02 Sep 2018 16:51 IST

The dignity of effort

What’s noble, what’s not, what matters, what does not… it’s all in the mind

As a child, I remember often hearing the phrase, ‘dignity of labour’ being bandied about. I also remember getting the distinct impression of people from the Anglo-Indian community being given that label, and I understood that what it meant was that generally speaking, whatever job members of that community undertook, they did it to their best ability. I also remember their homes being pervaded with the sounds of laughter and music. Of course, these impressions garnered during childhood are likely to be not entirely reliable, but I think you get the picture.

Still, there are some things that are neither dignified nor acceptable forms of labour. The fact of a human being routinely lowering himself into a filthy manhole to clean the waste materials of the rest of society can never be condoned. This is the extreme end of this issue, beginning with attitudes and expectations that can only be deplored. There’s a lot of talk about varnas and the caste-system and Manu the so-called law-giver’s rules for life and livelihood, so there’s no need to go into all that here. However, it can never be reiterated sufficiently that any direction that rules that some people are high and others low by virtue of their birth, is unacceptable. What is amazing that such a view of life supposedly imposed upon us civilisations ago, sometime in 200 BCE or so, not only took hold, it sent down roots and has now become ineradicable.

Not the ideal world

We call ourselves modern, progressive, scientifically and intellectually advanced, yet we pin our beliefs on patently untenable suppositions. In any society, in any time, the only thing that can differentiate people is their deportment with respect to relationships: simply put, how people treat each other. With respect? With disdain? With compassion? With fairness? With cruelty?

In an ideal world, people would be peers in every sense of the word. Their work, their wealth, their power wouldn’t matter. The reality is we do not live in an equal world and in an unequal world, all these carry great consequence. Ideally, we should at least strive for a semblance of equality. The reality is that people are individuals and groups of individuals become society and society tilts the balance towards and away from the ideal.

That’s why the teacher is so poorly regarded — both in terms of financial recompense and position in society. This is not to undermine the emotional quotient attached to the profession: all of us have teachers we have loved (and reviled), who have played an important role in guiding us. But often, it stops there. In fact, now, we don’t want to be teachers ourselves. We may be inspired by them, but we don’t want to ‘be’ them. We want more, because we believe being a teacher is ‘less’.

Teacher’s Day

Yet, the irony is that we need teachers, we need good teachers, we need teachers who will connect with students, who will love them enough to be tough with their students yet not wield the cane. In India, we celebrate September 5 as Teacher’s Day. It’s not a random ‘day’. It is the birthday of India’s second President, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Apparently when a bunch of his students once told him they wanted to celebrate his birthday, he suggested they commemorate it as a day to honour teachers instead. So, since 1962, we’ve been ‘honouring’ teachers on September 5 — even if the rest of the days of the year we make their lives miserable. Like a lot of other ‘days’, it’s a token, merely lip service to the tremendous contribution teachers make in our lives, often under the most trying circumstances. Of course, this comment is made in the context of the ideal, not the general, more the pity.

October 5 is World Teacher’s Day, not that well-known in India nor even that often commemorated. The idea behind dedicating a ‘world day’ is to draw attention to issues concerning education and the practice of teaching.

There are many things a teacher can do, both at the school and college level, to make learning more effective, and indeed, they do, at least at the primary and elementary school levels. Many government programmes have been initiated, and many school children have benefited from these. But this can only be in pockets because there are just too many children and too few teachers with that kind of dedication or even capability. These days, when librarians themselves don’t read books for whatever reason, how can we expect the impossible from the entire army of teachers? The guru-sishya arrangement was one thing; the perfect teacher-student ratio is a privilege; but all teachers and all children deserve opportunities. How do you reconcile all of this?

Make it count

As it is written in the Bible: Physician, heal thyself, so we have to appeal not only to teachers, but to anyone and everyone who works: recognise your abilities and give it your best. It doesn’t matter what you do because everything matters. Every contribution enables a community, a society, a nation, the world. It builds the foundation and shoulders the burden.

Sport, the arts, gadgets and games, contraptions, modes of transportation and ease of travel, access to books and beauty, service and solitude, or drumbeats that make you dance… everything matters and everything makes a difference. It doesn’t matter whether you’re DJ or a doctor, a cobbler or a caregiver, a bus driver or a beautician, an engineer or an engine driver, a housemaid or a hotelier… you count in my life, you make our lives better, and there’s no cost to your contribution, only great value. Great value.

The problem is: how do we evaluate work?