Dr Howard Davidson, who retired as Professor of Adult Education at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, is a friend of Talimi Haq School. He visits Kolkata every year, and since 2012 he has been teaching in the school during his time in the city. Here is a letter he wrote about Talimi Haq School:
After teaching public school for many years, I found myself teaching adults confined to a psychiatric hospital, and later prisoners in Canada and the United States. These experiences altered my perspective on education as I witnessed schools functioning not to educate but to keep confined adults occupied and out of trouble. My doctoral work at the University of Toronto in the sociology of education and subsequent research has focused on how education is adversely affected by the constraints of coercive institutional settings, with particular attention to prison education. More recently, I expanded the definition of coercive contexts to research the impact of military occupation and the coercive forces of poverty and racism on education. Currently, I am retired from the University of Manitoba, where I retain the position of senior scholar.
I first met Mr. Ramaswamy in 2007 while visiting in Kolkata, where I had developed a research relationship with faculty in the Department of Sociology at Jadavpur University. We began talking about Talimi Haq School, which he established in 1998, and the vision of its role in relation to the condition of Muslim communities in Kolkata/Howrah. I first visited the school in March 2012.
In my career I have observed schools in North America and abroad, in prisons, mental hospitals, and under war-like conditions. Never have I observed the unique relationship between students and teachers that I witnessed at Talimi Haq School: a remarkable atmosphere of caring and attention to the children’s wellbeing combined with much joyfulness. There was discipline here, but a unique type of discipline that comes not from fear of punishment but from mutual respect and the desire to learn and teach.
From speaking with Mr. Ramaswamy I learned that one objective for the school is to be a catalyst for social change. Education is often described as a means to achieve this objective. Unfortunately, the dominance of neo-liberalism in our thinking about education and development limits the notion of change to enabling individuals to get better jobs instead of change that affects the community collectively. The latter requires learning that enables the community to understand their genuine interests and to develop the capacity to make changes collectively in pursuit of those interests, what is sometimes called critical consciousness. Such consciousness requires the ability to make decisions based not on fear of retribution or short term gain but on what is in the best interest of the community: collective as well as individual wellbeing. Education can teach us to not be a slave to fear and individual gain. That is a unique form of education; I believe that for those learning in the context of coercive forces it is the education we must strive to foster. My experience at Talimi Haq School suggests that this kind of education is trying to emerge at the school, and as educators we are well advised to do what we can to support it.
I hope I have conveyed what I believe to be a remarkable potential for Talimi Haq School. It is impossible to visit the school and not recognize that one is in the midst of a precious learning environment. This preciousness is the result of years of dedication and a great deal of hard work. It is unfortunate, but true, that schooling in the midst of poverty and other coercive forces often becomes a means to merely occupy children’s time, keep them out of trouble, meet objectives determined by others who don’t even care, and worse. This is not the case at Talimi Haq School.
I want to emphasize this precious relationship between the children and their teachers. I think almost anything can be achieved in this environment if the school has the resources it needs to keep operating. The utmost importance must be given to creating a process whereby the school identifies the resources and supports that will optimize the precious relationship between teachers and children that currently exists.
Howard S. Davidson, Ed.D