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We must reverse the tide

For value education to succeed, the first lessons must begin at home. Namita Bhandare writes.

columns Updated: Sep 30, 2012 13:19 IST

It's ok to be dishonest in order to succeed, believe an astounding 70% of kids aged 13-18. I don't know what's more shocking: The revelation that our future leaders, in business, in politics, in administration, as parents, are potential crooks (sorry there is no nice way to put this) or the near absence of shock following the publication of the results of a recent survey conducted by this newspaper and commissioned against the backdrop of the Central Board of Secondary Education's (CBSE) decision to include value education as part of the academic curriculum.

The survey is revealing. Would you cheat a friend? Half said yes. Would you hang out with less privileged kids in your class? No, said 37%.

Nobody disputes the need for ethical values in education. The debate is whether these can be taught as an academic subject. In the Hindustan Times story reported by Samar Khurshid, one official is quoted saying: "You can't assess values through exams."

Perhaps not. But it's not just educators but parents too who grapple with the question: How do you raise a child to be good in a competitive world?

Part of the problem stems from how we define success. We pay lip service to one definition (success means being a good person, well-adjusted, empathetic and optimistic) but worship at the altar of another (success in material terms, size of house, pay cheque and car). In a post-liberalised world, we confuse success with achievement - bottom line, net worth, development indices, infrastructure projects, medals won, runs scored, marks obtained.

We admire an Azim Premji for his philanthropy but are obsessed by India's rich list. We say we want tolerance and inclusion but hold up as exemplars of leadership those chief ministers whose achievements are measured in terms of development rather than communal harmony. We grumble at India's lack of a gold medal at the Olympics (so far) but fail to applaud the bravery of Abhinav Bindra who could have rested on his Beijing laurels but chose to go to London anyway. We say we only want our children to be happy and well-adjusted and then place unrealistic goals and unbelievable stress on them in terms of marks and report cards. What we say and what we do is disconnected by a zillion light years.

Perhaps this is why CBSE's plan to include value education into the school curriculum comes at an opportune time. We seem to be a country at strife and there is a sense of moral decline all around. Anna Hazare's continuing anti-corruption crusade underlines public disgust at corruption. Increasing violence against women from Guwahati to Mangalore point to not just rising misogyny but the state's failure to create safe public spaces. Juvenile crime statistics are up by 37.7% from 2001 to 2010, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Even the Olympics are not exempt as badminton comes under a match-fixing cloud.

If we are to reverse the tide and restore any sense of normalcy, morality and hope, then we face a mammoth task. Schools don't have it easy and one educator told me: "How do we teach kids values when so many see the opposite at home? We tell them to respect women, but at home they see their fathers push their mothers around. How do they reconcile these worlds?"

There is another problem. Do we have an agreed set of values that we want to pass on to future generations? If compassion is a priority for some, then preserving Indian culture and traditions could be a priority for others. How do we, across the length and breadth of this huge country reach a consensus on the sort of ethics we want for our children?

But if value education is to succeed, then the first lessons begin at home with parents as role models who demand exacting standards. Value education cannot be just a 30-minute lesson to be graded. If we are to teach our children to negotiate the tricky path between competition and ethical advantage, then value education needs to be all-encompassing, all the time. Our future depends on it.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal