"Thambi (means ‘brother’ in Tamil), will you give him a job in your repair shop?" says the aunty pointing to her son.
Thambi, the owner of the electrical appliances repair shop, nods 'no' with an awkward smile. His eyes were fixated on my mixer grinder as he was masterfully dismantling each and every part of it.
Aunty continues, "He is not regular with his online classes. In this condition, he can end up only somewhere like here at best. I'll send him tomorrow. Can you give him a job?"
Thambi still nods 'no' with the same awkward smile, and an added tinge of discomfort. His eyes were still keenly fixed on the mixer grinder while his fingers expertly danced with the screwdriver. By now, he has skillfully diagnosed at least four potential causes which prevented the grinder from properly functioning.
"See, you are not even able to get a job in this mixie repair shop! You cannot even dream about going to an office like your dad or me...", the office-going aunty continued her sermon to her son. While she waited with a faulty mixie in her hand, our Thambi brought my mixer grinder to life in an instant by replacing the faulty carbon brushes. I left the workshop with many questions, thoughts, and aspirations.
The whole incident reflected the harsh reality of how manual skills and education is perceived in India.
As an educator working in an affordable rural school, I am often bombarded with seemingly contrasting expectations. There’s ever-growing body of research that states that children learn the best by doing, and that they should be spending more time outside the classrooms getting their hands dirty (literally and figuratively) by experimenting. On the other hand, we have our working class parents who get disappointed (sometimes even offended) if the child’s uniform gets dirty from playing or experimenting. These are the parents who toil day and night in dirt despite the hardships and lack of societal respect just to get their children formally educated. They do this mainly with the hope that at least their children will have a ‘better life’ with ‘prestigious office jobs’ by acquiring ‘quality education’. The ‘quality education’ here is defined by fluent English, elegant cursive handwriting, bookish rote learning, and neatly ironed uniforms (sounds colonial?). It does sometimes feel unreasonable to deprive parents of the ‘quality education’ that they are striving hard to pay for. They pay so that their children don’t have to toil under the sun. They pay so that their children can sit comfortably in a classroom and learn from the books. This is not to say that the parents don’t appreciate other skills such as creativity and critical thinking. It is just that all these skills are considered secondary and not vital skills to be learned at schools. Leaving the soft skills behind, there’s a deeper problem that worries me the most. It is the lack of dignity of labour and it gets reflected in many aspects of schooling.
Every time a school prepares for an event such as the Sports Day celebration, one can experience an aura of excitement. One can see the young students running around with a sense of pride in making the arrangements. It is a sheer manual effort where the students team up together to lift benches and make the seating arrangement, clean the space, decorate the venue and a lot more. An interesting thing to note here is that, as the student grows up and learns the societal norms, their pride in doing the same manual work diminishes significantly. Ultimately this reaches an extent where the older students think that it's a disgrace to do manual work. This is not so surprising given our society’s poor relationship with labour.
As a society, we have decimated the dignity of manual labour. The fetishization of white collared work has gone to an extent that numerous 'educated' youth in rural communities would rather stay unemployed and unproductive than do any work that could soil their clothes. Saying this openly might make me seem insensitive, given our society's caste-ridden oppression deep-rooted in work. However, as Paulo Frier beautifully puts, "No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption." Unfortunately, our current education is centered towards setting white-collared work as an aspiration rather than equipping students to take charge of the opportunities in their own communities. This is not to paint a rosy picture on the local livelihoods. Of course, they are ridden with many faults but I believe that those faults can be fixed by conscious and empowered youth.
Speaking of empowered youth transforming local livelihoods, I recall my visit to Vigyan Ashram, an innovative rural technology center at Pabal - a drought prone village located 70kms from Pune. Vigyan Ashram functions on the philosophy of Gandhiji’s Nai Talim which emphasises learning with hands. The learners at Vigyan Ashram are predominantly drop-outs and high school graduates from the local villages. The learners are equipped with various manual skills such as electrical work, welding, plumbing, crop management, and a lot more. It was impressive to see the learners engaging with local villagers to solve the problems faced by the community using technology. I was astonished to see machines ranging from solar dryers to sophisticated plastic pyrolysis machines developed by the learners, from scratch, for their local needs. Learners graduate to become entrepreneurs and problem-solvers for their communities. Vigyan Ashram is a testament to the power of contextual education in empowering youth to transform communities. However, the main question still prevails - how do we normalise manual skilling and help children understand the dignity of ALL labour within the constraints of the Indian education system? Makerspaces could be a key to achieving that.
Apart from the cognitive benefits such as gaining 21st century skills or learning STEM concepts that are derived from ‘making’, making does a lot more to develop the value system of the children. Making helps one appreciate the amount of skill and effort that goes behind creating stuff - be it a simple cardboard tower or a well-polished table. Making helps one appreciate craftsmanship. More importantly, making helps one appreciate labour and be more empathetic.
A pearl of wisdom shared by my ‘Basic Engineering Workshop’ professor Subbaiah during my first year of engineering education has stuck with me even after nine years. After a laborious day at the welding workshop, he said to us, “I don’t expect this workshop session to make you all expert welders. Most of you might not even hold a welding rod ever again. But I want you all to appreciate the skill involved in this manual labour. I want you to understand the dignity of labour.”
I believe the best gift that we can give to a child is to enable them to make. Let them make whatever they want to. By trying to make a table, they might not end up becoming world class carpenters, but they will start appreciating carpentering. Maybe that will lead to a better world that truly appreciates each other and dignity of labour prevails beyond just words!