After the National Education Policy was cleared by the Union Cabinet, there started debates and deliberations over the institution of education, its shortcomings and ways to improve on them. While a lot of formally holistic proposals of the NEP seemed promising, an informed narrative on the conditions inside the classroom was missing. After all, no amount of legislation can make up for the lived experience of the classroom and its betterment, unless it is actively altered by the stakeholders.
To understand why the classroom is so important, it is imperative to know the tasks performed inside a classroom.
Apart from the formal teaching that is imparted, students are socialized informally in a number of ways in a classroom, so much so that classroom and peer groups are considered one of the strongest agents of socialization.
It is not only the textbook lessons that make a headway in the evolving mind of a school-goer but also the informal anecdotes that a teacher shares, the stories and activities a group of friend indulges in, almost on a daily basis. As a result, the general culture in a classroom largely influences the values of the students to a significant extent.
Some of the prevalent norms in a classroom are not only borderline discriminatory but also sexist in their implementation as well. For example, in most schools except for some private, progressive schools, there are rules against the seating of boys and girls together after a certain age. It is considered to be distracting and against the becoming of a “good student”.
The lack of sex education becomes increasingly apparent in some other practices as well. Girls, while on periods, have to steal glances from teachers and fellow students to go to washrooms. Hushed voices, discussing various theories about the same stigmatize further, a biological phenomenon. Teachers add to this by shushing the students instead of sensitizing them about sexual wellness and health. Girls are unfortunately on the receiving end of such practices where they are made to feel sorry, albeit subconsciously, for their identity. This is not the only sexist practice in place, though.
Schools police the length of skirts, with some even going to the length of drawing up a parallel between the dress of a girl and her character. Such abominable yet largely prevalent practices lead to the breeding of a culture where toxicity thrives.
Classrooms are generally seen as non-living halls where the interaction of teachers and students take place, on formal subjects prescribed under the syllabus. However, they are much more than that. Classrooms are the living embodiment of the institution of education. It is an ecosystem where pupils do not only interact under the watchful eye of a supervisor but also among themselves and exchange values, leading to informal socialization.
When this ecosystem is not nurtured, suppressed and made to conform to the “moral” right, it leads to voices of inquisition and curiosity being driven underground. Take, for example, the case of teenage relationships in the Indian context. Relationships are looked at, as a source of distraction and something that foments trouble leading to the erosion of honour. They are not viewed as natural longings and needs of an adolescent human being.
In such a case, talking about relationships becomes a taboo and this too is gendered. Rumours about boys having a romantic relationship is seen as distracting at worst, and a marker of masculinity, at best. On the other hand, in the case of girls, the rumours tend to them being viewed as “characterless” in the least, and straight-up abused and humiliated publicly by authorities, in the worst.
Throw into this mix, an uninformed yet passionate barrage against reservation and other subconscious casteist practices and the plight of a young girl from a marginalized caste or community is up for all to see. A narrative that reservation leads to meritocracy being trampled upon is bred and distributed through the grapevine, with no arguments or facts to back up the case.
Nothing could be further from the truth as this narrative does not take into account the centuries-long socio-economic oppression. Reservation is intended for the representation of such communities but the sense of entitlement with which these “anti-reservation” activists are indoctrinated with prevents them from seeing it.
Facing a multi-front battle, fighting both sexism and casteism, girls from marginalized castes and communities have it incredibly more difficult to wade their way through a classroom. Since much of this remains subconscious, only coming to the fore in sporadic incidents of violence such as the death by suicide of Payal Tadvi or Rohith Vemula.
It is imperative that classrooms are seen for what they are – an ecosystem of socialization that needs to be nurtured and made aware of the nuances of caste and gender so that a more inclusive space is built and celebrated.