“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.” – Deschooling Society, Ivan Ilich.
Chances are you weren’t in fact, a lazy or ‘dumb’ student (as you might have been made to feel) but rather, you probably suffered from some or other kind of learning disability or mental health issue. In other words, you could very well be neurodivergent. You were simply one among countless millions of students in India who are victims of a highly disadvantageous, ableist and unequal education system.
Neurodivergence (also called neurodiversity) is a concept that suggests that there are some people whose brains function differently, in ways that are considered atypical as opposed to ‘neurotypical’ people who are able to comprehend and process information as per the expected standards.
Neurodivergent individuals usually have a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) also known as a learning disorder (LD). Neurodivergence is not just limited to the autism spectrum. Some common examples of LDs that affect school and college-going students are dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Advocates of this concept also propose the idea that nerodivergence should be accepted by society as a normal variation and not looked upon as something to be ‘fixed’ or rectified. Neurodivergent individuals’ needs should be accommodated within educational structures instead of being neglected or worse, penalized.
According to various studies, 10-15 % of students in India are affected by LDs. People with LDs often suffer from accompanying mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
There are many causes for poor learning outcomes in India right from infrastructural drawbacks like outdated pedadgogy, undertrained teachers, etc. to socioeconomic factors like caste and class inequality. One possible reason could be the neglect of needs of neurodivergent students.
Our education system has always been, like our society, prone to hierarchization. Students who perform well in school are set up for success while students who struggle with their academics are neglected, ridiculed, dismissed and bullied. There is an ingrained assumption that high-scoring students are ‘smart’ and the low-scorers are ‘not bright’, ‘dumb’, ‘unfocused’, lazy and not committed to their studies. Not for one moment does anyone stop and consider whether the said low-scorers or ‘below average’ students could potentially have an LD and are thus neurodivergent. Maybe they are facing some issues in their home life. Instead, they are simply dismissed as average students who are not studying hard enough.
And thus the topper students go on to attend the most premier coaching classes and secure seats in prestigious higher education institutes. Of course, only if they have enough caste and class privilege. Otherwise even if you are a bright student but if you happen to belong to a marginalized caste and/or are financially underprivileged then these doors of success, as defined by a capitalist and caste-iron society, remain shut for you. Let alone the fate of those marginalized students who are neurodivergent.
On the other hand the average students go through school and college with exams and marksheets becoming like a proverbial sword hanging over their necks. They grow to tie their self-worth to the aforementioned things and thus, when they supposedly fail to deliver on the expectations of parents and teachers, the natural consequences are not only poor learning outcomes at large but collectively deteriorating mental health.
Apart from high levels of dropout rates, heartbreaking statistics reveal India as having among the highest rates of student suicides in the world. A major cause is the enormous pressure of, and societal obsession with, scoring high marks and securing seats in reputable colleges. We are paying a heavy price for the same.
The New Education Policy 2020, fails to offer any serious rectifications for these unaddressed issues within the education system. It neither accommodates the needs of nerodivergent students nor does it attempt to solve the repressive system of exams and marks. On the contrary, some of the features of NEP have been criticized by educationists for further entrenching existing caste, regional and class divides.
This increasing saffronisation as well as corporatization of education means that the grim state of affairs is unlikely to improve, and will only descend in deeper decay.
Alternative modes of education
In Deschooling Society, Ivan Ilich writes,
“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.”
The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. “
The concept of deschooling/unschooling offers a radically different alternative. It does not disregard the importance of education. What this idea aims to do, is to conceptualise a system of education which can create favourable conditions for an individual’s potential to thrive to the best of the learner’s capacity, rather than stifling it in the pursuit of scorecards and tests.
These ideas emphasize learner-centred activities as the main sources of gaining knowledge, breaking free from the rigid hierarchisation of modern school system. Such methods are more accommodating of neurodivergent learners as well as special needs learners and disabled students. Such a system would be more conducive for the overall mental well-being of children and youth.
Finland is perhaps the most cited example of a holistic education system. A learning environment free of academic pressure is what has set the Finnish system apart from the rest of the world and the results speak for themselves.
Our current system is hyperfocused on the material aspects of life at the cost of the spiritual. What is the point of the high marks and the prestigious seats and securing the high-income jobs, if an individual fails to realize the true purpose of life in this world, i.e. to worship and obey their Creator and to live life in accordance with His Guidance.
There is an urgent need to critically reimagine the current structures of education and to make them free from authoritativeness, rigidity, hierarchisation and inequality. This is a question of what the Islamic tradition calls, ‘Huqooqul Ibaad’; the rights of God’s creations, i.e. humanity.
Our children deserve a better future and it is our responsibility to make good on the most crucial component of their future: their education.