Getting an under-privileged child admitted to a premier school : is that so simple?

Editor’s note:

This is a response to the opinion published on Citizen Matters last week, titled When Bengaluru’s reputed school says no to admitting a “low class” kid…



Pic courtesy: ESAF Bangalore FB page

Simplicity is misunderstood in two ways, exemplified by two statements:

1. “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” – Albert Einstein

2. “Given multiple explanations for a situation, the simplest is the best one to assume” — a  reformulation of Occam’s razor I heard as a kid.

The first statement is often misinterpreted mainly because, in such matters, no two people can agree on the exact line where something is ‘as simple as possible, but not simpler’.  

The second statement is often misused as a pretext to avoid real complexities in the domain.

I believe that most things are rarely as simple as they seem. Writers make things seem simpler by shifting the discussion from the complex issue to something simpler, such as an emotional appeal. The readers, inundated with too much information, abet the writer, giving their precious attention, votes, shares and likes to simpler, more sensational and emotionally appealing articles.

Recently, I came across this article talking about the atrociousreasoning of an elitist school in Bangalore that refused to take in a child of lower economic means

I understand and empathize with the writer’s incredulity. I also understand the indignation of readers who empathize with the writer. That said, the plot — involving an economically deprived child, his career aspirations and the evil rich kids school that scorns the child — has all the elements needed to go viral. And the emotional, personal tone of the article literally clinches the deal.

But, once I get past the initial emotional response,  I begin to see a counterpoint — a view that justifies why the school may say such things as:

“The difference in social strata ‘will sap his self-confidence’ ”

“The [school’s] parents ‘dislike their kids associating with Mo’s poor types

I present three real life anecdotes below, which illustrate this counterpoint:

When a private school goes ‘international’

We know of a cook in our apartment complex who has been sending her child to a certain private neighborhood school for a few years now.

A year or two ago, the school spontaneously evolved itself into an ‘international’ school.The school name board was repainted with the word international in it, and there were various affiliations and conformities met to justify that claim in the school’s literature.

To justify the cost of these “efforts”, the annual fees went up by leaps, sudden ad hoc fees crept up from unknown crevices in the name of social activities, notably targeting the ‘international’ bracket of social.

This kid’s mom (the cook) was subjected to all kinds of humiliation at the school due to her social deviance from their target market — she would be called to discuss something about the child at a certain time, which she would accommodate with great strife in the households she worked at.

When she reached the school on time, with a narrow window available, other more well-to-do parents who came in, after her, without appointment, would be let in to meet the school administrators before her, and she would have to wait for a long time even to get to talk to the authorities. The child often sat by, watching, observing, and who knows, perhaps, ‘sapping away his self-confidence’.

Different social experiences for rich and poor

The second case is that of a child in another international school, who comes from a family of relatively lesser means. This child has been subject to a lot of social stigma as a consequence. For example, while the kids from richer households see weekend excursions to five star hotels as life as usual, this child has to deal with the terrifying awkwardness and unfamiliarity of the entire experience, in the presence of her peers.

So, yes, there is an impact on a child’s social experience when they go to a school where the majority is from a different economic background. (I believe it goes both ways — some rich parents send their kids to schools with kids predominantly from a lower economic stratum, just for kicks, or for frivolous and romantically idealistic reasons such as ‘living in the trenches’, and that builds all kinds of ‘not belonging’ complexes in these out of place richer kids.)

Reaching out to the unreachable!

My third story involves a milkmaid. She would deliver milk every evening in an apartment I lived in. Her nine year old son would tag along every day. That boy, as kids are wont to do, wandered around to the area where the apartment kids play at that time, and started mingling with them.

At these modern day equivalents of public playgrounds, most kids bring and quite innocuously, brandish their shiny toys — bicycles, scooters, roller skates or other such — amongst their friends, a crucial social ritual in the free advertising and cross-pollination of children’s product demos and brand loyalties.

