Good Education is a Matter of the Heart
Toolika Wadhwa
A MATTER OF THE HEART: EDUCATION IN INDIA by By Anurag Behar Westland Books, 2023, 375 pp., INR 599.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

Anurag Behar has a rich experience in the field of education in working with Azim Premji Foundation and travelling extensively at the grassroots level. Like others who have worked in the field, he points out quite rightly, good education is in the end, ‘A Matter of the Heart’. This insight is a clear indication of how the profession of teaching is unlike any other profession. With other caregiving professions, including medicine, accounting, protective forces, and law that require close interaction with the primary stakeholders, patients, clients, etc., there is a certain level of detachment warranted, not at the cost of compassion, but for retaining distance and maintaining professional behaviour. All these rules become a hindrance in the practice of the teaching ‘profession’. One must be passionate and care deeply and genuinely for their students. This is evident across the hundred-odd anecdotes that Behar shares in his book. Without above average level of dedication and commitment, no school at the grassroots can evince a positive transformation. Behar’s field experience stands testimony to the same.
Behar’s extensive fieldwork covers hitherto ignored villages and nondescript sites. The book is a valuable source through tapping into these stories that would have been lost in history. The documentation of the changes that are being by brought forth by the works of Renu Upadhyaya in Uddham Singh Nagar, Uttarakhand, Shobha in Gulbarga, Karnataka, and teachers and principals in different parts of the country, is a reminder for teachers to maintain commitment and zeal towards their work, wherever they are. These stories are stories of inspiration, of bringing about a change in the lives of students, of positive transformation, of hope, peace, and possibilities.
Apart from personal commitments and actions of teachers, Behar also brings to the fore the important role of the government in education. By various policies that work against teachers, such as recruiting teachers at various pay levels by bureaucracy and inadequate funding, the government has largely relegated schools to the sidelines. He highlights that despite the widespread prevalence of private school education, it is the public sector that has the power to make a real impact. He correctly points out to the ability of private players to provide low cost education. Low fee charging private schools are ‘parasitic’ in their exploitation of the labour market. By so doing, we leave it to the individual teacher who, entirely dissatisfied with the workplace, would somehow find the inner strength and resolve to provide high quality education to students. A commited teacher would teach well not because of good infrastructural facilities, decent pay scale, and a supportive environment, but would teach well despite a lack of all of this. In ‘The Ideology of Education’ (pp. 116-118), he discusses two studies that point out that there is no substitute for public education in ensuring quality education at the grassroots.
Two important school practices that can be culled out from the anecdotes that Behar shares point towards the importance of community. On the one hand school-community partnership, where community members play an active role in improving the quality of education that their children receive, has greatly improved relationships between school teachers, administrators and the local community. Community members demonstrated pride in the government school system that worked authentically towards the growth and learning of their children. On the other hand, building a community of teachers, through various teacher volunteer groups, has proven time and again to be effective in improving pedagogic inputs. Behar raises an important question: ‘… how many employees in their organisations will show up regularly on holidays, paying for their own commute, to learn things so that they can do their jobs better, without any external incentive or mandate’ (p. 314). Such is the power of voluntary teacher groups who work with no other motive than to improve their learning and take the same to the classrooms.
The book has been divided into six parts. Loosely put together in themes, each anecdote, in whichever part it may have been placed, can be read independently. However, part six, the concluding part is the most intriguing. Although the anecdotes are not chronologically arranged, the episodes in this part are thoughtfully selected for concluding the book. The writing in this part brings to the fore the mix of emotion that Behar has experienced. The writing is fragrant with a mixture of frustration with field realities but also the romance of wanting to bring about a change. Part six has been titled ‘Is Bahakti hui Duniya ko Sambhalon Yaaron’, which Behar apologetically does not translate into English, vaguely means, ‘manage this delusional, misled world’. It is almost euphemistic to look at the world of education from this perspective. But presented at the end of the innumerable field experiences carefully curated by the author, the description is so apt. It requires a great amount of commitment and zeal to work in the field of education. People with exceptional calibre and passion for teaching are doing justice to the profession and bringing about real change in the lives of children across the country. This has been well documented by Behar. His book also brings to the fore the large scale government apathy and shirking of responsibility towards education. In the final chapter, ‘The Importance of being Stubborn’, he writes about the importance of zidd, being firm in one’s resolve. It takes great resolve to break barriers of caste, gender, corruption, and resist the pressures of the bourgeoise. He concludes: ‘We must all be ziddi together, with a shared moral purpose…’ (p. 372). Although he wrote it in 2016, sadly the field does not evidence much change since then. We must, thus, continue to be ziddi together.