Athena's Notebook

Month: July, 2012

Misinterpreting Equality

Leo Tolstoy said, “In education, once more, the chief things are equality and freedom.”

People misunderstand the concept of equality. Equality doesn’t mean making a dictatorial plan of things and then pruning everything (and everyone) that stands out. But sadly, most of our concepts of equality are based on that. Most of them arise from the idea that equality exists in standardization; that it exists in having people to do, think and behave in the same way over and over again so that no one does, think or behave anything differently.

But equality means something else. Equality is more like freedom to be able to be who you are and yet be given equal importance. A society with the right concept of equality will not have everyone in uniforms or reading the same books or coming from the same kind of households. It would be when everyone would be equally proud of who they are no matter where they come from; it would be when everyone would be able to able to retain their individuality no matter what they wear, read, or talk about. 

90% of the times, society wrongly interprets the term equality when used in context of humanity and it gives more support for the rich to suppress the poor, or the strong to suppress the weak. 

These famous lines from American Declaration of Independence also suffer the same consequence as any other mention of equality. It says,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Right, that among these are Life, Liberty, and persuit of Happiness.” 

Edward S Corwin and Jack W Peltason, in their book, Understanding the constitution show how many have misinterpreted the expression

Excerpt: “Many have scoffed at the assertion that all men are created eual. They argue that such a statement flies in the face of the obvious facts- some men have brains, talent, facts and virtue and other do not… John C Calhouse and other defenders of slavery attacked the Declaration as a series of “glittering generalities”. Calhoun, who read the Declaration as meaning “all men are born free and equal” quipped, ‘There is not a word of truth in it…Men are not born. Infants are born. They grow to be men….they are not born free. While infants they are incapable of freedom.”

But Corwin and Peltason make it clear:

“The declaration does not assert that men are equal in all things. It proclaims that men are equally endowed with certain unalienable rights, among these being a right to live their own lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness. These are man’s birthrights; they are not secured by an act of governmental grace or as a gift from others.”

But of course, we are way behind when it comes to understanding equality. In today’s day and age, a tribal man defending his 1 acre ancestral farmland in the deep forest is in no way equal to a man who owns a mining corporation and wants to own, along with several acres of mining area, that 1 acre of farmland. Isn’t it?  

In-class thoughts

Today, in class, I sat with the child who has Cerebal Palsy. His name is Vinod. Everyone wanted to sketch or paint- but he wanted to be able to write. Mostly, because he knows that he cannot do it. He has the sort of impossible expectation that he probably will never be able to realize: to graduate from class 2 and study in class 3. The reality behind him is that he comes from a slum that has not seen clean water for the last four days. That his house is practically a gutter. That the biggest achievement in his life would be to become a very successful beggar (whatever that means). But in this class room, in this small dingy class room where a nice NGO runs English and math classes, Vinod’s expectations from himself are to substantiate to whatever his brain understands as “passing exams”. To know what it means to be able to write the letters A B C D without messing up the already dirty sheet of paper.

The obscenity that arises from the gap between his expectation and his reality is hardly a new thing. But who, who is responsible for making a 13 year old child with cerebral palsy to expect himself to be able to write?

Maybe it is the cruel world around him that tells him everyday that he can’t do much. That, coupled with the NGOs futile attempt to mix him with normal children and teach him math and English the way they would teach any other child. Maybe it’s those silly off hand comments by a fatigued teacher, “Vinod! If you don’t study- you will stay in the same ‘class’ and everyone around you would move forward in life.” Her helpers, in full honesty, help her with the sharp quips. “Your friends will go in class III but you’d stay in class II! Study! It’s important.”

But Vinod. He sits and starts singing in a bold voice. He sings like Kailash Kher. He sings in some language I don’t understand. In a voice that no one understands. A voice that carries things with it- the teachers expectations, her helpers quips, the poorly written ABCDs, others’ laughter, the begging lessons… Other children gather around him and smile. They love the whole charade where Vinod disregards the teachers’ appeal to an expected ambition of “moving forward in life” and sings as loud as he can.  

Little do Vinod and teachers know that moving from class II to class III in this country hardly means moving forward. There is nothing for them waiting at the other end of the finishing line. It’s a false dream that they are shown by the world around them. The real moving forward, in this country, was, and still is, is learning the craft of lying and being good at it. It’s shameless cheating. It’s swindling. It’s the sleight of hand that helps you grab someone else’s thing in a flash of a moment.

Education. Education is only a façade. Education is not teaching people to earn money or to be proud of who they are. It’s teaching them how to speak English fluently so that you can work at a Pizza Hut or a call centre. Education is not providing resources to people who want to work because they want to excel. It’s providing them a source to hide themselves behind a seemingly “sauve” mask.

The mask has a smile, a shining face, bright eyes, round cheeks and big ears. It looks like it mould was a cherub’s face- perfect for advertisements, for campaigns and money grants. But Vinod’s singing. It’s only good for begging at train stations. Nothing more than that.