The milkmaid’s kid, however, could only yearn for these toys from a distance. But the longing to possess or try out these toys was too high to resist. So, the kid hatched a (quite ingenious) scheme to get his hands on those toys. Everyday, he would go into the apartment play space and say his hellos. He would then wander away for a while out of sight of the other kids. He would then return, narrow down on one (usually younger and unsuspecting) kid, and tell him, “I just went and talked to your mother, and she said that you should lend me your bicycle/scooter for a while”.

The innocent child, not knowing the cultural unlikeliness of this situation, would oblige immediately. It was only when the rounds hit my kid, and he mentioned it to me in passing, that I found out about this. Now, I do not fault that child for his plan (I think it was quite a brilliant one, given the goal he set out to achieve, which is also totally understandable). However, I do know that there are others in the apartment who could and very well would bar that milkmaid from ever entering the apartment if this came to their notice.

So, I called the milkmaid. First, I profusely clarified that I was not complaining personally, and that I had no problems with what happened. I then told her the whole story, including the possibility that others may complain, which might affect her livelihood. She landed up advising her child to avoid mixing with the other kids. Even though I had the best interests of all concerned, I felt strangely guilty in being party to quashing an innocent childhood interaction due to irrational adult social distinctions. But yet, I could not think of a better way to minimize harm.

Simple assumptions don’t work in sociology

These other parents I talk about have kids who go to such elitist schools. I can see how such parents would ‘dislike their kids associating with Mo’s poor types. If I were an experienced administrator in such a school, typically oneself of lesser means, I may be obliged to warn my fellow ‘middle-class’ parents of the risk of having to face up against existing snobby parents’ and their kids’ scorn.

In an ideal world, I would love to see a world with no discrimination, not only on economic, but on any divisive grounds. An ironic aside to think of: while this article rains on economic discrimination, it indirectly lauds the army — a way more violent discriminatory body, which discriminates on the even more irrational basis of national superiority, and also enacts much more horrific atrocities on the ‘enemy’ just because they happen to be born at a certain coordinate.

I am not saying that the army, or elitist schools are inherently good or bad. I am just saying that it amuses me that a writer who feels so comfortable with the one can be so inflamed about the other. I also believe there are complex social distinctions at play both among adults, between adults and kids, and between kids, and acknowledging their complexity is essential to better cope with the challenges ahead, as opposed to diverting the discussion to emotional territory as this article does.

In fields such as science and math, simpler explanations are preferable among otherwise similar alternatives, since the language of specification itself would prefer simplicity over complexity. In subjective, human fields such as sociology, psychology, cultural theory, and such, it is perhaps wiser to begin with the assumption that things are rarely as simple as they seem.

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When Bengaluru’s reputed school says no to admitting a “low class” kid…

8 Comments

  1. I’ll say this from first hand experience in Govt school – The kids would be ahead if you just showed up. Everyone, the Principal down, are big time truant. In the words of a fellow volunteer, these places are like day care centers rather than schools – A place to park your kid while you iron clothes, wash utensils or drive a cab. I’ve seen your profile and it’s awesome. Just your presence would help by sheer osmosis, because you’d literally be the only educated person in that kids life. And you obviously would do more than just show up, so that’s all bonus for the kid. We’re connected on LinkedIn – If you’re in Whitefield, I’ll message you the person to speak to, to get engaged.
    Some of what you allude to in your second article is called Constructivism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(philosophy_of_education)), which is a fancy way of saying “Learning by doing”. You could do some of that yourself on this job. 🙂
    Good luck – Look me up if there’s any way I can help.

