Inside the classroom: ‘A Matter of the Heart: Education in India’ by Anurag Behar | Book Review

The importance of the involvement of locals, and not just children and teachers, in a school, is highlighted prominently by the writer.

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The writer highlights the importance of the involvement of locals, and not just children and teachers, in a school. (Express Archives)

When writing about education in India, the system and the people involved—students, tea-chers, parents and society—one can easily take the academic route, stating facts and putting up numbers. But that is not what Anurag Behar does in A Matter of the Heart.

Rather, the collection of 250-odd articles he wrote as newspaper columns takes the reader through some of the most underdeveloped regions in India, telling tales of human struggles, perseverance and innovation, along with shortcomings and loopholes in the system. Some of the columns date back to 2012 when Behar moved from Wipro to the Azim Premji Foundation.

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Written in a storytelling format, narrating what the author witnessed through his travels across India’s education scene, the book keeps the reader hooked from the first chapter itself. As a matter of fact, the first chapter is the story of a government school in Kanivekoppalu, a small village in Karnataka’s Mandya district, where a parent shifted his child from a private school as he felt “this is our school”.

The importance of the involvement of locals, and not just children and teachers, in a school, is highlighted prominently by the writer.

All of Behar’s protagonists are common people—children, teachers and locals from poor and underdeveloped regions. But in no way do they lack confidence, skill and an innovative mind.

He tells the tale of a government school in Khamaria in rural Chhattisgarh, where a discussion was ongoing on how doors could be used to explain angles “and how the woodwork and tiles can be used for learning the concept of area”, clearly showing how innovation is not restricted to fancy smart classes and posh schools.

My favourite chapter in the book is on how technology can be used correctly to elevate education. It dates back to 2012 in Kembavi in northeast Karnataka, where a group of government school teachers made films related to curriculum using bare minimum resources on relevant topics like water scarcity, pottery and different modes of travel. “It was hard to believe they were made by a bunch of government elementary schoolteachers living in villages and towns around Surpur,” Behar writes. “The films in themselves were good, but their effect on the teachers was far more dramatic. It had given them a sense of confidence that is far more valuable,” he writes. According to him, “It is also one of the few truly effective uses of technology that I have seen in the reality of our country, enhancing real education rather than stunting it.”

That was in 2012. In 2023, too, Behar opines that “the usefulness of technology in education is overestimated and over-hyped”. In an interaction with FE, he says: “In fact, with younger children, it can have deleterious effects. Even with older children, it has very limited usefulness. Education is a social-human process, it will do us good to remember that.” However, “technology is most useful in the hands of a capable teacher—like any other tool. Technology can also be useful for sharing and forming communities of educators. But the notion that our children can be educated with or through technology is just flawed and marketing hype,” the writer adds.

In several instances throughout the book, Behar makes a case for the public education system. He believes “there is no substitute for a sound public education system”. “Even the most market-oriented societies depend on the public system for education. That is to do with the nature of education and the role it plays in society. If we want to be a developed economy and society, we must strengthen public education—there is no substitute,” he says.

At the same time, he is well aware of the issues faced by our education system, in general. “Our teacher education system is a mess. We are not preparing our teachers well; once the teachers are on the job they don’t have adequate support and resources,” he says. In fact, Behar highlights prominently the issues faced by public school teachers, from a lack of resources to just a few teachers responsible for an entire school, and being called for state-related duties, leaving them with less time for their main job, which is teaching.

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Sadly, this is not the only issue. “Many school support systems are ill-equipped. A very large proportion of our children live in poverty or near poverty, which means they don’t have adequate resources at home and often have inadequate nutrition. Board exams and the way they (most) are conducted are a big problem, and more,” he says.

One of the overlooked issues he highlights is the language barrier many students face. To elucidate, he takes the readers to a village classroom in Rajasthan, where “an earnest teacher was speaking in Hindi as a class full of children stared back blankly”. It was later explained to him that none of the children understood Hindi. “When the teacher spoke in Hindi, which was the official medium of instruction in Rajasthan, they were all disengaged. He had to revert to Mewari.”

Emphasis on such subtle issues, along with the bigger ones, and many heartwarming stories of people involved in education make the book an interesting read. In the end, it clearly comes from a person who deeply cares about learning, making it an excellent book for anyone with even a little bit of interest in education in India.

A Matter of the Heart: Education in India

Anurag Behar

Westland Books

Pp 392, Rs599

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First published on: 21-05-2023 at 00:45 IST