Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Last Lesson, Memories of Childhood, and Elementary School Classroom have Social Activism as an important theme


Perhaps one of the good things the CBSE Board has done for students of the grade twelve English Core course is to include a judicious selection of literature lessons deal with the theme of social activism on social issues that affect the society in a big way. This is a theme that most students can connect to, making lessons socially and contextually relevant. The increasing need to connect classroom learning to everyday life, has meant that the lessons are connected to everyday life issues that students will relate to. One of the common strands that connects these lessons is the theme of Social Activism. One suggestion to teachers therefore, is to teach all lessons with a similar theme together as one unit so that students can make connections between different lessons that deal with a common theme. This will also help students make important connections to the social issues that they will have come across either directly or indirectly. The teaching of these lessons will help the privileged to appreciate their being more blessed than the others, it will help sensitize them to the problems faced by the less privileged, and for the majority of those who are not so blessed economically or in terms of caste, these lessons will help give them the much needed hope and encouragement for transcending these social barriers. Take for example, the learning that Bama was able to glean from her brother Annan who told her how the stigma of caste could be transcended through excellence in education.
Some of the lessons that share the common theme of social activism include The Last Lesson, Lost Spring, An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum from the Flamingo Textbook, and Memories of Childhood from the Vistas Textbook. To start with The Last Lesson, the central theme of this lesson is linked with the suppression  of a community on the basis of language and region. In this case, a notice had come from Berlin which contained the message that French would no longer be taught in the annexed provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and instead, German would be taught. Linguistic Chauvinism, as we call it deals with the imposition of a language other than that of a community for the basic idea of taking away their sense of togetherness, their spirit, and their identity. Examples of Linguistic Chauvinism continue to exist in our society and in our country and it can not be said that the student is not aware of it. When a country is invaded, then the invaders bring with them their language which they impose upon the conquered  as a way of imposing their culture, and their hegemony. From the sociological perspective, this is a continuous process and subversion of societies on the basis of language and culture have been studied in depth.
Memories of Childhood a lesson found in the supplementary textbook of the English Core syllabus for grade ten. The lesson deals with social activism as professed by Zitkala-Sa and Bama. Both women, separated by time and Geography have one thing in common, they both wrote about the suppression of Marginalised communities by mainstream communities. In the case of Zitkala-Sa, it was about the imposition of Western culture over the Native Indian culture of Ethnic Indians living in America. Zitkala-Sa was a witness to the process of westernisation in one of the western schools for Indians, the Carlisle Indian school. If one would call it a process of re-education, then I guess one wouldn’t be really far from the point. One might point out the the process of indoctrinations and brain-washing of people during the cold war when people who lived in Socialist countries were brain-washed and indoctrinated against the attacks of the Imperialist countries. In the case of Bama, it was all about writing about the scourge of the Caste system prevailing in India. Bama, a Tamil Dalit woman wrote about the evils of the Caste system that prevails in various parts of the country. She describes how she was able to overcome the stigma by studying hard and achieving success in education.
Stephen Spender a believer in Socialist ideology and pacifism, brings out the theme of poverty and education, and in  in his poem, An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum found in the Flamingo Textbook. The message that Stephen Spender attempts to bring out in his poem is that it is mere wishful thinking to believe that you can educate impoverished children and thus liberate them from the fog of misery that threatens to choke them on the spot. What Stephen Spender wants ‘governor, inspector,visitor’ to do is to “Break O break open till they break the town’. The idea is that you need to rid the society of the barriers that separate the poor from the rich. You need to address problems of poverty before attempting to educate the poor! An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum is a hard hitting poem that seeks to burst the bubble of complacency of people who think they have done their level best by donating a picture of Shakespeare’s face or a picture of a magnificent building to a school for slum children for their emancipation. What happens in reality is that these donations far from emancipating the poor children in fact lead to their edification, they are reminded of the abject state of poverty they live in, and some of them  resort to illegal means in order to achieve the good things in life as represented by the donations of ‘Shakespeare’s head’ and ‘civilized dome’. Elementary School Classroom is thematically connected to the Lesson Lost Spring found in the textbook, Flamingo. Lost Spring deals with the scourge of child labour that flourishes in India. Both, An Elementary School Classroom and Lost Spring, written by Anees Jung, a Social Activist, deal with the impact of poverty on the society. In Elementary School Classroom, poverty is an overwhelming disease which threatens to snuff out hope and enterprise in children who in the ideal sense are supposed to be future leaders of the country. In Lost Spring, Poverty is the main reason why children are forced to work at an early age, they become ‘partners in survival’ shouldering the burden of earning a living along with their parents. The expression “children’s faces. Like rootless weeds’ in the poem connects directly with Anees Jung’s description about how the “squatters”  in Seemapuri “pitch their tents that become transit homes” wherever they find food. For the people living in Seemapuri in an “an abject state of poverty”, the most important factor is to have one square meal in a day, and for the children in Elementary School Classroom, food is a crucial issue, the children studying in that classroom are thin and weak to the point of  being unable to hold their “head” they are stunted in growth and  another student is described as a “paper seeming boy, with rat’s eyes”. You have two lessons belonging to two different countries and yet sharing the same theme of Social Activism. Social Activism is exactly what the writers of the two lessons have resorted to by writing their pieces!

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