Recently, my mom sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal about India’s education system and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The article focuses on a relatively recent law requiring private schools – which are infinitely better than the failing public school system – to set aside a 25% quota of their seats for children from impoverished families. The hope is that this will enable a portion of the millions of impoverished children to improve their situations – ideally, growing the middle class and narrowing the income gap.
The article reveals both promising and somewhat disturbing outcomes of this experiment, which have brought to mind my recent experience attending the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in New Orleans. In a country in which it is the norm for even a middle class family to have one or more servants, and in which the caste system has persisted despite various legal attempts to thwart it, this sudden change of circumstances has caught many people off guard. Many people are unexpectedly faced with a situation in which their children are attending the same school as their servants’ children, and their reactions reveal deeply rooted ideas about class and status that sound eerily familiar to the racist mindsets that were not uncommon in this country such a short time ago.
Granted, the problems in India are of a somewhat different nature from the problems this country has faced: there is a language barrier between rich and poor, the culture is different, the gaps between rich and poor are much wider than they have ever been (to my knowledge) in this country. Yet there is a lot of overlap as well: a historically subservient class, vast differences in the quality of schools, arguments for “separate but equal” schooling (at least until the poor kids get up to par with the wealthier ones). The fact of the matter is, people from different classes are uncomfortable being at the same table as one another. It forces their relationship to change. Sometimes, however, a little forced change in relationships is necessary to get over the first big hurdle. The situation in India may not be violent right now, but just as the Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists had to stand at the forefront to break down barriers, the low-income children and their parents who are enrolling them at these schools are entering new territory and breaking down walls.
I don’t know if this quota is the best way to bridge the privilege gap or not, but I do know that bringing people together at the same table is an important first step. Until people can get to know one another and see each other as equals, that gap will never grow smaller, no matter how many laws the government puts into place.
For now, India’s private school classrooms may just be the tables that people can gather around – no matter how difficult it may be.