The will to learn


Stark naked, next to a pool of urine, in the background of Chennai’s smelliest river, on the pedestrian walk in a noisy smoke-filled road was this child of three.  He was completely engaged, almost oblivious to the world around.  He held in his hand a slate and was practicing the letter “aa” in Tamil.  Someone, possibly his mother, must have made neat squares in the slate for the child to practice writing.  The family was homeless or were living by the shores of the unbearably smelly covam river.  Amidst this harsh life she was teaching the child to learn.

Since I returned to Tamil Nadu, everywhere I go I see children with books in the streets reading under harsh conditions.  A few days before I saw the boy above I saw a couple of little girls neatly in a school uniform sitting next to a pool of rain water by a road reading in the morning.  When I went to Dalit hamlets in Villupuram by night there were girls reading under streetlight.  It is impossible to miss the will to learn among poor children.

Oops, I guess I wrote faster than I intended to; it is possible to miss this incredible will to learn and quite a few people continue to do so.  Unfortunately for us many of these come under the garb of policy makers who decide that poor people do not send their children to school because they are not interested in education.  To ensure education of these children one should have a legislation that will punish people for not sending children to school.  Stiffer punishments mean greater incentive to educate children.  The “PROBE Report” demonstrated amply that parents are not interested in sending children to school only where schools are dysfunctional – of which we have plenty in this country.  Education is often the only means for social mobility for people deprived in every other way.  I look forward to the day when this section of policy makers will stop pontificating about the need for punishments and concentrate in improving the school system in India.

Written after reading an economist on improving educational outcomes in India

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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