It all started with this brow-raising article in which Ms Narayan holds forth on the unfortunate consequences of mixing social classes as part of the Indian Govt’s Right to Education Act. Over Rated wrote a scathing takedown of that elitist garbage and the author has returned to her natural habitat of champagne mimosas and alternative healing, so I won’t froth at the mouth anymore. I wanted to cover my thoughts on RTE but @shantanub
has written an excellent post about it, so that’s that.
I should mention that my first reaction to Ms. Narayan’s article wasn’t one of anger. It was a feeling that the lady has never heard of Kendriya Vidyalayas, or Central Schools. The Government’s quiet, ubiquitous educational work-horses catering to folks who shift cities regularly due to their jobs. My father was in the Indian Air Force and KVs ensured we transitioned between cities with no breaks in education or radical changes in syllabus. I’ve spent well over a decade in KVs in different locations and have come to appreciate its dedicated teachers and students who plod on in search of brilliance despite an apathetic Sangathan. I have no qualms about painting KVs with a broad, appreciative brush because my observations and interactions, though empirical, have been reinforced through similar experiences of friends, relatives and acquaintances.
KVs are everywhere. There are more than a thousand, some even outside India in places like Kathmandu, Moscow and Muscat. They service lonely outposts like Asansol and Chabua or proliferate in cities like Pune and Mumbai.
They operate on a relatively modest budget of around 360 Million $/year, which includes the expenditure to build new schools and maintain existing schools. And yet, they are unbelievably affordable. For example, the cost of attending a Class 12 Science course at a KV is around 100 USD. Per YEAR.
The quality of education is excellent. I spent 6 years in a KV which regularly churned out IIT-ians, merit students, NTS scholars, national rankers and this was partly due to the quality of teachers. The reason they strive to get the best teachers is because KVs are incredibly competitive. There are 12 KVs in Pune alone and during the time I studied in Pune, KV Southern Command ruled the roost. It was a constant thorn in our side – sports or academics. Our preparation for competitions was never complete without an intel update from teachers on the prep KVSC is putting in. The principal at our KV took an active interest in keeping track of the teachers at KVSC and I suspect, even tried to poach some of them. No holds barred. That sort of thing.
Here’s an anecdote which I think best describes a KV teacher. I read Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” in ’97 and became a dinophile. I was fascinated in particular by the mention of “Loy’s Procedure to extract DNA from bones” in the book. The next day I approached Ms. Chacko, our venerable old Biology teacher. She had no idea what Loy’s Procedure was, but assured me she’d find out. Keep in mind, this was before the days of the internet. Two days later, she approached me with a disappointed look. “I couldn’t find anything in the school library” (which was sizeable). I nodded, thanked her for looking and forgot all about it. A week later she met me after class and said “oh, by the way, I went over to Pune University and asked someone there about Loy’s Procedure. The person said she hadn’t heard of it but she did write down other DNA extraction techniques.” At that point she handed me a crisp, ruled A4 sheet. Clearly not the original page of scribbles. She had transferred the (presumably) illegible handwriting into her own neat cursive, so I could read what she had learned. I was quite grateful and a bit of a git to not understand the dedication she had shown to her role as an educator.
Of course, it won’t be accurate to say that every one of the 1000+ KVs is a beacon of academic excellence or quality teaching, but you get the point.
KVs accept everyone. Over a million children. Although they are primarily meant for families in the Armed Forces or those in transferable Government jobs, they don’t make any other distinctions. As a result, every KV is a melting pot of socio-economic classes, attitudes, backgrounds, cultures and in some cases, nationalities. During my time there, I studied with rich kids, middle-class kids, kids whose families made the best of modest budgets, children of enlisted men, children of officers and government bigshots. Not once did I feel inferior to someone richer, or superior to someone with lesser means. I never bothered to understand why that may be so. Especially since some of the other kids in the IAF station I lived in went to more elite, expensive schools. We knew the hierarchy. We understood that KVs weren’t even half as glamorous, but it never really mattered.
Perhaps, we were too young to be affected by social distinctions. Or perhaps our school ensured they eliminated such bias with a carefully inculcated regimen of standardization. They encouraged us to look beyond inequities by constantly pounding in us the realization of a common goal – excellence. In sports or academics. Every achiever was deified by the school, publicly and in their internal publications. High-scorers in examinations were feted with all the pomp and splendor a government-funded school could muster. Winners of sporting events proudly accepted token cash prizes at the morning assembly. When I cast my mind back, I’d say the folks who excelled were a representative mix of social classes. But we didn’t care. Their achievements were glorified, not their means.
Every morning when we entered the gates of our school we became part of a community that expected its denizens to leave prejudice at the door. Our uniforms were distinctly unglamourous, but they served their purpose. They made us equal. Even those stark, sparse victims of Ujala Supreme and the neighborhood istri-wala’s iron had to be sharp and clean. Money couldn’t help you with that. Only discipline.
I’ve had a similar experience outside India. I spent two years in Bhutan and at the time, there were only two good schools in the area we stayed in. One was a KV (!!), two hours away. The other was a fledgling new institute called the Teacher’s Training Center and Demonstration School (TTC & DS) in Paro. As its name suggests, it was meant to train teachers who could then travel to the furthest outposts of Bhutan and continue their noble cause. I enroled at TTC and was surprised to find a mix of Indian and American teachers. The school had spared no expense in hiring the best educators their modest grant could manage. Even more surprising was the mix of students. It was literally everyone. The Bhutanese colloquialism for a person of means is “dasho” and I can tell you we defense kids studied with some pretty rich and spoiled dasho-lets as well as the children of very poor farmers. Again, the relentless standardization and pursuit of a common goal beat the smugness out of many. Once, King Jigme Wangchuk visited the school and addressed the students. He chided the local Bhutanese for not being academically competitive enough with the “non-nationals” (a rough translation of the Dzongkha term for Indians) and encouraged them, irrespective of social class, to stay in step with us.
The common goal.
It’s only now that I realize the effect of such indoctrination. By glamorizing values that transcended social barriers, it made us better human beings, more accepting of our countrymen.
The KVs impart an important lesson to elitists like Ms Narayan. If they’re worried about social distinctions affecting education, then the relevance of that education ceases to exist.