Jhumpa Lahiri - School uniforms - RTE - Social Inclusion - Social Capital

In Conversation with Tyler,  responding to one of the questions, Jhumpa Lahiri talks about her experience of trauma in school where she had to struggle daily to choose a dress to wear (they didn't have uniforms) and associated psychological complexes.
If I had to choose, I would choose the safety of the uniform because, of course, the whole piece, the whole little essay begins with the memory of being a child and being traumatized by having to dress myself. Because it just churned up so many problems and was a source of true anguish for me, as a child, to have to choose clothes and put them onand this has economic ramifications, this has cultural ramifications, this has all sorts of ramifications, because clothes are things we buy in stores, etc., etc. 
I had this crazy envy, admiration, obsession with my cousins’ school uniforms in Kolkata because they were all the same. They just put on what they had to wear to school every day and it was the same thing. And I dreamed about that. I dreamed of being able to wake up in the United States and just put on my blue skirt and my white shirt and my black shoes, and going to school, and nobody commenting on what I was wearing. I was always so terrified because people were always commenting on what I was wearing. And they were teasing me or whatever.
I think there’s this: Where do you stand between wanting to express yourself and be free and being afraid of that freedom, being actually vulnerable to that freedom? I think America represents Freedom with a big capital F. And it always has, and we hope it always will for the good. But there’s also the danger of that, even as a young girl in the ’70s, as a kid, a child of immigrants, I knew what it meant to shop in one store versus another store. 
I saw what the girls in my class were wearing: the kinds of shoes, the kinds of purses. I knew that my parents weren’t taking me to those stores, that they thought that was a waste of money and that we’re not going to pay $40 for Nike sneakers, or whatever it is, because it’s a waste and you’re going to grow out of them in six months. Whereas my schoolmates had these things, and suddenly there was the gap between me and them, reinforced by these things. For a child, at least for me, these things were traumatizing. And I imagine for others as well.
Often people ignore the role of uniforms in schools but as Jhumpa Lahiri succinctly puts, there are wide cultural, economical, sociological and psychological ramifications behind it.

It highlights the of role of schools in the society. While there is issue of learning outcomes on one hand,  schools and education also have a much larger role in shaping the citizens. Schools are a venue to help build traits of empathy etc, bridging the psychological divide that otherwise exists in the society outside.

However, over the time, schools in India have become segmented, as per socio-economic profiles of parents. Rich parents send their kids to a set of schools, while poor parents send their children to a different set of schools.

To put in words of Robert Putnam and Prof. Ashutosh Varshney, such segmentation reduces the 'social capital', which is not good for society in long-term. 

To give a short brief, social capital refers to the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know'] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ["norms of reciprocity"].

Robert Putnam in his book "Making Democracy Work" argues that social capital is key to high institutional performance and maintenance of democracy. Reduction in social capital means reduction in cooperation among people, which Putnam attributes as a reason for difference between South and North Italy.

In Indian context, Prof. Ashutosh Varshney has argued that associational forms of engagement (sports clubs, film clubs etc.) explains why the inter-ethnic conflict was contained in certain areas of India, while their surrounding areas experienced such conflict. It illustrates the role of social capital.

Returning to our context, segmentation of schools as per socio-economic profiles reduces the interaction between different sections of society. It thus reduces the social capital, hurting the society in long term. Over time, such segmentation has completely absolved schools of its role in building social capital.

It's time to correct this deviation. Schools have to i) prevent the external socio-economic differences from reflecting within class rooms and schools; ii) refrain themselves from taking steps that make the socio-economic differences reflect within the classrooms and schools; and iii) promote inclusion within classrooms and schools

On preventing front, as Jhumpa Lahiri narrates, the school uniform precisely does that role of providing uniformity.

A recent incident of TN private schools is an example of schools' policies that can allow the socio-economic differences to be reflected in the classroom. In TN, a particular school had started a new system of differentiated fee for children attending the same school, that allegedly gives differential treatment to them. The government objected to this and didn't allow it.

In the discourse that followed, some argued that government shouldn't interfere with the autonomy of schools, and should be allowed to design business models as they wish. It was questioned - if trains and aeroplanes can have differential pricing for the facilities, why not schools?

Such arguments under-appreciate the role of schools in the society. As discussed earlier, schools have a larger role in society that the trains don't have. Allowing such discriminatory practices within the school, will bring the outside socio-economic differences into the school and classroom. 

Prevention and self-restraint conflict with principles of liberty (freedom) but as Jhumpa Lahiri nicely puts, freedom shouldn't be extended to a point that makes some vulnerable. And, it shouldn't lead to long-term damage which in fact makes people unable to exercise their very freedoms.

A mere prevention and self-restraint isn't enough. Schools also have to promote inclusion by actively bridging the often invisible gaps.

Reserving 25% seats in private schools to students from low-income communities is a 'revolutionary step' in this regard. Its importance is under recognized but there's a silent transformation going in the classrooms, which will have sociological implications in long term.

The initial hiccups in building inclusion within classrooms highlights the weaknesses in our system. Our schools had to never face the problem of promoting inclusion till now, as they were dealing with a homogenous set of students. The new heterogenous mix is a sudden shock to them. There are also instances of discrimination reported. It takes time to adapt to the new paradigm. At least, as per some evidence on this, this step has been successful in building pro-social preferences among children, without affecting the academic scores.

Government should also take appropriate steps to resolve schools' issues like delays in reimbursements, lack of clarity in admission norms etc., and make schools willing and active participants in this larger step.

In summary, schools also have an important function of building social capital in a society. Over time, they got absolved of such responsibility due to segmentation of students as per socio-economic profiles. It's time to correct this deviation by following policies that both prevent socio-economic discrimination from being reflected within classrooms and also actively promote inclusion. Making schools an active partner in building social capital will result in long-term benefits for the society as a whole.

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