Corporatisation and education: Are children turning into robots?


In the two decades of my teaching and consultation career, whenever I have counselled parents or conducted seminars and workshops with them, I have invariably begun with: “Where do you see your children ten years from now?” And I have always been bombarded with answers containing this one very loaded adjective: Successful. All parents want to see their children as successful professionals, successful artists, and successful sportspersons—come what may. I find it appalling how not a single parent, in all these years, ever declared that they imagined their child would grow up to be “healthy”, “happy” or “resilient”, irrespective of their profession and the moolah they make annually.

Let’s face some harsh facts before taking this discussion further. One in four teenagers in India suffers from depression. Over the last five years, more than 40,000 students committed suicide in India. Last year, 8,492 students committed suicide. One student commits suicide every hour in India. Teenagers who experience cyberbullying are more likely to suffer from poor sleep, which in turn raises levels of depression, according to a new study by the University at Buffalo. The study surveyed more than 800 adolescents for sleep quality, cyber aggression, and depression, each phenomenon connected to the other. Cyber victimisation has emerged as a unique form of peer victimisation and a major mental health concern among teens who are digital natives. And yet, we keep telling ourselves that today’s teenagers are just fragile or obsessed with their looks—such blame games only making the diagnosis and treatment of teenage depression more challenging.

Covid-19 has further endangered the future of 600 million children in South Asia, according to UNICEF. In India, school closures have impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools and 28 million pre-school children in Anganwadi centres. The Childline India Helpline received almost 4.6 lakh calls in just 21 days around the beginning of the lockdown. There was a 50% increase in the number of calls pertaining to instances of child abuse. Nearly 10,000 of these calls were intervention cases which required Childline staff to reach the children in need of support. Of these, 30% of calls were related to escalation in violence, child sexual abuse, child marriage and child labour.

The lockdown and the consequent economic distress made children vulnerable to exploitation, sexual abuse, violence, child labour and trafficking. Being away from school has also disrupted their daily routine and support system outside their homes.  Other factors such as staying indoors all day long and adapting to online classes have increased the sense of isolation among children, leading to anxiety and depression. An increased exposure to screens and to online abuse has also severely affected the mental health of adolescents. As of June 2019, only 40% of the population had access to the internet, making it extremely difficult for students in rural areas to join online classes, which only added further to their anxiety levels.

These statistics bring us face to face with some uncomfortable questions. What then is being successful? Does being successful in terms of examination results ensure the absence of defeat forever? Does success in terms of professional laurels mean the exclusion of failure altogether? Does success in terms of seemingly perfect relationships mean the complete absence of fear and insecurities? Does a great career mean a smooth ride throughout with no rough seas ever?

The answer—whether you like it or not—is that none of these are mutually exclusive. Success and failure are the two sides of the same coin. Therefore, we need to train our children to not hanker after a utopian world where only “success” exists. Rather, right from an early age, let them get acquainted to the thorns just as much as the roses. Let us teach children to deal with failure as a stepping stone to success and to handle success not as an end in itself. Let us not force them with unrealistic expectations and provide them the time and space to grow at their own pace. Let us enforce discipline by setting examples instead of instructing them. Let us encourage an atmosphere where disagreement and debate can happen without abuse and violence, without any shame or fear of being judged. Let us stop body-shaming ourselves and our children and take pride in the people we are. Let us promote healthy food habits, but also bond over a pizza and favourite TV show on the weekends.

A recent advertisement by a popular tech startup, which made news after it was acquired by an edu-tech giant, shows how with its advanced courses in coding, children as young as six years old will be able to create apps and bring about much-needed change, including solutions to complex problems like fixing the earth and environment. The company has also generated much controversy over fake claims of facilitating a kid who learnt coding with the firm and found a high paying job at Google. The company is also facing allegations of corporate surveillance, as a result of which, several of their videos have been taken down.

This enterprise is a minor embodiment of the present modernization project unleashed by corporate capitalism which aims at creating a technologically-empowered high-functioning population of children and enabling them to become high-earning teenagers, besides, of course, high expectations from their career trajectories as adults. What these corporate giants capitalise on is the modern parents’ dream of having such “tech-geniuses” with the lure of assured money and fame. In India, it is not uncommon to use “science and technology” as tranquilising shots for the universal anxiety of parents about the future of their kids. The hidden agenda amidst all of this which deserves our scrutiny is the dangerous mission of these edu-tech giants of corporatizing education and presenting the early learning of technology as palatable to both adults and children.

