Education is the Catholic Church’s major ministry in India as it is in some other countries. Parents and students line up looking for a seat in a school or college administered by the Catholic clergy or the religious. An admission to a Christian institution (there is no doubt that there are excellent educational institutions run by many other individuals and groups as well as the government but given the shortage of schools, the race is still tight) is often considered a passport to the child’s bright future. Besides picking up good manners and discipline, a student in a Catholic centre, be it a school or a college, is expected to gain knowledge and skills that hopefully will lead to an enviable career.
In the urban and cosmopolitan settings, children of some of the wealthy and middle-class families continue to take advantage of this. Children from the poorer families have been accommodated (more of them in rural areas) and some of them get subsidies and other kinds of assistance. Whatever be the student’s background, singular dream of the parents is that the student will be educated in an environment that is not ‘contaminated’ by what the happenings in the world outside. In a safe and secular environment student is expected to learn all that is there. Education attempts to introduce one to all sorts of classical arts and sciences and other modern branches of knowledge. Value-education, drawn from religious and secular resources, usually reinforces the given cultural patterns, while helping a student to be a person of honesty, sincerity and integrity.
A difficult question to answer is, shouldn’t a student, be it in school or college, have an understanding and awareness of human dignity and rights and their violations, of nation’s resources and how some are constantly deprived a share in them, of diversity and plurality and the richness they bring in, of socio-cultural, economic and political systems and structures that perpetuate inequities and injustices in some form or the other! Neither the administration, nor the parents nor teachers can easily handle such ‘sensitive’ topics. Those educational centers that engage such issues are few and are usually seen with suspicion. There is a strong fear that such ‘politicization of students’ life and culture’ is detrimental to students and their future. Generally, a well-known school or college is expected to train the student for a job and not to wrestle with tough questions of life.
However, when a section of society is struggling with life and death issues, it is the past or current students from the so-called ‘politicized’ colleges that join others in demonstrations and protests. Very few current or past students of Catholic institutions would be there to lend their voice. In India, in the last few decades, there have been dozens of demonstrations and protests, local as well as national, and one can safely assume that very few who were educated in the Catholic institutions joined them.
The point is not to find-fault with the management or the students. Catholic institutions, claiming to make a difference in the life of students, do an excellent job and it is in these centres students are equipped and prepared to handle life in ‘normal’ times. Like athletes, they are trained to play the game, presuming that there are rules, that they will be upheld, that the umpires will be fair and the goal-posts are not shifted midway. Undoubtedly, Catholic institutions have trained and provided hundreds of thousands of students who played and play a significant role in nation-building. Several thousands of students from Indian Catholic institutions have also gone global, making India shine there. Wherever they are and whatever work they do, students in Catholic centres have been taught to work hard, to take the orders, and take pride in their service that is carried out with utmost dedication and commitment.
At the same time, when the nation is going through a major crisis, when the ground under one’s feet is rapidly shifting, when dark clouds hover over vast sections of the populations (which is not rare anymore), one wonders if the education imparted in the Catholic centres is adequate enough to respond to such grave challenges. A look at Sri Lanka or Pakistan or Nepal or Myanmar or parts of India simply reveals how fragile and uncertain lives of millions of people are! When systems and structures, ideas and ideals (be they democracy, capitalism, human dignity, human rights and human freedom) are allegedly under threat or already crumbling, the question is, should not Catholic centres update the education-module in order to prepare the students to face such contingencies!
A Catholic school is usually appreciated when the poor students are helped or when it motivates students to plant saplings to have greater greenery in the area. The same school is unsure how to explain to students about what perpetuates poverty and how to confront it or how to question a person or company that plans to buy hundreds of hectares in the neighborhood and to fell trees to build a fancy factory!
Pope Francis spoke of the ‘field hospital’ which illustrates that the faithful have to be ready to assess the ground-reality quickly and respond to the situation. When an ambulance or fire engine passes, the usual rules are suspended for the greater good and people give way since it is an emergency situation. In several senses, emergency like situations are prevalent in many parts of India and in South Asia and the education that is imparted in Catholic centers need to be upgraded: i.e. consciously prepare the students to handle the nations’ requirements not only for peacetime but also for emergency-like times. Providing socially-responsible education is indispensable if we hope to be faithful to the Lord whom we love to serve as well as to fulfill the dreams of the founders of our beloved nations.