“Education is not a business. That must be shattered like a slave. The seed of knowledge should be sown for the good of society”. These wise words were spoken by Siddaganga Sri Shivakumara Swamiji who passed away recently, a great soul that we shall dearly miss. He was a great spiritual leader, humanitarian and the head of the Siddaganga Mutt in Tumakuru.
What he should also be remembered for is his understanding and passion for education. He founded nearly 132 institutions that range from nursery schools to colleges for engineering, science, arts and management. Many children from very poor, backward and underprivileged backgrounds have had life-changing opportunities because of his single-minded dedication to education.
That prompts me to ask the question, what is the best way to show our respect and admiration for such an educator? The state government declared that all educational institutions should be kept closed in his memory. I am challenging the government or anybody else in authority to look at other more innovative ways of mourning.
We began this year with the trade union bandh, when again the schools were advised to be kept closed for the safety of the children. It is true that children are the most vulnerable whenever there is any law and order situation, but it is also true that they get impacted the most when their schools are closed.
Every year, apart from the regular 130 school holidays, many learning days are lost when prominent leaders, most of them being politicians, die. Sometimes, these are national holidays, many are declared by state governments. Is celebrating Gandhiji’s birthday with a school holiday the best way to remember him? When such holidays are the norm, families go out for parties and picnics and the reason for the holiday is not even reflected upon.
Children going to government schools or other private schools for the poor depend on the free mid-day meal. For some of these students, it is the only nutritious meal of the day. When they come to school, they are also hopefully in a safer environment, rather than playing on the streets because their parents are away at work at construction sites or factories.
The question is, can we think of a better way to mourn a great person other than exposing our children, especially those from vulnerable communities, to both hunger and danger? Would it not be wiser to keep the schools open for these obvious reasons but also to make the children really understand the significance of such inspiring leaders and have discussions on what can be learnt from them?
The average number of school days in India is around 230 days, which is an ideal number. Many education experts say that more days in school would actually benefit children, particularly the ones from poor backgrounds. While that is fine, what needs to be analysed is the exact number of instructional hours in schools every year.
With the high rate of teacher absenteeism in government schools, the number of hours that children get to learn is very limited. And to top it, with the politically motivated declared holidays and holidays to commemorate events, the learning hours begin to shrink even further. No wonder one out of four Class 8 students in India is unable to read even a Class 2 text. And over one in two Class 8 students cannot solve a basic math problem.
The teachers in the government schools are not at all either unqualified or untrained. They complain that they are made to do a lot of administration work that takes them away from the learning hours in the classroom even if they are present in school.
If there is an election, why is it that the local government school is used for that activity, which means that the children miss at least 24 hours of precious learning time that is never recovered.
The teachers are also pulled out of class for training to do census and government surveys. One has to admit that some of the surveys, like identifying the reason for drop out and bank details of the parents, needs to be done. The question is, are there no other resources available, other than teachers, to do the job?
There is a serious education crisis going on. This crisis really bothered Sri Shivakumara Swamiji and he spent much of his time in opening schools and colleges to provide opportunity and access to students who would have otherwise been left behind.
I am sure that he himself would have liked his zeal for education to go undeterred, because he understood that even one day of learning lost has great impact on students.
My suggestion to government authorities, opinion leaders and educators is to henceforth commemorate great human beings by having projects and discussions about them in a functioning school rather than a closed one.
(The writer is Founder-CEO, Parikrma Humanity Foundation)