  2. Dear Mr Redey, I had no intention of confronting you or initiating a debate. I apologize if there was anything in my article that made it appear so. And you are obviously a person with a lot of expertise, experience and knowledge of the field of education, and my involvement in the domain pales significantly in comparison – it is restricted to being a passionate parent with a deep passion to equip children to survive in the world, and protect them from all forms of misinformation that I, as an adult, grapple with. My experience, if you can call it that, is merely anecdotal, and my conjectures are solely based on these isolated anecdotal experiences. I am glad that Mo got a position in a school of your liking. I would be curious, as time goes by, in knowing how well it works out for him, please do let me know if you have any interesting experiences to share. I have held the opinion (perhaps, as you say, in error, due to my lack of exposure to the research you mention, and all such fears arising from these fragmented personal experiences) that social impact could harm a child much more than the benefits of a high end school. Perhaps the research is clear on that, and the social impact is trivial in comparison, and I wish for all concerned that it is so. To respond to your last point in the comment, I am hesitant to change lives in the real world, without verified evidence of my methods – so, I am taking baby steps towards trying to engage my child from time to time in an inquiry based technique, as described in my second article. I consider this methodology cannot do much harm, since it is after all trying to identify my child’s own curiosities, and address them through discussion. The process has been hard, and fraught with all kinds of obstacles, and results have been slow in coming, but there are very fulfilling spurts where real deep interaction and learning has happened, and these well make up for the efforts. Anyway, good luck to you and Mo, and I again apologize for anything I said that might have been misconstrued as insensitive or confrontational.

  3. Mr. Ramanathan. I have to confess to having less than no enthusiasm or energy to engage with you in this sterile academic debate that didn’t do an iota of good to anyone in the real world. That changed when I read your second article that clearly marked you as someone who means well and perhaps will act on those intentions. So here’s a quick recap of the factual portion of my opinion of your above piece (I have no reservations in publicly stating that I’m a 100% emotionally invested in Mo’s case and in no position to maintain a fair and balanced viewpoint when it comes to his good – So I won’t discuss my feelings on some of your specific statements and insinuations in the interest of keeping this conversation polite).
    Firstly, your pro-economic segregation opinion here places you at odds with some of the giants in the field of education. and their multi-year hard-data-driven research. I’d suggest Googling your way to some of this data.
    Secondly, the social impact is a tiny price for Mo to pay for a better education. Sure, chemotherapy has side effects but few people would walk away from the life-saving benefits of this treatment due to it. Mo’s a tough kid – He’s dealt with a lot worse where he comes from. I’m pretty sure he can handle hanging out with rich kids with bling without turning into a kleptomaniac himself. (???)
    Finally, I say the following because I’m an education industry insider who runs seven schools in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat and speak to my peers regularly: The admissions lady I was speaking to at the Indradhanush school was parroting lines crafted by the high-end private school industry. She didn’t give a damn about Mo, see? She was just an apologist for the creeps who run that particular school, and are currently at the center of a storm and have had their sad lack of ethics amply disrobed in the news du jour. For every Mo they accept, they also accept a lifetime loss in income that could cross Rs. 1Cr., and she knew it.
    There are ways to make this work if they wanted it to. Case in point: Indus Schools. FYI, Sir, we got Mo into Indus Community School last week. Here, the Richie Rich Indus International School kids are not only expected to be big brother and mentor to the poor community school kids but also expected to actively tutor them. Mo pays a token fee that covers clothes, books and all the peripheral expenses you mention including a sports kit. Do you really think Mo gives a damn that his laptop isn’t the latest Macbook Pro, his riding boots aren’t made by Gucci, or that he now has a hope in hell of going to decent college, even if that college isn’t Harvard? None of these were even options in his past life at the Government school. This is his big break in life, he knows it, and is plowing through his new studies like a mad man on a mission.
    Bottom line:
    1. You, in fact, are the one siding with the overly simplified viewpoint. The economic segregation that Indradhanush and you vouch for is the expedient way. The harder, more complicated, and substantially less popular – but the RIGHT – way to handle Mo-like cases AS DETERMINED BY ABOVE-MENTIONED RESEARCH is in the direction of co-existence rather than segregation.
    2. My not-so-humble submission to you, Sir, is this: If you really want to do something to improve the world around you, please engage in the real world. Forget this hypothetical jousting on these pages. I’m going to risk sounding like a pompous ass and am challenging you to take your incredible talents to changing just one life in the real world, Sir, and write about it here. I assure you that I will applaud you for it and jump through hoops to help you in absolutely any way I can. But I won’t be responding any more on this page because this exercise amounts to little more than intellectual ma****bation at this point.

