Education as a Fundamental Right: Deconstructing Socio-historical Discourses and Challenges

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Latika Gupta.

Latika Gupta teaches courses in educational theory and pedagogy at the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi. She is currently pursuing a study on the deconstruction of discourse of the recently enacted Right to Education in India.

The challenge facing the Indian system of education, especially at the elementary stage, cannot be adequately met unless we examine the discourses and practices that have shaped the social construction of childhood and schooling. The recently enacted Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act demands and creates an opportunity for identifying and deconstructing such discourses and to examine them, not merely as problematic practices, but rather as culturally drawn borders between state and society. This project interrogates two such discourses: ‘child labour’ and ‘child marriage’ so that the larger socio-economic and cultural context can be examined in which education works. It studies this larger context by probing two discourses that constitute the conditions in which children of disadvantaged backgrounds struggle in order to fulfil their aspiration for education and the personal and social purposes associated with it.

The first of these is the discourse of child labour. This is called a discourse because it has shaped not merely the state’s policies towards the poor but also the popular perception of the lives and potential of children who live in poverty. One dimension of this discourse is the perception that teachers have of poor children’s ability to learn and engage with school knowledge. Children who worked officially as labour or who help their parents because of poverty both fall in this category. When such children come to school and sit in the class with others, in what ways do they get distinguished for their working role at home, and what are the implications of this distinction for their adjustment at school and learning? At this juncture, it becomes important to ask: ‘While poverty persists, can the child’s education be protected from it?’

The second discourse is of child-marriage. In the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-III survey, 47.3% of women reported that they got married before the age of 18. Out of these, 2.6 percent were married before they turned 13 and 22.6 percent were married before they were 16. Faced with these figures, we need to ask: ‘What are the school’s epistemological and cultural resources to act on behalf of the state in its battle against a practice as persistent as child marriage?’ The discourse of child-marriage is not restricted to the event per se. Its phenomenological power lies in the socialization of girls by the family in the anticipation of an early marriage. Is the school prepared to deal and critically engage with a patriarchal milieu in which girls are prepared from early life for marriage—an extended notion of the discourse of child marriage—and responsibility for work, even though it is officially not labelled as labour?

Education is assumed to be a practical art. Its policies as well as pedagogic aspects are believed to be matters of decision-making and implementation or practice. The benefit of theoretical enquiry is seldom available to the decisions involved in education. Though it is now treated as a discipline in several Indian universities, research of a theoretical or contemplative nature continues to be seen as an unnecessary enterprise, if not entirely a waste of time. This common perception is precisely the starting point of my current research project. I believe the challenge facing the Indian system of education, especially at the elementary stage, cannot be adequately met unless we examine the discourses and practices that have shaped the social construction of childhood and schooling. These discourses are embedded in the social history of modern India. They continue to present serious constraints to the vision of a universalized and equitous system of elementary education. The Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act demands and creates an opportunity for identifying and deconstructing these discourses and to examine them, not merely as problematic practices, but rather as culturally drawn borders between state and society (Weiner, 1991). I wish to interrogate two such discourses: ‘child labour’ and ‘child marriage’. From the perspective of RTE, both these phrases can be characterized as oxymorons.

The RTE Act marks a milestone in the history of elementary education in India. It symbolizes an achievement of the struggles which have shaped and expanded the state’s discourse of education over slightly more than one hundred years. It was in 1911 that Gopal Krishna Gokhale had prepared the earliest draft of such a law (Kumar, 2014). RTE recognizes that educating children is not merely a matter of provision, but primarily a matter of accepting the special status and needs of children as citizens in the making. The RTE Act prescribes basic norms and standards for all schools and defines the quality of education in professional terms. These include the use of child-centred pedagogy, ban on corporal punishment, and a highly complex system of assessment. RTE demands a teacher who is capable of engaging with the universe of a socially and culturally diverse classroom. This sets a new standard of expectation from primary and upper-primary level teachers, both in government and private schools.

