Before I start this post, we just got news of the goings-on in Paris and the rest of the world, and I wanted to send my love and support to everyone back home, and my prayers to the victims and families being affected right now. I love you all so, so, so, so much, and my thoughts are with you guys right now.
This is a blog post that I’ve been avoiding for a while, but considering how things have been going here, I don’t think I can put it off any longer. I’m going to be spending a majority of this post talking about some of the bigger issues and ideas that I’ve been struggling through, so if you’d rather spend your time hearing about all the cool things I’ve been doing in India, this isn’t the post to read. If you do continue, no promises on clarity of ideas, and please know that I’m definitely not trying to offend anyone in any way. Also, if you have any free time and want to get some sense of where I’m coming from on some of these points, I definitely recommend reading “To Hell With Good Intentions” (an address by Ivan Illich), Pedagogy of the Oppressed (a pretty dense book by Paolo Freire, most of the ideas we’ve looked at thus far come from pages 43-69), and Whatever it Takes (another novel, it’s pretty interesting and a lot easier to read than Pedagogy).
So. As you may have noticed, I neglected to talk about how work is going in my last post, and that was because I was super overwhelmed with the entire situation. The topic for India is education, and going into our work projects, we were told that we would be placed in a classroom at a local school to shadow/help a teacher. My work partner (J. Mom) and I were assigned to Gayan Deep, a privately owned school of about 200 students, and we went in with high hopes and bright expectations of what was to come.
To say that it hasn’t been what we were anticipating would be a severe understatement. That first day, we were given a schedule of six different classes and thrown into a classroom without a teacher. We didn’t know what to teach, where to teach, who to teach, or how to teach. The bell would ring between every 30 and 40 minutes, and we would search for the next classroom and group of students. We filled the time as best we could, asking basic “Get to Know You” questions, with varying levels of success. It was stressful, confusing, and extremely frustrating, especially since no one seemed able to communicate with us about what the hell we were supposed to be doing. The next two days were a lot better, as we were able to prepare lesson plans for the classes we knew we were going to be teaching, but yesterday we were given an entirely new schedule with brand new classes.
As far as we can tell, the teachers use us as a kind of filler time, shoving us into a classroom to babysit the kids while they take a break. While I understand why they wouldn’t take us seriously as educators (considering the fact that neither of us have any training, I don’t blame them), I can’t help but feel somewhat disrespected and question whether we are actually helping in any way. Going along with that sentiment, after reading “To Hell With Good Intentions,” I’ve been struggling a lot with the entire concept of this unit. How dare we, American students with no background in education or even basic understanding of life and culture here, assume that we can be anything but detrimental to the students here? Of course we can never really understand them, or come even close to relating to their lives. We are a spectacle here, and the students clearly see us as such, as they go out of their way to shake our hands and stare us down. It’s been so, so incredibly difficult to go into a classroom and try to teach when I’m starting to feel like the entire concept is a bad idea. J. Mom and I try to use the methods we believe to be most effective, but they vary so widely from the methods used here that we are met with little success. Our reality, and the educational experience that we have been blessed with, can never match with those of these students. So how much good can we really do?
Additionally, yesterday we were able to observe an actual teacher in the classroom for the first time, and the experience nearly brought me to tears. The children are forced to memorize the answers to specific questions relating to an English text, seeing as these are the questions that will appear on their exams. During class, the teacher went around the room and had each student stand up and recite the answer one at a time, scolding them when they made a mistake. Their comprehension of the words is negligible, as long as they are able to regurgitate it on a test. The worst is that the teacher was obviously well-intentioned, and truly believed that this was the best way to help the students succeed. And why shouldn’t she? It is effective, if not disheartening to those who have been taught to think, not recite. These are children, individuals, who have thoughts, and ideas, and so much potential to shape the world around them if they are able to communicate, but the influence of the Western world has convinced them that this is the only way forward. They must learn English, pass their exams, and chase the ideal set forth by the more “developed” countries. And to what end? Why should the Western standard of success be the only one with which to measure their lives?
Development is a tricky subject. By what standard do we measure it? What I’m learning is that sometimes, a “Western” education is not the one that will be most beneficial, both to the community and the individual. What good does an English education do for a child whose only career path is to work his parent’s farm? It sounds harsh, and I don’t mean it to, but sometimes, more education is not a necessity. Yes, it can be an empowering source, but it can also be detrimental. In so many ways, we are a product of our education, both inside and outside the classroom, and in that way, education can almost be a source of oppression. In refusing to teach the local language, in insisting on an education based on Western ideas, can we ever truly claim to be liberating these children? Or are we simply perpetuating a system of oppression that we are so numb to that we have accepted it without thought? I can’t help but feel like it is my fault that these children are subject to such tireless repetition and mind-numbing teaching styles. Indirectly, they are being oppressed, not just by their teachers but by an entire system built on this skewed idea that “West is best.”
For my entire life, I have seen books as an escape rope, and words as wings. But here, now, they become the bars of the cages these children are trapped behind, and the books they carry weigh heavier on them than bricks. I want to scream, cry, lash out against the fact that everything I have always accepted to be true is not. Education may not always be the solution. Development is not always the ideal. Am I here truly here because I want to help, or because of some horrible need to validate my own existence and believe I can make a difference?
To summarize how things are going, I couldn’t help but scrawl these words across my arm during class yesterday: I am both the oppressor and the oppressed, and both have cost me my humanity.
To any of you reading this and seriously questioning my mental health, don’t worry, I’m actually doing fine. We have plenty of discussions and time to debrief, but it is extremely difficult. That’s actually why I’m posting today: Julia and I decided we needed to take a day off work to debrief. I’m finally understanding why people told me that this would be one of the hardest things I would ever do, because it is. I’ve never questioned so many parts of myself and the world around me, and while I know it is making me a stronger, more aware person, it’s also challenging me in ways I never expected. And I’m grateful for that, and the opportunity to think in so many new ways.
So if anyone wants to take on the task of discussing some of these things with me, I have so much more to say, and would be happy to engage in a spirited and probably offensive discussion with you. If you never want to talk about any of this again and pretend like this post never happened, I’m also totally ok with that as well J
Thanks for reading this hot mess of a post, and potentially entertaining some of my existential crisis. I love you all to the moon and back, and that is something that I am totally sure about (probably?!?…jk).
In order to save the world, we must first discover it.