Schools of snobbery

Many times, inequalities among students are unwittingly encouraged by educational institutions, parents and teachers. However, truly elite institutions are those that do not foster feelings of superiority or inferiority in their students, says Vatsala Vedantam.

It is common for students of one school to engage in friendly banter with those of another. There is nothing wrong with that. But, when the teasing turns scornful, sneering and contemptuous, it becomes the ultimate in snobbery.

The students who indulge in this cruel pastime may belong to the most prestigious institution known for its academic excellence. Yet, I am sure the school authorities would not have approved of this piece of supercilious arrogance. They would not wish their pupils to turn into conceited snobs.

Yet, why do pupils of one school or college look down on other institutions with haughty disdain? Was it their parents who inculcated false feelings of superiority in them? Was it society which labeled schools into first class, second class and third class institutions? And were these “classes” based on their academic reputation, or on the social status of their pupils?

There are institutions which have produced world class citizens. But they do not boast of a “who is who” listing of pupils and parents. They are elite institutions in a real sense because they do not foster feelings of superiority or of inferiority in their  students.

For example, there are schools and colleges in Karnataka that have produced alumni of a high order. They are institutions of excellence though not of elitism. I remember an occasion when a middle school pupil of one such institution came to the principal’s office (which was always kept open to everybody)  and wept that her parents could not afford to buy her new sports shoes for the annual school day. His response was characteristic.

“Don’t worry” he said. “I never wore any footwear to school myself because I had no money!”       
His institutions have produced great scientists, but no snobbery. Creating social inequality among students was not its goal. Many institutions are also guided by the same principle of egalitarianism.

But, unfortunately, the parents of such schools and colleges treat them like exclusive clubs. One can see such shades of snobbery in any privileged school. This article is addressed to all parents of school going kids. Choose an institution of excellence by all means for your sons and daughters.

But do not tarnish the name of the institution by YOUR perception of excellence. And, be careful to choose institutions which do not create feelings of inadequacy in them. They may be the best schools or colleges. But if they are going to make your child feel inferior to others — socially or economically — it is best to avoid them.

Such parents also want their children to excel in everything they do. There are schools and colleges which train great “achievers.” Students who shine in many activities. They are the ones who walk away with trophies and gold medals — whether it is sports or debating or the arts.

These pupils also excel in various competitive tests and exams. Whether it is a Spelling Bee or a science project, they  are the winners. They are in the spotlight in theater productions. They excel in the fine arts too. Their parents relentlessly push them from one activity to the other in search of quick recognition.

The schools and colleges also encourage  them to jump higher and higher by raising the bar. These students become the super achievers. This is every parent’s dream, and every school/college’s pride.  But what happens to the super achiever in the end? She may become a person who cannot accept failure in life.

Pushed by her parents, propped up by the school/college, she mistakes her five minutes of fame for true achievement. A former education commissioner once remarked  “I think schools which teach their students how to fail courageously are great institutions.” How true.

Many young people who destroy their lives for some mishap in their lives — and who will not have a breakdown in life at some point or the other — are those who carried grand achievements on their shoulders. They were not only high achievers themselves, but they also awed the non achievers around them. These are inequalities unwittingly encouraged by schools, colleges — and parents. Rewarding merit is one thing. But, making merit everything in education to the loss of other values in life, is not the hallmark of a great institution.

Quoting the great philosopher John Dewey, a professor in the State University of New York, has summed up true education as one “that a student lived, and not one where he earned grades in a classroom.” What a wonderful definition of true education. Our schools and colleges — and more importantly parents — should teach their pupils to lead meaningful lives instead of destroying their lives.

Instead of urging their wards to jump higher and higher in academics or other avocations, it is time for parents to rethink their priorities for their children. Even if their son or daughter failed to gain admission into a high profile institution, it is no loss as long as the child is able to reach his or her potential.

Creating false expectations in children can only result in tragedy. The growing number of teenage suicides today should sound a warning bell. Even the best of institutions will find it difficult to impart great values to their pupils when their own parents teach them to become snobs.

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