Illustration: Shyam G Menon
It is a good move but keeping a few concerns in mind wouldn’t hurt
If you take the typical Indian school and college education, there won’t be a day that passes by without emphasis on academics. In the glaring divide between curricular and extra-curricular activities, the latter – even if it contributes more to shaping an individual – is distant second. You may excel at arts and sports but it counts for little, except a sprinkling of grace marks. There is also this angle of how close to academics and bolstering its luster, your chosen interest is. Things literary agree with the Indian mind. As do music and dance, if they happen to be the classical sort. Cultural tastes that are more freewheeling or innovative, and sports – they don’t count as much.
Indeed the best way to sell sports in India is to highlight how the active life helps overall, including in studies. Needless to say, back in my school and college days, someone good at sports typically meant either an average student or a straggler in academics bailed out by grace marks. It was rare to find a combination of academic excellence and excellence at sports. For a long time, we justified the academics heavy approach on the grounds of India being a third world country where career took precedence. Now however, the continued justification reeks of conservative mindset.
Liberation from this academics-centric approach has been the dream of many Indian students. Even present day parents should agree because the number of middle aged adults and senior citizens who can convincingly say that they discovered what they are and got around to doing what they like to do, are few. Maybe none of us will ever really know that. But it remains one of life’s great quests and if great quests and questions are what education is all about, then, teaching you to discover yourself and become what you think you can be (or what all you can be), should be the purpose of going to school and college. Sport is an important tool in this journey. It tells you much about what you are the first time you rendezvous with it; it goes on to tell you what you are capable of as you train and improve. By what yardstick can you say this isn’t education? Media reports of June 11, 2020 quoted the Union Minister for Sports, Kiren Rijiju, saying that sports is set to become part of educational curriculum. It was encouraging news. The details of government policy in this regard, are still not known. But viewed as promised move, it hints of benefits.
Besides introducing young people to sports and putting sports on a more even platform with academics, it should provide job opportunities and job security to those specialized in physical education and coaching. Amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, Kolkata-based newspaper, The Telegraph, had carried an insightful article on the plight of those teaching non-core subjects at school, sports being one. When things shrink to essential (as in lockdown), like a drowning man reaching for a log, the Indian imagination of education instantly grabs academics to stay afloat. The rest become dispensable. If sport is part of curriculum, such injustice to the ` dispensable’ may become rare. Given the benefits of the government move can be imagined, let me focus on a couple of concerns. After all, good policy reserves vision to address concerns as well.
Illustration: Shyam G Menon
For most people Brie Larson is the actor who played Captain Marvel on screen. In 2017, she directed a film called ` Unicorn Store.’ Three years later, it was among films I watched during the COVID-19 lockdown. What made me click on the film when it showed up on Netflix was the presence of Joan Cusack in the cast. She is a wonderful actor. As it turned out, I found nothing remarkable about the movie. But towards the final quarter, there was a stunning piece of dialogue from Cusack’s character, addressed to her daughter played by Larson; it went: the most grown up thing you can do is fail at things you really care about. I will remember Larson’s directorial debut for that single sentence, which encapsulates an approach that is the abject opposite of what the Indian education system drills into you. Here it is all about success and winning; to the extent, very few venture into unfamiliar territory including what they actually care about. Perpetuated across the years and imposed on large populations, this authors a mental trap. It skews the imagination towards certain priorities as though nothing else matters. This tenor is present in the Indian interpretation of sport too. I never forget what I once saw at the swimming pool of a housing society. A child, who was clearly hydrophobic, being shamed in front of others by his coach as the parents watched approvingly.
In India, the drive is to excel; not become comfortable with what you are doing as prerequisite to decide in due course, how you would like to navigate further. A good example is the popular positioning of the Olympic Games as elite aspiration in sport. That is premature strategy when exploration of sport hasn’t happened yet at the required breadth and depth in India, a country of 1.3 billion people. It is the potential panacea for this predicament, which we see in the government move to make sport part of educational curriculum as well as the realistic assessment that the 2028 Olympics and not the earlier editions would be practical goal to improve medals tally. Still if you foray with Olympics as direction, you risk putting people off through excess evangelism of one sort and search for suitable talent. Instead, can you make young people fall in love with sport? Can you make them love it such that they don’t mind failing at activities they care about and come back for more?
Opening up young minds to the myriad possibilities indulging in athletics or playing a game offers, is an engaging task. Some won’t have a mountain to climb; they are already so good that all they need to do is slide into the lake of success. It is a coach / teacher who works with average talent and takes them places that you should applaud, not the ones making a beeline to train the best primed talent. India has too many teachers / coaches of the latter sort; it is also what parents endorse. So you see, before we make tall claims for the future, there is a way of looking at human beings that has to be put in place. Without it, we risk doing to sports what we have already done in our mainstream academic education. One approach worth mentioning in this regard is India’s amateur running movement. Except some from the corporate category who are forced into it because it is the in thing to do at offices, amateur running is a personal choice. It is also a conscious choice because for many, it is an option exercised in midlife. There is no compulsion; no coercion. Yet the performances returned by Indians in their thirties, forties and fifties – long past the energy of school and college – has been fantastic. There are now several people running sub-three marathons from these age groups and in 2019, we had the first Indian finisher in a 555km ultramarathon at altitude. Marathons and ultramarathons are not for school and college. Point is – isn’t there something for educational curriculum to learn from these cases of results gained through affection for something and not, compulsion to do it?
Second, not everyone will be good at sport. There will be those whose wiring is different. There will also be those whose wiring is neither for academics nor sports. If the intention of making sports part of the curriculum is to treat these segments the same way those inclined to sport were once treated, then, you are not educating. You merely author one more reason to rank youngsters into winners and losers. Under education, we must all be helped to find ourselves and our capabilities. Sport – and academics – should not be put on a pedestal. It must be there at the same level as any other potential, resident in the human being.
Illustration: Shyam G Menon
Finally, there is the issue of a blindness upon us that isn’t for want of eyes but happens because we block vision with our insularity. In sport, there is an insularity born from world view by nothing but athletic prowess and the disciplined focus which goes into accessing that prowess. When everything is focused on performance, the mind becomes dull to so many things that are critical to keeping us aware overall. That is when like art hijacked for propaganda, sport degrades to being an appendage in service of other goals, political ideology and image building being examples. Mass displays of athleticism and physical coordination – the sort seen at certain giant ceremonies – also betray this tenor. Just like money is no guarantee of brilliance and some billionaires have uttered the most stupid things, pursuit of sports holds forth promise of awareness; it does not guarantee it. If you want a mind that is conscious of existence and responds consciously, then introduction to sport and one’s rooting in it has to be an experience immersed in appreciation of freedom. Individual and freedom – these are the two fundamental building blocks of awareness. That’s why the swimming pool episode matters – that little boy’s sense of individual was crushed; forced to perform and conform he would have also lost his appreciation for freedom. Instead, doesn’t he deserve the chance to overcome his fear of water, fall in love with it and find out if a swimmer lives in him?
It is this author’s personal opinion that notwithstanding instances of excellence produced, India’s mainstream academic education has contributed little to overall awareness and appreciation of existence. We are like foot soldiers following set recipes (all reform seeks to do is replace one curriculum with another). We shouldn’t repeat the same mistake in sport. Sport should set us free.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)