As the first central law enacted by parliament in the field of school education, RTE alterns the prevailing structure of centre-state responsibilities in education. It also seeks to bring state institutions and civil society into a positive relationship by necessitating close collaboration between the two for overcoming cultural impediments that children’s education has faced all along India’s modern history. RTE envisions education as a collective responsibility of the state, civil society, the family, and the judicial system, rather than the struggle of a lone child. RTE also makes it mandatory for private schools to reserve 25% of their seats for children from deprived backgrounds, thereby creating space for learning to occur in a secular, composite classroom ethos. Education, thus, acquires a deeper meaning. A careful scrutiny of the provisions made under RTE can enable us to analyse the complex manner in which socio-cultural impediments contradict the child’s right to compulsory education. For this scrutiny, we need to examine the larger socio-economic and cultural context in which education works. I wish to study this larger context by probing two discourses that constitute the conditions in which children of disadvantaged backgrounds struggle in order to fulfil their aspiration for education and the personal and social purposes associated with it.

Child Labour

The first of these is the discourse of child labour. I call it a discourse because it has shaped not merely the state’s policies towards the poor but also the popular perception of the lives and potential of children who live in poverty. Research in many societies similar to India has established that a child’s socio-cultural background and poverty contribute to educational exclusion (e.g. Avalos, 1986). Children of the poor are more likely to be on the margins of the system of education and they eventually get pushed out altogether or do not learn enough to claim the benefits of formal education. As an idea and phrase, child labour enjoyed common acceptance and legitimacy till quite recently. It was perceived as an aspect of the economic and cultural behaviour of the poor in India and many other societies till the middle of the 20th century. The practice continues despite laws that attempt to ban or restrict it. Children work along with their parents, in both domestic and non-domestic tasks in agrarian settings without any social taboos, in preparation for their entry into adult roles.

Dube (1981) has explained that in rural areas when a boy reaches the age of 10, he is expected to know intricacies of farming and a girl of that age is expected to be proficient, in weeding paddy fields, harvesting and household work, including care of her younger siblings.  The traditionally accepted  participation by children in family’s work acquires the form of distinct ‘labour’ when families migrate from rural to urban areas and explore the means of livelihood in exploitative work sites, such as the beedi industry, hand-loom and carpet weaving, glass bangle industry, mica factories and many more. Children who serve as cheap labour are conceptually alien to the child envisaged in RTE. The softer boundary between formal and non-formal education, provided in older documents and policies, including NPE, where the labouring child was accommodated, has been removed by RTE. This is a major shift in the state’s resolve to address socially entrenched practices. At this juncture, it is important to ask: ‘While poverty persists, can the child’s education be protected from it?’

The other dimension of this discourse is the perception that teachers have of poor children’s ability to learn and engage with school knowledge. Children who worked officially as labour or who help their parents because of poverty both fall in this category. When such children come to school and sit in the class with others, in what ways do they get distinguished for their working role at home, and what are the implications of this distinction for their adjustment at school and learning?

Child Marriage

The second discourse I wish to deconstruct historically and examine from the perspective of RTE is child marriage. The roots of child marriage are in religio-cultural beliefs and practices; therefore, it has been a hard battle for the state to fight (Sagade, 2005). In 2006, the parliament updated the law banning child marriage. In its original version, such a law was enacted in 1929. The ground reality has, however, remained resistant. According to the State of World’s Children Report (UNICEF, 2011), in 2009, there were 1.5 million girls who got married under the age of 15. In the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-III survey, 47.3% of women reported that they got married before the age of 18. Out of these, 2.6 percent were married before they turned 13 and 22.6 percent were married before they were 16. Faced with these figures, we need to ask: ‘What are the school’s epistemological and cultural resources to act on behalf of the state in its battle against a practice as persistence as child marriage?’

The discourse of child-marriage is not restricted to the event per se. Its phenomenological power lies in the socialization of girls by the family in the anticipation of an early marriage. According to Dube (2001), the socialization of girls in India revolves around three main factors: one, early introduction of girls to household chores to train them for their future role as caretaker of the entire family; two, internalization of the inescapability of marriage; and three, accepting matrimony resulting into motherhood as the chief goals of life. Is the school prepared to deal and critically engage with a patriarchal milieu in which girls are prepared from early life for marriage—an extended notion of the discourse of child marriage—and responsibility for work, even though it is officially not labelled as labour? The preparation of girls’ future labour in household interferes with the demand at school in terms of energy, attitude and time and thus, constrains their participation in learning activities.

