Sexually coloured remarks
  • Showing pornography
  • Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature, for example, leering, telling dirty jokes, making sexual remarks about a person’s body, etc

Further, Vishakha Guidelines regarded it as a duty of the employer to prevent sexual harassment and to provide mechanism for resolution of complaints.

Reconfiguration of perception of appropriate sexual behaviour

What began as a genuine and reasonable concern about safety, culminating in introduction of strict laws against crime against women in India, the action in seeking safe working environment and by extension equal rights for women (often framed as oppressed sex) has lost its way. It only seems appropriate to label the current behaviour in men and women regarding appropriate sexual behaviour between them as an acute case of paranoia.  An almost militant imposition of rules of personal and sexual behaviour combined with a predilection to minutely read into every act of men in terms of an act of harassment or as an act of oppression, which is noticeable in several codes of behaviour for employees in organizations and businesses is evident in India. While it is acknowledged that women’s movements has certainly created a safe working environment for women, but it has in the process has left a free form, mutually determined relationship between individuals (same sex or opposite) into shambles.

Then, the credit that women’s rights group takes in having seeded and brought to fruition is not entirely true. Long before the term “sexual harassment” was coined men like Hillary Putnam, John Rawls and Bernard Williams were encouraging women to protest when men of the faculty (in academic institutions) harassed them.[3] In work places now, people feel significant pressure in minding their conversations and behaviour with the opposite sex, with the consequences that social interaction often is laced with anxiety and pressure to sound and appear correct. Such an environment at work place can be labeled adverse at best.

In the understandably passionate and defensive call for action by several women’s rights groups, one also notices that relationships have turned into a turf war with deviations from the determined ideal, hauled up the legal alley with dire consequences. In fact, there are concerns emerging from women’s groups themselves that the feminists have ventured out too far that now any reasonable and enjoyable conversations have become increasingly difficult to handle. Marx spoke of the “alienation” of self as a consequence in an industrial society. Extending that, one can imagine a similar alienation that is likely to befall men, women and other sex, if such an extreme form of perception and ideological bias of men being the oppressor, women the oppressed and that women are objectified, as a default position, is pursued.

Looking ahead, it would be necessary that the state of women and gender based violence as problems are not framed in women versus men binary; nor should it be seen as a male hegemony in the society. The debate and the quest to understand inequality among the sexes as well as gender based violence need to get much more nuanced than this. Factoring the role of media, projection of sexes in media as well “perfomed” roles[4] of various genders would make an appropriate starting point.

[1] Patel, Vibhuti. A brief history of the battle against sexual harassment at the workplace. Source: http://infochangeindia.org/women/analysis/a-brief-history-of-the-battle-against-sexual-harassment-at-the-workplace.html. Date Accessed – 3 July 2015.

[2] ibid

[3] Martha Nussbaum  in a conversation in UC Berkeley. Transcript: http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people6/Nussbaum/nussbaum-con1.html

[4] “Performativity” as an  idea in gender was proposed by Judith Butler

Sexual Harassment & Appropriate Sexual Behaviour: An alternative view (Part 1/2)

sex_harrassment_comic_1

This post is inspired from a paranoia-laced militant behaviour that I witnessed last week, of a Professor (in a law school) as she spoke about the law school’s sexual harassment code, repeatedly emphasizing how robust the school’s code is. And that it goes “beyond” the Supreme Court of India’s Vishaka Guidelines on safety of women at work place in India. It was tiring and mildly discomforting as I imagined implications of such a paranoid behaviour regarding sexual harassment (and by implication “appropriate sexual behaviour” in the society). It read polemical at some places, but helped me in gathering my thoughts on this issue. 

The intellectual and practical space that the three terms – sex, gender and sexual harassment occupy in the contemporary society is marked with confusion and a collective paranoia about safety of women, in particular. The point about paranoia is made with caution here. It is an impressionistic remark based on the reading of newspapers and other media in the span of last two years. Any discussion on sexual harassment inevitably reduces down to the actions, behaviour and treatment meted out to women, by men. Sexual harassment is steeped into the notion of “men are treating women” in unwelcome, undignified and oppressive ways. The implication of such a default and often combative position is very likely to be against the interest of creating a safe working environment for everyone (men, women and LGBT individuals). Such a bias – that men are the perpetrators and that the burden of change of perception and behaviour lies upon the men, to effect a safe and equal environment for all to live and work in. This article questions this notion.

It is in order, then, that one begins with identifying the trajectories of connotation and meaning that these terms – sex, gender and sexual harassment have taken to arrive their use and meaning in the contemporary society.  Then, legal articulation of sexual harassment is discussed from the perspective of Indian society. And finally, we examine if the current landscape of legal, social and cultural movements in creating a safe working environment must be accepted in its current form or are there spaces that need reorganization and perhaps a rethink.

Trajectories of use and meaning

Sex – the noun form “sex” is first used in late 14th century to mean “males or females collectively” from the latin word “sexus”[1]. Its meaning “quality of being male or female” is first recorded in 1520s, though the source remains uncertain. In the later centuries (19th and 20th) “sex” is used as a signifier of biological and apparent differences between the two occurring forms of human beings – male and female. The physical and morphological features that differentiate between the two types of human form were the basis for the two categories of male and female. By the late 20th century we see many works in human behaviour, anthropology and sociology emerging which speak of the behavioural aspects of a males and females.