  4. I second Mohan’s opinion. Acknowledging the status-quo is necessary to correctly assess the situation. Having known the status-quo, don’t we have a responsibility of doing something about it ? It could be some of the measures that Mohan points out, or like the original article says – there is always a Mo’ nearby. Simply put, we can’t afford to not do anything.

  5. Dear Anand,

    I agree with you on over-simplifying issues by using the emotional angle. And of course, the socio-economic rift is a subjectively complex issue with many facets.

    But, I cannot agree that therefore we should just let it be. I don’t think that we should use the argument that “It would be so in an ideal world, but it is not an ideal world, so… *sigh*”. Because in doing so, we are maintaining a status quo. We are not making the world any better.

    Solutions are possibly way outside the reach of a single individual. But we can try…

    To begin with, here’s why we should try. It is as children that we learn without judgements. Categories and judgements learnt during childhood tend to be fundamental and formative. It is during childhood, therefore, that we should aim to bridge the rich-poor/high-class-low-class incommunicado. If rich kids mingle only with rich kids, and see only the rich world, they see only one small part of the world, and assume that it is the whole world. And when they grow up, their actions will seem naive or cruel, because they do not think for the rest of the world, but they think they do. The same with poor kids – for them, the rich kids are beyond reach, almost enemies, something to aspire for.

    I hope you will agree with me that these are unhealthy situations.

    What steps can we possibly take in a case my “Mo”‘s?
    Well, to begin with, we could get more kids like Mo into the school, so that poor kids are not a rarity. Use legal or formal means, like RTE, to get them in. Try to convince schools to offer some scholarships. Give some remedial classes to students weak in English, or whatever is the medium of instruction. Enforce rules that ensure that a child’s economic background does not materially show in class… For example, uniform clothes, ban on mobiles and fancy accessories etc. This will ensure that the there are no obvious markers for rich and poor. Then just let the children know each other. They will learn from each other, because they don’t easily judge. For backup, perhaps have a counselling service. Need not be a professional counsellor, but a teacher with some training will work fine.

    These changes are not very radical. In fact, many of these notions used to exist until a few years back… School rules haven’t caught up with how much the world has changed, that’s all.

  6. Ms. Veena, Thanks for your comment.

    I agree that in an ideal world, schools, governments, parents and children would all be sensitive to each other’s differences, and kids from all strata could happily study and play together. I would also agree completely with you that we should spread such an attitude of mutual respect as far as we can – in our schools, friends, children, community.

    And yet, until such change happens, people will be what they are. I am worried, not about the parents, schools or their attitudes, but the effect on that child even if he gets into such a school – should we perhaps consider the reasons given by the school to avoid admitting that child for his own sake, however we may feel about the attitude of the school or parent or other children.

    On a similar note, regarding the tale of the milkmaid’s son, I have personally advised my child to play with that child on several occasions in many ways, and my child has no problems doing that. I cannot influence other children or their parents, and do not know how a parent will respond to my trying to influence their child’s views.
    From the milkmaid’s standpoint, though, between the risk of losing her livelihood by other parents complaining and her child’s mingling with apartment kids, I presumed that the livelihood is much more important for the milkmaid, hence my choice to warn her. Also, we could probably think harder about this. Is it better to give that child those toys temporarily, as long as he plays here, and have him suffer the pains when he cannot afford similar toys if, say, he moves elsewhere, or is he perhaps better off without them? Sometimes, I (and many parents I know) feel my own child, though not under economic distress, would be better off without several of the toys he has access to:-) As I said, things aren’t as simple as they seem.

  7. Sir,

    I agree to what you said, but i would say it is the responsibility of the school and parents to teach children the right things like treating others like a fellow human being and not based on rich or poor or based on caste by following themselves. Dont you think then the school or the parents you mentioned are making children to learn discrimination and they are not doing their duty.
    One thing i wanted to add regarding your third story instead of asking the milkmaid to not allowing the child to mingle, you could have advised your child and his rich friends to play with the poor child and share toys once in a while then he would not have resorted to what he did otherwise.

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