My own previous research work about the educational experience of Muslim girls, who are growing up in a lower socio-economic setting and studying at an aided minority school, demonstrated that the school offered the model of an accommodated education in which the community’s design was not disturbed. A major conclusion of the study is that  what is available to be learnt by Muslim girls at school and at home is the detail of being a good Muslim woman in different roles, namely as daughter, wife and mother. The school is a contributor to the creation of the conditions in which this learning takes place and restricts any other kind of learning, including the content which is ‘transacted’ by the teachers in different school subjects. Thus, knowledge-based consciousness does not develop as a result of education at school and the details of being a good woman in a religio-gendered frame gets reified and validated. The school does not succeed in creating any discontinuity in the community’s model of a girl’s life and its goal (Gupta, 2012).

The first part of my enquiry into the two discourses namely, child labour and child marriage will comprise an investigation of their historical evolution. This part of the study takes into account how the experiences of a labouring child and a child bride have been portrayed and articulated in literature, law and state documents since the beginning of the 20th century. The second part of my study consists of application of two theoretical constructs that have the potential to reveal how common classroom practices shape the destiny of children from poor families, especially girls, as learners. The two constructs are habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) and frame (Bernstein 1981).

Habitus is a social practice which results from the regularity of social action. It is a capacity that produces socially accepted behaviour and nature which are given the shape of motor schemes and body automatisms. Habitus shapes the body, its gestures as well as stances; it makes body a medium of expression for itself. Bourdieu argued that through the habitus, class-based and gender relationships institute body experiences, sensory perceptions and the form of the body.

Bourdieu’s construct of habitus provides a useful analytical tool to understand the nuances of the ethos of Indian schools in which existing patterns of dominance in the society get reproduced in the actions and perceptions of teachers and students. The manner in which students and teachers of a school structure their gendered and caste behaviour is similar to how they behave outside the school space. The proposed analytical exercise will aim at capturing the habitus of teachers and that of children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds in order to deconstruct the gendered and caste-coloured ethos of the institution for its role in shaping the social destiny of its learners.

The other theoretical concept which is of great help in deconstructing the school for its role in the lives of poor children is Bernstein’s (1981) concept of ‘framing’. Bernstein uses it to categorise teacher-student interactions.  A ‘weak framing’ in teacher-student interaction allows knowledge outside the school to seep in and become part of the epistemological process. On the other hand, in a ‘strong framing’ of pedagogic relations, such a possibility does not exist. Bernstein’s construct acquires a specific relevance for Indian classrooms because a ‘weak framing’ also allows the gendered and caste based codes of conduct used in the home and community environment to enter the school and pedagogic space. Both teachers and students contribute to the gendering and caste-colouring of the school ethos by bringing in dispositions imbibed at home. The application of Bernstein’s construct can help in ascertaining whether this contribution remains static and makes the school a mini replica of existing social structure, or, whether it becomes available for critical reflection in certain situations. The school’s potential to serve the goals of RTE depends on its capacity to create ‘discontinuities’ (Apple, 1978) by displaying epistemic dynamism across different groups which do not have equal access to educational resources.

 

References

Apple, Michael W. 1978. ‘Ideology, Reproduction, and Educational Reform’, Comparative Education Review, Vol.22, No.3 (Oct.,1978), pp.367-387

Avalos, Beatrice. 1986. Teaching Children of the Poor: An Ethnographic Study in Latin America (Canada: International Development Research Centre)

Bernstein, B. 1981. 1981. Codes, Modalities, and the Process of Cultural Reproduction: A Model  Language in Society. Vol. 10. No.3. pp. 327-363

 Bourdieu, P. 1990. In: R. Nice (Trans.) The Logic of Practice (Cambridge: Polity Press)

Dube, Leela 1981. “ The Economic Roles of Children in India: methodological Issues in Gerry Rodgers and Guy Standing (ed.) Child, Work, Poverty and under-development, edited by, Geneva, International Labour Organization.

        . 2001. Anthropological Explorations in Gender (New Delhi: Sage Publications)

Gupta, Latika. 2012. ‘Gendering Girls into Religious and Cultural Values’ in Matthew Knoester (ed.) International Struggles for Critical Democratic Education. (Peter Lang: New York)

Kumar, Krishna. 2014. Politics of Education in Colonial India (India: Routledge)

NFHS-III. 2005-2006. National Family Health Survey-III Key Findings (Mumbai: International Institute for Population Sciences)

Sagade, Jaya. 2005. Child Marriage in India: Socio-Legal and Human Rights Dimension. (Delhi: OUP)

Weiner, M. 1991. The Child and the State in India: Child Labour and Educational Policy in Comparative Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press)


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