Gender – With its proximal meaning with Latin “sexus”, “gender” in noun form derives from Old French in the 14th century to mean “kind, sort or class”[2]. With sex acquiring an erotic connotation, gender came in effective use to signify “sex of a human being”. This is where the interchangeable use of gender and sex begins (as seen in English language), though in feminist writings later on, sex and gender are used with clear distinction – of meaning biological attributes and social attributes respectively. By the 21st century, mainstream sociology, psychology and anthropology makes the meaning of sex and gender (as biological attributes and social, acquired, performed attributes, respectively) commonplace.

Sexual harassment – This term is of the most recent origin among the three. And perhaps the most variedly construed as well as interpreted. It must be acknowledged that sexual harassment is often of subjective nature wherein the individual who has been subjected to such treatment decides the nature of it.  This presents obvious challenges for the law to determine or establish harassment and violation of an individual’s self.

The emergence of “sexual harassment” as a term lies in work of women activists in the US in 1970s when they began speaking of the harassment and unfair treatment, of sexual nature, at their workplaces. It is instructive to read this passage about the origin of the term –

“Eight of us were sitting in an office … brainstorming about what we were going to write on posters for our speak-out. We were referring to it as ‘sexual intimidation,’ ‘sexual coercion,’ ‘sexual exploitation on the job.’ None of those names seemed quite right. We wanted something that embraced a whole range of subtle and un-subtle persistent behaviors. Somebody came up with ‘harassment.’ ‘Sexual harassment!’ Instantly we agreed. That’s what it was.[3]

Prominent activists and academicians along with women’s rights organizations brought sexual harassment to public attention in the successive years and rallied for changes in work place environment as well as demanded a process of redressal.

In later works, particularly of Catherine MacKinnon, sexual harassment is interpreted as a form of sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act, 1964. MacKinnon’s paper “Sexual Harassment of Working Women” becomes a seminal work in understanding of sexual harassment and its interpretation as a form of sex discrimination. MacKinnon notes that that men’s victimization of women “is sufficiently pervasive in American society as to be nearly invisible.[4]

Further, by the time of trial of the case Alexander vs. Yale, MacKinnon’s arguments on sexual harassment and the existing law on civil rights had taken shape of a legal theory. This has been a turning point in the US law as well as the Indian law relating to protection of women against sexual harassment at work place.

It is remarkable that MacKinnon’s work embraces “a philosophy of lawyering that proceeds from individual narratives to legal principle. To advance her conception of equality, she has made women’s experience speak to legal theory.” [5] This approach, as is seen in later years until present, has been at the heart of effecting a regime of strict and perhaps stricter laws against sexual harassment and protection of women at work place.

[1] Online Etymology Disctionary

[2] ibid

[3] Brownmiller, Susan. In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution.

[4] Uggen, Christopher and Blackstone, Amy. Sexual Harassment as a Gendered Expression of Power. American Sociological Review, Vol 69. N0. 1 (Feb, 2004), pp. 64-92

[5] Dinner, Deborah. A Firebrand Flickers. Legal Affairs Magazine. March-April, 2006

A year as a high school teacher

Poorna, Image Courtesy: Vinay B R

Poorna, Image Courtesy: Vinay B R

This seems to be a month of anniversaries. This month I complete a year as a high school teacher at Poorna. Besides this, I figure that our little startup which took off from a small house in a small college town is now a fledgling company which is over 7 years old. The business has gathered momentum and the company now has two areas of work – consulting and scientific instruments sales. Momentum (a healthy work pipeline and a sufficient annual revenue), I guess is a natural consequence of sticking around long enough in business.

But back to teaching, I look back at the year in school and realize what a tremendous learning opportunity it has been. I take this as a moment to draw together the lessons.

“Teaching” would be a rather tall claim for me to make and after a year it sure would be a claim to say that I am teach. I realize that I am an agent, who goes into the classroom and shares his knowledge and understanding with the students. That is all. I have been a rookie at best.

Starting with A level and Indian senior secondary level students was a soft launch into teaching as the challenge to simplify ideas and  field questions from unconditioned, formative stage minds of children is lesser with students of senior secondary. Moreover, teaching economics and sociology to such a group can be intellectually stimulating as well as an opportunity to reflect and bring back to class the experiences of daily lives which connect the concepts that one reads in these subjects. In a way, it completes the loop from learning to experience and back to learning in the society.

I also realize that teaching helped me in focusing on what is meaningful in life. And this insight kicks in only when I take a telescopic view of a full academic year. In my pursuit to be a teacher who practices what he teaches, I had to ensure all along about this consistency between thought and action. I couldn’t have been more wrong in imagining this consistency as easy to achieve. There were several occasions when my own beliefs were questioned.

The other view that developed along the course of the past year is that teaching firmly keeps a person in touch with society’s growing and most dynamic section – the children. This has become the most enriching aspect of this experience. Besides, there is always a quick game of football that can be played, a poem that can be enjoyed and absolutely hilarious moments with children who are busy comprehending and making sense of things and people around them.

As long as I can, I am sure to be a part of a school for the rest of my life.