Can we really burden our children with the responsibility of finding solutions to problems that generations of modern adults have failed at? Is it right to lure such young minds with dreams of “greatness”? Yes, the future of a nation and its people depends on how its children are trained and taught, but does intelligence only restrict itself to the learning and application of mindless technology? In the absence of a proper humanitarian backing for education and technology, we find our computer algorithms to exhibit the same biases as human beings. As corporate capitalism takes over the world, ordinary people stand at serious risk of having their behavioural and psychological patterns exploited by corporate giants to benefit their scheme of making profits. We need to stop falling prey to these fads that are slow-poisoning our children into growing up too fast. Instead, let us think of why, in spite of all these gadgets, most of our children do not feel happy and secure. How can we dispel their insecurities? How can we extend genuine support and make them feel loved, irrespective of their academic and non-academic performance? How can their self esteem, and problem solving abilities be fortified?

Here, we may consider borrowing a few pages from the manuals of parents in countries which rank high on the index of the happiest children in the world, namely Finland and the Netherlands. Dutch parents choose schools which lay more stress on children imbibing social skills rather than over academic achievement. Dutch parents abstain from using cars and have their children bike all year round. Dutch parents also encourage their children to express their opinions and preferences and negotiate their case in a very democratic way from as early as the age of three. Meanwhile, Finnish children practise sisu, an attitude of not quitting when faced with a challenge, whether it is for putting together a difficult puzzle or resolving a dispute with another child. In Finland, toddlers also carry their own plates and cutlery to the dirty dish cart after eating meals. These are the ways in which they learn independence from a young age.

We don’t even need to go that far. If we take a stroll through our own history, we find that under the Gurukul system, all shishyas, irrespective of their socio-economic status, co-inhabited dormitories with basic but equal amenities throughout their student lives, and grew up learning not only academic and administrative skills, but also social and life skills, which made for holistic education. The system also taught them to nurture nature, look after the community, and manage all their daily chores independently. As a result, this system not only created more complete and confident individuals, ready to take on life under all circumstances, but also instilled a sense of discipline, communal responsibility, social equality and brotherhood among pupils drawn from different strata of society.

As parents, it is not only our duty to help our children grow with the right facilities and amenities, which we fiercely compete with other parents to provide our kids with, but also to help them grow with the right attitude. Most children, especially in urban areas, are growing up with a looming sense of ennui and a lack of direction. Everything, from gadgets to books to chores to relationships, becomes “boring” after the first test drive and it’s time for the next adventure, leading our children and young adults to precarious experiences like substance abuse, promiscuous relationships, multiple sexual partners, an over-the-edge style of living and so on. Besides that, there is a general sense of taking everything for granted as material things are more readily available to children today. From this stems an infectious trait of ingratitude towards health, opportunities, relationships and the environment. And when parents surrender to this attitude, they are not only pushing their children further towards a world of alienation, loneliness and misplaced goal posts, where the latest gadgets are their ambitions and social media profiles are friends, but also contributing heavily towards weakening a nation which needs its human resources to take her to newer heights tomorrow.

We need to work towards helping our children grow into industrious and patriotic individuals who can build a stronger, more vibrant and more inclusive nation, instead of turning into a brood of app-making clones pursuing only what is fashionable and monetarily gratifying. Why don’t we involve our children in nation-building activities like being a part of the army, police, hospitals, social welfare departments, flood relief operations, the spastic society, rural development centres, culture departments, tribal and minority development departments, women and child welfare departments and other such areas? It can do well to have children do at least six months or a year of mandatory hands-on service for any of these sectors where they stand to benefit from understanding the woes of the have-nots or their brethren who fight daily battles for their survival and identity. This would instil in the Gen Z some gratitude for the gifts they take for granted and often squander at the altar of misled fancies.

Education that does not build character is hardly worth its name and success that doesn’t teach you to handle failure isn’t worth pursuing. Success is not a skill you can acquire, it is a by-product. If life skills—just like technical skills—are soundly internalised, there is no reason why success can ever elude our children. And this success would be far more holistic and meaningful than scoring a 99.99 percentile in the classroom.

The writer is founder and editor-in-chief of Tribe Tomorrow Network. The views expressed are personal.

Dutch parents choose schools which lay more stress on children imbibing social skills rather than over academic achievement. Finnish children practise sisu, an attitude of not quitting when faced with a challenge, whether it is for putting together a difficult puzzle or resolving a dispute with another child. In Finland, toddlers also carry their own plates and cutlery to the dirty dish cart after eating meals. These are the ways in which they learn independence from a young age.