Making change sustainable

Making change sustainable

We come across several things around us that make us wonder about the way society functions. Let us take three instances to understand what I am trying to say:

Recollect a regular sight we see as we commute through the city roads - at traffic signals, little girls and boys selling balloons, Santa caps, toys and other trivia, trying to make some income each day. We are, at that very moment, in our air-conditioned cars, with our friends, siblings, children, enjoying an ice-cream, or buying those caps and balloons for our children from those children. It makes us think, "Why these children, at this age when they should be in school and enjoying their childhood? Is there a possibility that all children can have equitable opportunity to live a dignified childhood?

Moving closer to our home space, a second instance comes to mind: that of our domestic help and her children. Her son goes to a low-cost private English-medium school, while she sends her daughter to a government school. The intention of the 'mother' in the maid is clear - she wants her children to get better opportunities in life than she has had and works hard to help her children achieve social and economic mobility. Importantly, she sees education as a means to achieve this.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that she chooses a government school for her daughter - the mid-day meal is free there, and so is schooling. She plans to put her in a government residential school as she enters class 7, which will ensure that she studies further. In the case of her son, merely providing him schooling opportunity is not sufficient, he has to be educated to prepare for a decent living - and English is necessary for that in these times. "Do parents still think this way and provide different opportunities to their sons and daughters?" we ask ourselves. A hard reality, but holds true across socio-economic classes.

A third instance comes to mind thinking about our own personal lives and school days: Why did we like a particular subject more than the other? Why did we get interested in science, but lost interest in mathematics? Was it the teacher's responses to our questions, or was it the way she brought experiments to class, and ensured that each of us got to try it first hand? What would it take to make all teachers in all schools the same as this science teacher?

Questions such as the above are not unique to any one of us. Each of us who cares for our society and surroundings is likely to face them. We resolve them in our own different ways, to the extent we can.

One of the most frequent ways of handling such concerns about problems in society is 'helping directly' by a simple, immediate response. In the first instance, it would be to buy some balloons or caps from the children at the signal. In the second instance, it could be helping the maid by getting some English books for her children, or other such educational material. These are responses that satisfy us - and make us feel we have 'helped' someone in need. However, in itself, the response is an insignificant one, effects of it rather short lived.

A second way, often used to resolve such dilemmas about social realities is through 'sustained voluntary action' - in a relatively organised manner. A small but significant fraction of the society that can afford the time this needs engages in it. For instance, a graduate student near the maid's home, who teaches English to all younger children of the community and helps with other subjects at little or no fees. Or several young graduates who associate and engage through voluntary organisations to support a few children in need. Or a home-maker who engages little children at a construction site close to her home and provides some joyful activities while their mothers are busy building homes for others.

Limited impact

While the second route to bring about and contribute to 'social change' is certainly deeper in engagement and so too in its outcome, it can again be limited by the skills and competence that the individual involved brings - be it the volunteer teacher in a community, a homemaker's efforts in her free time, or the volunteers of several organisations that strive to make social change a reality.

Moreover, such efforts are unlikely to touch some of the fundamental issues and root causes of several social issues. For instance, the underlying issues in the system that lead to poor quality of education - why the math teacher taught the way she did and why the science teacher did what she did, or do gender divides get precipitated or eradicated through education, or is poverty the only underlying cause for why different children across the social spectrum experience childhood differently?

Social action without theoretically informed and practically grounded ideas may have limited ends and impact. To contribute to sustainable social change, preparing oneself through engagement in rigorous course work at a good university would be critical. A degree in social sector studies or specifically education studies would prepare one to understand and analyse existing issues and, perhaps, find appropriate solutions to complex social realities.

Making an investment for studies in the social sector would foremost require a commitment of a lifetime to choose that sector as a worthy 'profession'. It is heartening to see that several of our students make this choice every year, and the hope for a better society continues.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, School of Education, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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