Yesterday I interviewed several parents at the Qazipur School. The purpose of these interviews is to find out what they think about the quality of education at the school, how we can make it better for their children, and their beliefs about education. I’m not sure what they think I want to talk to them about, but most of them have that look when someone asks to speak to them for a completely unknown reason. Their faces are completely slack. They look at me without smiling. It’s impossible to know, but I imagine they’re thinking, “What the heck could this guy possibly want to talk to me about?” If they are anything like me (which they may or may not be) they may start jumping to conclusions. My child’s done something wrong. I’ve said something offensive.
It’s hard for me to say what they’re really thinking. I’ve discovered that they have very little incentive to be completely honest with me and tell me too much. Look at it from their perspective: they are too poor to send their children to a school that charges admission and education is free at this school. They have no other option and they don’t want to say anything to screw it up. They may think there are some problems with the school – some things they wish worked better; they may even have some insightful suggestions for how we could make improvements.
But they have a lot to lose by being honest. I tell them that I’m not going to share what they say with anyone, that what they tell me won’t affect their child’s place in this school, and that I genuinely want to know how to make the school better for their kids. But what if that’s not true? And what if they tell me something and someone else finds out? Their child could be kicked out. It happens at free schools all the time. They’re reluctant to look a gift horse in the mouth and that’s exactly what I’m asking them to do.
The questions that they are open in answering are the ones relating to their beliefs about education. One question in particular has been interesting to hear people answer because everyone gives exactly the same response.
“Do you think education is equally important for girls and boys?”
Every single parent – both fathers and mothers – have said emphatically, “Yes.”
“Why?” I ask.
Their response usually sounds something like this. “In the past things were different, but now it is very important for girls to be educated as well. It is very important for them so that they can be married.”
I probe more. “Why does being educated help them get married?”
“It is the first thing a husband and his family will ask when they are looking for brides.” According to one of my translators two out of three marriages in India are arranged by the families of the spouses. “Without a high level of education, no one will marry a girl.”
This makes me wonder. At the beginning, they say that things have changed. It didn’t used to be this way, but now it is. It doesn’t seem like the right reason to educate a girl to me, but I guess it’s not as important why girls are being educated, as long as they are being educated. “What has changed?” I ask. “Why do people think it’s important to have an educated wife when they didn’t before?”
“The husband’s family knows that if the wife has a good education, then she will make sure that all their children are well educated as well. She can teach them at home and check on their homework.” One man used himself as an example. “I am uneducated. This is because my parents were also uneducated. They didn’t understand the importance in sending me to school, so I never had a chance to learn. Now I am just a weaver, and there’s nothing else I can do. I don’t want to repeat the mistake my parents made. I want to send my children to school so that they can have a different life.”
It doesn’t completely answer my question of what has changed…but it alludes to it. It is definitely true that women who are educated tend to make sure their families are educated. Research shows this tendency isn’t nearly as strong with men. Even if they are educated, they may not make sure their children are educated. So I suppose that in the past generation, this idea has taken hold – even with uneducated people.
You can see it all around you. In Bhadohi, there are huge signs for schools all over. In Varanasi, the nearest big city, you can’t look in any direction without seeing a billboard for a school. Of course, those billboards are for people who can pay–with so much interest in education, schools have become a business.
While that’s great, it also worries me. There are no billboards for free schools. No one makes money on them. And the government-run schools are the bottom of the barrel. So the poor – who can’t afford to send their children to any of these schools on these thousands of billboards – are falling behind.