2012 ended on a grievous and brutal note with the Delhi gang rape and 2013 is upon us with the possibilities and potential a new year always promises. The public outrage we have witnessed country-wide, the several thoughtful analyses of it by various writers are indicative of a nation at a societal cross-roads. A collective conscience has been sparked by one gruesome incident that sharply silhouettes the deep-seated misogyny in the average Indian male who continues clinging to archaic, biased attitudes towards women. It makes us wonder about how majority of men have grown up with such a humanity deficit and how we have condoned it so far ! Of course women themselves are guilty too of perpetrating it. For instance very few educated women actually challenge the status quo and society's diktats regarding what women should do and shouldn't do.
While legal proceedings have begun against the rapists, apart from the obvious questions regarding the nature of penalty – death or life and the speed with which justice will be meted, for those of us who are in school education – a larger question confronts us – Are we spawning a generation of young people who are lacking in feelings of sensitivity, empathy, respect for all fellow-beings, especially women?
Growing social trends, suggest that our young reflect contemporary Indian society – where community is a religious rather than a human entity; progress is acquisition – of power or products; where money is valued over morals, where equity and ahimsa are just useful public rhetoric – they don't need to lived in their true spirit. We are very comfortable with the disconnect between what we preach and what we practice! This hypocritical, even schizophrenic quality to how we Indians go about our daily lives, managing multiple conflicting realities with the ease of donning and shedding clothes, has dangerous repercussions. One immediate fall out is that a child's consciousness is irreparably influenced by the contradictory messages that adults around him give. Parents, teachers, relatives will advise children on the importance of certain values, but their behaviour could belie the same values completely. Personal integrity is rarely a priority. So children, both at school and at home, live their lives lacking in authentic experiences and expression. To give one small example, if a child doesn't wish to go to school, there will be an adult – parent or teacher who will insist that she must go to school if she wishes to learn, but they will rarely stop to listen to why the child is really feeling negative about school. In numerous ways, small and big, we routinely discredit a child's point of view. We rarely dignify and validate a young person's opinions and feelings, especially when they are in dissonance with ours. Another ramification of our national propensity for low personal integrity, is that we as a nation tend to look for simplistic solutions for deep-seated systemic or sociological problems.
Even educationists and text-book writers, who should know better, mistakenly think that if there's a social evil that needs to be addressed by schools, the solution is a simple matter of including additional chapters on human rights and gender-sensitisation in their social studies textbooks. The Union Minister for Human Resources and the Central Board of Secondary Education have recently made such an announcement. In short, if something is found wanting in young people, just add it to the existing syllabus! The real purpose is defeated and serious social concerns are reduced to a few mandatory topics that need to be learnt by Indian school goers. This filling-the-empty-vessel syndrome afflicts our entire education system. Teachers see it as a further curricular overload and the teaching is mechanical and exam-based, despite the essentially experiential nature of the subjects. The young learner's head and heart are in the process left untouched.
So if young people are wanting in qualities that make for a humane society we adults are to blame. The solution is for us to set right the humanity deficit that exists in society – by changing our own mind sets. We need to learn to care, listen and empathise with what children and young people experience as they grow up. If we cared enough and listened, we would know the right questions to ask and if we asked thoughtful questions, children would feel safe enough to open up. When children open up, they will speak out. And speaking out is key to any change – personal or societal. When young people speak out they are able to 'break their silence', give voice to their thoughts, express their feelings of joy and sorrow, of being hurt or misunderstood. Speaking out would help test, question, clarify and evolve their values and belief systems about customs, traditions, biases and even gender relations.
But here's the catch - authentic speaking will happen in schools only when teachers are able to suspend judgement and ask questions, when they are able to listen genuinely and empathetically, when they have a caring and contemporary world view. And majority of our teachers today are just not equipped to help a child speak out. So, adding a subject called Gender Studies is no magic wand that will swiftly change social stereotypes. We need to begin with the attitudes of the teachers, we need to support and strengthen their abilities to live and be role models for social change. Because when teachers are the change we wish to see, our young will follow suit, regardless of having a subject or two less.