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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Conversations with cabbies

"Is it a difficult drive to the airport at this time of day?" I ask the balding gentleman in the front seat who drives my car to the airport in Melbourne. He looks up at me in the rear view mirror and smiles patiently. "It depends," he says. Before I can jump to "on what?" he continues: "If you begin the drive thinking that it's going to be easy, considering that most people are on the roads heading home, then you're bound to find it difficult. But if you just know that's the way it is, that five o'clock traffic can't be any different, and simply focus on getting there, it's just another drive."

That wise comment was prelude to one of the most interesting conversations I've had, one that made the 45-minute drive in peak Melbourne traffic go by like a breeze. We discussed religion, working class politics in Australia and (a topic close to my heart) school education. He told me about his 11-year-old son who goes to a charter school where most of the children come from very affluent families. "I usually drop clients home to these areas, and now my son was attending birthday parties here...we had to have a few talks about aligning expectations with reality and coming to terms with economic differences." He was just as curious about life in India, and not in the usual "oh tell us about the poverty" way.

For a streetside view of a city, there's nothing quite like a tour by cab, particularly if the tour is accompanied by commentary from the cabbie. Over the past four years or so, I've been treated to many unique views of interesting cities, glimpses into lives I would otherwise not have the privilege of knowing, particularly in my role as an itinerant business traveller or tourist. We rarely exchange names but we trade snapshots of our lives, and the person behind the wheel always gives me a perspective that fills out the fringes of a strange city for me.

In Sydney, I've spoken with a Bangladeshi father who despairs of ever speaking Ozzie like his son and teenage daughter, a Pakistani who is eager to know about the "other Hyderabad" that I come from, a Chinese immigrant who drives a cab by night and runs a construction business by day, and a Jamaican jazz singer who left with me a card and an invitation to his next performance. And I mustn't forget the Ghanaian named just like the then United Nations Secretary General who told me about how children in Ghana were named, for the day of the week, so one was likely to find many many people with the same name!

In Pretoria, I was treated to a story about the Jacaranda city that forever changed the way I look at that lovely purple bloom. Michael, my driver and tour guide of an afternoon, told me how a shipment of Jacaranda saplings bound for China from South America ended up in Pretoria, and the local government, stuck with hundreds of trees that needed planting in a very short time before they died, drafted school children and community members to plant trees all along the city's main avenues. When the trees bloomed in the following years, Pretoria took pride in their beauty and soon came to be known as the Jacaranda city. A few years down the line, however, it was discovered that the deep rooted, water guzzling trees had so depleted the water table that a moratorium was placed on the Jacaranda, and it was forbidden to plant any more trees!

In Geneva, a Lebanese cabbie wanted to know all about Raj Kapoor and the latest Bollywood tamasha, and in exchange he told me his tale of coming home to a new land with no family but a lot of hope, and how things had changed, for his family and for him, with his move to Switzerland.

In Buenos Aires my smattering of Spanish drew an eloquent explanation of the Plaza de Mayo, a place of pilgrimage for me.

And in London? Well, the cabbies in London (the few I met--London is a city for buses and the tube and walking) were either too polite or too indifferent to enter into conversation with an Asian woman, just one more of the scores he must have driven from work, to home, or to play.

For me, almost every taxi ride in a strange city has offered an education. Given that most cab drivers in developed countries are immigrants, it's taken the immigrant experience out of novels and films into real life for me. When one travels on business, it is difficult to get "under the skin" of a city, and at best one is taken out to dinner by a kind local colleague or invited into the home of another. But a cab ride offers a special bubble of a space, one in which the conversation does not have to have a beginning or end; it's sort of like a parenthetical experience that happens in the continuum of the day. Rarely are names exchanged, or linear life stories shared. it's bits and pieces, things that fit into the space between the two clicks of a meter.

For these stories, the tip I leave always seems too little.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Global, local or in limbo?

Travelling through the streets of any large city, one finds billboards screaming the promise of ‘world class’ education combined with a pledge to ‘create global citizens’ or ‘future ready’ graduates. Many of these promises and pledges come from schools carrying the tag “international”. They show pictures of happy pink-cheeked children smiling against a backdrop of spacious lawns or well furnished playgrounds; some show children performing activities ranging from playing the guitar to working on an airplane model, or interacting with a well groomed adult playing the role of teacher.

Much before FDI in higher education became a reality, or even a hotly debated proposal, the international had seeped into elementary schooling. And arguably, it goes even farther back than most of us care to or are equipped to look. For years and years, we’ve had inputs from abroad coming into schools, whether in the form of textbooks that were clones of western readers, or pedagogy styles that had been tried and tested abroad, the design of schools and classrooms, or—at the simplest level—in the kinds of uniforms we have seen fit to adopt into our schools. There’s been no dearth of ‘foreign inputs’ into our education system.

Systems of education have been imported, and investments made, if not directly, indirectly, into the business of schooling. In colonial India, each colonizing power brought with it an army of missionaries. Even those that had no “colonial presence” in India had a missionary presence. And the missionaries brought with them systems of schooling, governed by a philosophy and run with funds that were largely from abroad. In the initial days, even those who implemented these philosophies of education—the nuns and the priests—were foreigners. Until, that is, enough ‘natives’ were converted and co-opted into the orders. While to their credit many of these institutions did take and learn from local contexts, the overarching framework was European. The “Senior Cambridge” which morphed into the Indian Council of Secondary Education, at one time had direct links with Cambridge University. And then there were the handful of “International” schools that offered the International Baccalaureate. Now this group has been joined by the IGCSE, a British system of school certification, while the IB itself has recognized many more schools in India.

