The suicide narratives

AGGRESSION IN EDUCATION

Violence is not merely physical; quite often, it is cultural, symbolic and psychic, and its consequences are devastating. See the aggression in the arena of education, and the narratives of suicides committed by schoolchildren after the results of board examinations. It is easy to individualise their suicides by arguing that they are intellectually weak, incapable of bearing the pressure, mentally unstable, and susceptible to psychic depression.

However, if we are honest enough to see beyond this pop psychology, and go deeper, we would realise that it is the cumulative societal pressure developed by all of us — educationists, teachers, parents and the political economy — that has compelled these blooming flowers to wither away so soon. In a way, we cannot escape our responsibilities.

In this context, four issues need to be highlighted. First, let us accept: several of our schools are extremely violent sites of transaction and evaluation of academic body of knowledge. In a non-dialogic/’disciplined’ classroom with primary emphasis on the memorisation of capsule knowledge legitimated through textbooks, it is impossible to expect a teacher as a catalyst seeking to encourage the child to unfold his/her innate potential and unique traits.

Instead, the whole purpose is centred on hierarchisation, stigmatisation and hence ‘normalisation’. It demotivates those who cannot be fitted into the tight box: a standardised pattern of examination and evaluation that quantifies learning through a scale like 499/500 as the topper’s peak. The trauma of ‘failure’- or not being ‘good’ in Physics, Mathematics and English - is haunting.

It is this constant violence that harms the child, deprives him/her of the confidence in believing in his/her self-worth: the capacity to know and relate to the world in a unique way — beyond textbooks, or through what Ivan Illich would have regarded as ‘deschooling’.

Second, here is a practice of education that values a form of ‘cultural capital’, which is dissociated from what Gandhi would have regarded as ‘productive labour’. The emphasis on abstracted intellect, sanitised/bookish knowledge and ‘dignified’ occupations seeks to make the schooled society disdain age-old traditional skills and knowledge — say, the productivity of an artisan, a farmer, a weaver.

No wonder, it standardises ambitions. If you are in the science stream, you have to think of the ‘medical/engineering’ nexus; or, if you are in economics and commerce; you must strive for the mythology of MBAs; and if you are not so ‘lucky’ and pursuing arts and humanities, there is only one option left for you — the trap of the UPSC!

This rat race takes place in an uneven society with scarcity of opportunities and unequal distribution of all the three forms of capital - economic, social and cultural. The result is obvious: the system manufactures ‘failures’ and reproduces social inequality. While television channels interview the ‘toppers’, some commit suicide, some visit psychiatrists and others haunted by stigmatised identities take up what is seen as ‘inferior’.

Third, we cannot overlook the political economy of ‘black education’ — the widespread network of coaching centres.
These days for everything — from spoken English to accountancy, from IIT entrance test to CBSE Physics — children and parents rely on coaching centres.

The exorbitant fee in most of these education shops, the reckless process of drilling and ‘mock tests’ that children have to undergo, and the life-killing ‘guide books’ colonising their ‘life-world’ are enough to cause both psychic and economic pressure on almost every middle class household. If you ‘fail’, you see yourself as a ‘burden’; you think that you have made your parents suffer - economically as well as socially.

And fourth, it is high time we acknowledged the fact that parenting is not merely a biological miracle; parenting is an art, a sublime process of elevation, a song of relationships. However, most of us do not work on it; children, for us, are ‘resources’, ‘investments’ for social mobility, and ‘objects’ for enhancing our ‘prestige’ in the local community.

This instrumental orientation — often justified in the name of ‘love’ and ‘concern’ — oppresses children, makes them incapable of evolving with their own rhythm and forces them to believe that the only aim in life is to do what others want them to do. Alienation, don’t forget, is suicidal.

Is there a way out? In terms of hard realism, the answer is ‘no’. However, if we seek a positive answer, we all have to start working on three inter-related fronts — pedagogic, existential and politico-economic. As the likes of Tagore reminded us, ‘comparison’ destroys the uniqueness of the child and imposes artificial armour of ‘superiority’ and ‘inferiority’.

Pedagogic innovation

Let us, therefore, strive for a nuanced mode of pedagogic innovation that trusts each child, and makes him/her understand the potential he/she is gifted with. This is to radically alter the present form of examination and evaluation.

Likewise, we need to bring the ecstasy of joy, wonder, creativity, experimentation and aesthetics of relatedness in our education. We compel our children to read poetry on nature in a closed classroom; we talk about freedom while the CCTV camera in the classroom, to use Michel Foucault’s prophetic words, creates ‘docile’ bodies and minds.

Think of it if our children can learn mathematics, physics and poetry through engagement with nature and participation in the rhythm of life of the community. Likewise, we ought to realise that in this brief span of life nothing matters more than inner fulfilment and the joy of being ‘ordinary’: the ability to do things one likes, be it farming, painting and nursing.

Why do we destroy life through this ‘imposed’ goal-run faster, consume mindlessly and become ‘somebody’? Third, this needs a new politico-economic visualisation for an inclusive/egalitarian society that values austerity, peaceful rhythm and sharing rather than reckless speed, possession and hierarchy. If we negate everything as ‘impossible’, we may find ourselves in a society of murderers of young minds.

(The writer teaches sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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