Friday, October 3, 2014


We regard India as a country of many religions; but the US has many more - they just do not call them religions. It is also a country of freedom, and that freedom includes freedom to own guns. These adult peculiarities get reflected in children, and create peculiar problems for schools, as this column in Business Standard of 16 May 2000 relates.


In November I wrote saying that many Indian parents fear the influence of boys in coeducational schools upon their daughters and suggested that boys should have to qualify as civilized beings before being admitted in coeducational schools. The response to the article from men was a deathly silence. But two women responded. One said that her remarkably high level of achievement – she went to an IIM and became a successful consultant – was due to the fact that she had gone to a girls’ school as well as college and did not waste time competing with boys under rules they set. But apparently her daughter, who was in a coeducational school, dissented. Another woman blamed her difficulties in a man’s world upon the fact that she had been to a girls’ school; she had sent her daughter to a coeducational school and felt that the daughter was far better able to cope with men.
Meanwhile here in America, a very different kind of debate goes on about schooling. Here children every once in a while shoot their fellow-students; far more often, they smoke, take drugs, swear or fight. So parents try to keep their children out of schools where they might run such risks; and white parents believe that the risks are greater where black or Hispanic children are present in strength (although to date, white children have shown themselves to be as eager to shoot people as non-white ones). Vice and violence are also more rife in big cities; so parents often move to small towns where they hope children will be better behaved. I read about a New York couple that had moved to a distant suburb in that hope. There, their ten-year-old son’s class was detained during the recess as punishment for talking. The children there are asked to keep a diary; in the diary, the boy, Misha, described his teacher as an arse, if I have guessed right. She reported him to the principal, who transferred the kid to another class. Then the other kids told the teacher that the boy had unloaded techniques of making bombs from the internet, and talked of bringing a gun. Their parents started ringing her, worried that their children might be shot. Then a kid spotted Misha carrying a key chain on which there was a miniature device – it had a nail file, a pair of scissors and a small knife (I myself keep one in my office, to open letters and as a souvenir of Switzerland). Misha was suspended for a week. When he went back to school, he could no longer do so on the school bus; he rode alone, with an escort or a guard as the case may be.
Parents’ worries are bound to affect politics; and political responses are bound to be impulsive and often stupid. Thus some States are proposing to reduce to fourteen the age at which a killer can be convicted. Another movement that is gaining ground is to get around a ban on the posting of Ten Commandments in schools that the Supreme Court imposed a couple of decades ago (one of which is, “Thou shalt not kill”), on the ground that the US Constitution prohibits religious instruction in schools. The way they hope to defeat the Supreme Court is by calling Ten Commandments a historical document. A conservative group called Family Research Group has given children thousands of book covers bearing the Ten commandments.
Behind this malaise is the fact that American schools are powerful instruments of socialization; when they enter schools, children effectively leave the home as a formative institution, and join the peer group of their fellow schoolchildren. There they pick up slang (I do not understand their lingo too well; but every third word is “like” – not in the sense of liking – or any other sense). They acquire hobbies, of which drugs are only one. They are initiated into a world of fashion, which includes sneakers, make-up and shape-up brassieres or shapeless sweatshirts. They form armies and wage wars. Teachers do not even try to restrain them. Some of them may be scared of being shot, like the teacher in the school I earlier described. But the threat of a lawsuit by a parent is a more potent deterrent.
In the circumstances, many parents are looking for a way out of the system. Almost a quarter of Americans today are Christian conservatives of one sort or another. They are a powerful force in politics, and have considerable influence in the Republican Party. Many of them send their children to religious schools. But a surprising number of parents have taken their children out of school altogether, and are educating them at home. Apparently there are more than a million of them. Margaret Talbot described one of them – a family with seven children – in The New York Times in picturesque detail. The father is 39, an airline pilot; he comes from a broken family where the children were free to do what they liked; his father played piano in clubs and drank. The mother was a tennis player in school; after she injured herself, she began dating at 15, and that led to beach parties and drinking. The two joined and met at a Christian group called Young Life. Now they live half an hour out of a Pennsylvania township. They rigorously shield their children from what they consider immoral influences, including other children and television. The children are schooled by their mother in reading, writing and arithmetic. The parents used to watch adult movies – though not blue films – after putting their children to bed; but now they feel they should shun the vices they want to protect their children from, and they no longer do. According to Talbott, “To a girl and a boy, the Sheibner kids are a pleasure to talk to; they are polite and brimming with book-gotten information. They’re also a little otherworldly, a bit unnervingly preprogrammed.”
But so are the “normal” American kids; to my alien eyes, they are equally otherworldly and preprogrammed. I am only used to middle-class American households. But even amongst them, children would hardly ever mix naturally with adults. Generally they would be doing “their own thing” – playing computer games, phoning friends, or playing loud music. If they come down for dinner, they would make the minimum eye contact, let alone conversation. They would eat self-absorbed, and leave without taking leave. Often their parents would dismiss them – ask them to go to their room. It is a war of generations, and children are not always the aggressors.

The Sheibners’ devoutness is a reaction to the terrifying alienation of children in the United States. It makes me wonder: what can the rise of Hindu and Muslim zealotry in India be traced to? We find Murli Manohar Joshi’s attempts to communalize education unedifying; but is it as poorly conceived a solution to a real problem as the distribution of Ten Commandments in the US is? We regard madrasas as the breeding grounds of communalism and separatism; but do Muslim children have something to fear from broader contact with Indian society?