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The Boxes We Keep Forcing Students Into In The Name Of Education

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By Jophin Mathai:

When I was in school, I thought I knew what I wanted to be in life. I had a few options, with the little I had seen growing up:

1. A Catholic priest
2. A rockstar
3. A doctor

I pursued the first early on, got bored of the second and gave up option three in junior college when I couldn’t prick my own finger for a blood sample. I had chosen science after high school, and later on graduated as a math major. I really liked math, I wasn’t bad at it, but wasn’t really good either.

I need little of my math degree for the work I do now but what I do need are chunks from the experiences I have had in life. Math was probably not the best choice for me, but my love for learning had me acquiring knowledge from various sources and opened me to a lot of other experiences. These are experiences I am grateful for and constantly draw from, in ways I can’t explain.

Many students prepare themselves year after year so they can choose either Science, Commerce or Arts after high school. Many parents plan for their children. Looking back, I wonder if choices could have been simpler and easier after high school. I wonder If I could have had a trial of the choices that I had before me.

I now wonder if it is time to break the walls between these choices. In a world as complex as ours, what kind of lenses are being provided to young students to engage with the world?

These walls need to be challenged.

Going Greek: The Roots

A little unlike the MPs we have today who represent (or misrepresent) people in the Parliament, ancient Greece had direct representation i.e. free people took an active part in civic life, from vociferously debating issues to presenting a defence in court. The risk of not being reasonably good at this was understood – one wouldn’t have their needs met or have their rights upheld.

At the most basic level, the Greeks learnt the trium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) while the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) was important secondary education. Together, these came to be known as the liberal arts. Today, the scope of a liberal arts education has widened to include fields of contemporary relevance. The goal is to develop skills with a comprehensive view of the world and where it is heading.

I am not suggesting a simple replication. But I am inquiring into ways of dealing with a trium that exists in India.

The Indian Trium

Most students choose one of these pathways after high school: Arts, Science or Commerce.

I could expend a few words or drive home a traditional view with simple illustrations:

Scores are assumed to be the perfect indicators for a stream choice.

So the underlying assumption is that your high school score qualifies (or disqualifies) your aptitude and intelligence for a particular kind of study.

These are situations Science students might relate to.
What students of Arts and Commerce have to often hear.

Generalisations, though unfair, have been used only to highlight a dominant mentality.

The ones who are mildly insulated from such pressures are generally the ones who score well. There are also those who have a genuine proclivity for the subjects they have chosen and others who are just determined to score well. These we call the ‘Toppers’.

There are those who perform neither too badly nor too well. These students are a part of the ‘Ok Gang’. Their scores are generally satisfactory from the teacher’s point of view.

The students who don’t score well are a cause for worry for everyone – they are the ‘Problem Kids’.

So now we have three groups:

1. The ‘Toppers’
2. The ‘Ok Gang’
3. The ‘Problem Kids’

Growing up, most students subconsciously know where they belong.

This subconscious is a result of cultural biases, the attitude the family has towards education, teachers’ perceptions, etc. Not only do many students fail to discover the joy of learning, but they also breed stereotypical mindsets that cause harm in the long run. People forget how much they scored, life happens, but these mindsets and attitudes stick with them.

The problem doesn’t merely lie in the right or wrong choice of a subject stream but how much that choice can define us and others.

Why go beyond these ‘set’ options? Because students must get to test all waters before, they make a choice.

Can we afford to not consider a better, integrative education?

Education And The Market

Market forces are everywhere, and education is no stranger to it. The dominant mindset seems to be of the opinion that the purpose of a ‘good’ education is to get you a job better than the one you would get with a ‘lesser’ education. This means a rush for courses that are currently in vogue and could lead to lucrative opportunities in the future.

For a lot of people, the relation between education and the market is as simple as:

Very educated = Top Job
Well educated = Good Job
Not so educated = Bad Job

The problem with the associations mentioned above is the fact that things are never that simple. We fail to consider a host of other factors beginning from the personal to the social.

In India, the market mindset is rarely challenged in education, which is why traditionally, a well-paid job has been the only goal of education. Things are changing slowly, but market forces tend to heavily dictate what kind of an education would offer good returns on investment (Indian students joining STEM being a case in point), but they are not ‘future-proof’.

While students build competencies for the market, they must also train themselves to question and challenge market dynamics. A quick look at innovators in all fields over the centuries tells us that good ideas go beyond the confines of existing structures, forces and expectations. This happens best in an ambience where there is deep engagement and connected learning.

It’s Not Personal Vs. Professional

For too many of us, getting educated for its intrinsic values is pitted against getting educated for a well-paying job (something Lisa Dolling calls a false dichotomy in this wonderful piece). Growing up, this has been an issue that hasn’t got as much attention as it should.

Education’s role as a ticket to a well-paying job is in conflict with our pursuit of education for its inherent, intrinsic values. Many of us (including me), were conditioned to perceive education as a means to achieve professional ends but were rarely actively encouraged to enjoy the process of learning.

I think we are missing out on a lot if we look at educational goals, in practice, as mutually exclusive.

The Potential

Ambitious projects launched under the Skill India initiative aim to train over 400 million people in India in different skills by 2022. Financial rewards are in store for candidates who complete the approved skill training programmes.

Skill India may be a great short term fix for a country where education hasn’t had the transforming effect it should have had, wherein budgetary allocation for the education sector is also low. We are talking about a country that is predicted to have the highest student population by 2025.

Providing monetary incentives for skill training still reflects a strong market-driven approach. The bigger question we need to ask is, what are we accomplishing or ‘buying’ with long term monetary incentives? Who is being truly served? I am just scratching the surface here.

This is how Steven Pinker defines education, and it puts a lot of things into perspective:

“It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.”

“On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumour, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.”

Along with provisions to hone technical skills and space to explore interests, we need to look at our myriad cultures, appreciate the goodness and immense human spirit they embody. We also need to be critical and mindful of what our cultures represent and its implications on people who do not share the same beliefs.

In the face of growing intolerance, education must help us celebrate our cultures while also developing empathy to find common grounds.


Image source: Trinity Care Foundation, Intel Free Press/Flickr
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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