What has this meant for our system as a whole? On the one hand, it has made it easier for our children—at least those who have access to the best western clones—to fit into a globalised economy and a global urban culture. This is more and more true for the new elite institutions mentioned at the beginning of this article—their children have access to facilities on par with upper-crust schools in the West, and thereafter are groomed to enter an awaiting corporate culture. These schools are ‘feeders’ in a sense, to Western-type higher education models and indeed, many end up going abroad to enter college. But on the other hand, the system has also generated a large class of misfits whose schooling has been of little relevance to their immediate contexts and has in some cases fed aspirations that cannot be fulfilled in the spaces they are confined to.

Extrapolate this to higher education, where the focus on ‘internationalisation’ has meant mainly being able to feed the global economy—and right now, that translates into creating enough warm bodies with just enough education to handle the lines and lines of code that have to be written, debugged and tested to automate the information society. It has meant outward looking, foreign focused curricula, and a not-so-gradual erosion of areas of study relevant to our own needs.

The recent debates on education reform, primarily the National Curriculum Framework 2006, took a good long look at the needs of the country and how we could make schools sites of individual and social transformation. The changes suggested, apart from curriculum reform, had to do with changing the way we thought about education outcomes. Just as community schools everywhere have always done, what is taught in schools must relate to the child’s immediate environment and from there radiate outward. In the long run, this should not only bring in a high degree of connectivity between school and its context, but also help children develop a sense of rootedness while simultaneously broadening their outlook.

The hundreds of small ‘alternative’ schools across the country are doing exactly this. They aim to develop a strong sense of caring about community and local linkages through a variety of projects within and outside the academic curriculum without sacrificing quality in terms of the rigour of learning. They set their educational priorities and learning outcomes based on a bottom-up approach—what do the children know, where do they come from, what do they need to know most, and how can it be imparted without threatening their identities in any way? Superimposed on this is of course a broader understanding of the world we live in and all the content that goes to feed into that understanding.

There is no question that the western model of education has, over the decades, created a class of alienated individuals who despite their best intentions feel more foreign than Indian, or whose Indianness is defined by foreign expectations. It’s meant that their dreams have been fuelled and built on frames that define success and failure in terms not entirely our own. It’s meant that in order to meet those criteria of success, the context had to be changed, so that it resembled more closely the context from which those frames had been imported.

This is not to deny that there are advantages of education as we have known it and institutionalized it. It has given us the means to build bridges with other countries, perhaps though, on terms not always in our favour. It has given us an infrastructure of sorts, both in a material and non-material sense. It has allowed many Indians to become global citizens and many of them, having discovered themselves in the process, have come back to undo some of the things that their education has mis-done. But these efforts have been patchy and like the ‘alternative’ schools, have had a limited—and always contested--impact on the system as a whole. And in the meantime, the hangover of history has taken its toll. It has resulted in a terrible unevenness in the reach and quality of education across the country, apart from the fact that the process of alienation has continued.

So the question to ask ourselves now, when there is so much talk of foreign direct investment in education, is—what are we going to do differently with these foreign labels that will create an impact on our education system? Is it simply a matter of importing or transplanting structures from abroad, so that the product can be ‘bought back’, much in the manner of ‘100 percent export-oriented manufacturing units’? Or is it going to more deeply entrench the disconnect between what is studied and what is lived, what is seen and what is heard of, what is possible and what can only be dreamt of? Is it going to make us feel even more foreign in a place that is supposed to be home?

(This article first appeared in Edu-Care, a forum for education concerns, published by Centre for Learning, an alternative education organisation, in Hyderabad, March 2007)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

long time, no post

Wonder what keeps us writing and wanting to be visible in this space that has no boundaries other than the ability to access and use a computer. I realise that the impulse to put the freewheeling movements of one's mind on to a screen is not as strong as I had expected when I first signed on to this thing called a blog. The conversations I wish to have happen in real time and with people I can see and hear and touch. But the excitement of being online is just the opposite...who knows what strange turns on the bylanes of the Internet will bring friendship to you?

Conversations in chat rooms that were once simulations of social spaces and then substitutes for social spaces, and now are social spaces in their own right. I hear of young people who 'meet' online and then progress to intense conversations where they move into private areas of chat rooms and then, offline into real spaces where the relationship might take on a 'really' serious nature. What are the expectations that are built up through words on a screen in relational terms? How do these expectations fare when selves move from being things constructed of words and perhaps a few photographs, to flesh-and-blood and all else that physical presence brings? Is it similar to what happens when we hear a disembodied voice on the telephone, when we conjure up an image, a body, that we think goes with the voice? What qualities do we ascribe voices and words that are borne out (or not) by physical selves?

These are some of the questions that plague me as I think of you who is reading this (more often than not someone whom I know in 'meat space'), you whom I have not seen or heard, you who are a presence that comes to my words by way of a mouse-click...