The egalitarian inequality paradox written by Meenakshi Babu


The egalitarian inequality paradox written by Meenakshi Babu

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” – George Orwell

Despite its egalitarian philosophy, education systems across the world have been built on the principles of behaviourism, are constantly creating categories which then become the foundation of unequal societies. For stratification to happen, a social structure that creates categories is necessary. Our school system, with its uniform curricula and assessment systems acts perfectly as one.

When kids enter the system they do not have a level playing field. According to Prudence L. Carter, while affluent kids take a “high-speed elevator” and the middle class students ride on an “escalator”, the low-income students struggle through a “staircase with missing steps and no handrails.” When students of these categories compete, one can imagine the result.

In Oxfam’s survey on tackling inequality, the respondents in nine out of ten countries put free, universal, high-quality education on top of the list. This idea that a poor child who is trained to get better grades, gets into a better university and so gets a better job, earns more and influences others – is very prevalent. Unfortunately, there’s hard statistical evidence of how the gap between the rich and poor keeps widening.

The education systems are founded on egalitarian principles that all students are educable and deserve equal learning opportunities, but unfortunately through schools, they legitimize inequalities and even end up creating it. This is quite paradoxical.

Comforting anecdotes

This makes us feel uneasy and confused. After all, we know so many stories where the protagonist’s life changed because of education.  But these stories are also testimonies of hard work of extraordinary individuals – students and teachers – who had the courage to move up the staircase, jumping the missing step and building the handrails all along. It may be this extraordinariness that helped them narrow the economic and intergenerational gap, if not the social ones.

The change

This leads us again to the question of what education is set out to achieve and how to get there. With the current practice of catching up games, education cannot become the great equalizer that it intends to be. Educating is a human endeavour and can never be accomplished if it misses out on the human element. We cannot let it hinge on the brilliance of a few. The system has to make quality as its foundation and take up the task of replacing the broken stairs with those high speed machines. In bridging the gap, we do not want to bring the higher end down. Rather we want to speed up things for the lower end and push it up with all the might. This requires redirecting whole lot of resources towards education – particularly to this side of the sector. Do we have the systemic will to do that? Now, that’s something to ponder.

Why Teach?

Even the small plants and baby trees in my terrace garden know it is autumn. They shake themselves gently in the breeze and shed those ripe leaves. These attention seekers invite me to interact with them through the clean-up routine. They enjoy my signing and the conversations I have with them (thank goodness, they’re the only ones who do). The result – a clean terrace! Does the job of cleaning have any effect on the doer? It sure does.

And so does teaching. “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse”, wrote Parker J. Palmer. It also has a profound impact on the person who practices it. Occupational moulding – the impact of an occupation on the human who does it – affects teachers as much as a medical professional or a politician. Teaching unleashes a boomerang that unswervingly comes back to the teacher; it affects them. But unlike the doctor or the lawyer or the gardener, the teacher never gets to see a clear result of their work. How do you measure the impact of teachers and their teaching? That very difficult question is central to many professional ordeals of teachers.

In spite of all the noble world view on teaching, teachers’ personal opinion on the subject unfailingly highlights the mundane, ordinary routine moments that unfold in their everyday lives, pushing them into despair. This is true even of people who come into this profession enthused by passion and high ideals of changing the world. They lose themselves somewhere, overwhelmed by this routine and feel powerless and confounded.  Except for the grades there’s no clear measure that can act as extrinsic motivator for this group. That adds to the woes.

This despair comes through when you hold sincere conversations with teachers. In a conversation that I had with a public school teacher in a single teacher school, she talked about how teaching under a roof that could collapse anytime coupled with unreasonable demand for better school results paralyzed her most of the time. Her long everyday commute added extra effect to this stress. All she could do was do a set of seemingly insignificant things over and over again, but also thought it was gross injustice to the students.

With so many back breaking moments in teaching – kids unable to sit still for even a moment, the emotional baggage they bring from their homes, know-nothing administrators, and low status in society – teachers frequently go through emotions like anger, loneliness, frustration and guilt.

Micro moments of joy

But then, what saves the teachers? What keeps those who choose to stay in the profession tied to it?

It is those moments that Sam Intrator aptly calls “spots of time that glow” – when out of the mundane appears a deep connect and meaning inside the classroom. It happens while teaching, when an insight illuminates the teacher on how teaching is the art of changing the brain and entails emotional connect both with the subject as well as the student.

Daniel P. Liston, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, goes a little further to the awe-filled yet fleeting moments that can save teachers from hitting the void. He talks about combating despair with the love for teaching and learning. When learning becomes a real part of teachers’ life, it can breathe in fresh energy into them. It can add more meaning to what they do. New and enriching knowledge can give them transformative power and steer them gently towards their students and away from desolation.

In conclusion, we can say that without being able to measure their impact, it is extremely difficult for teachers to keep their motivation and love towards their profession. All those quotes and rewards become meaningless and unsustainable. The feeling of despair is so real for them and it can be beaten only through deep connections they make inside their classrooms and with learning itself. They have to combat it with supreme optimism of the human spirit.