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Self-confidence, the Answer to Better Learning

I am frequently asked by visitors to Shanti Bhavan from America whether our educational model would work in the West.  They are curious to know how caste and class prejudices experienced in India can be overcome by our graduates when they enter the workplace. These are complicated questions, and they need a broad explanation that cannot be fully covered in this blog.
The landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case Brown v. Board of Education was meant to rectify the unequal status of racially separate schools. Now, even after several decades of desegregation measures, including busing children from some affluent families to poor neighborhood schools, their impact on the academic progress of minorities is being questioned. Many factors contribute to reducing the achievement gap in American schools, and racial integration may not necessarily be a solution to the difficulties faced in lifting the educational levels of minority students.
As an Asian immigrant who came to America fifty years ago, I am acutely aware of the unique challenges that minorities face in our society. Having had a reasonably successful Wall Street career, my family was able to reside in affluent neighborhoods, most of which were predominantly white. I also sent my two boys to well-funded and well-staffed public schools. Even with these advantages, my children faced racial prejudice throughout their schooling. I was reluctant to intervene, telling them to focus on hard work and good academic performance, and not to be affected by the insults. I am sure it was hard for them, but it appears that they were able to effectively deal with the bigotry through their accomplishments.
Recognizing the importance of nurturing self-confidence, I decided to establish Shanti Bhavan, a school in South India for children from some of the poorest families. By default, many of its students belong to the Dalit community, formerly known as the “untouchables”. In India’s centuries old caste system, untouchables face discrimination, and are generally deprived of opportunities for upward mobility. On the other hand, Shanti Bhavan children grow up in an unintegrated environment, gain self-esteem among equals, and develop social skills through their participation in school activities. Our trained teachers provide guidance to the students, serving as role models. The school focuses on outstanding academic performance alongside important human values such as humility and kindness. Students experience a series of reinforcing successes, small and big, that give them the self-confidence they need to aspire for a good future. These children refuse to be defined by their assumed low status in the community; instead, they aim for professional success by their performance.
Today, twenty years after the start of the school, its graduates are working in major multinational companies like Goldman Sachs and Amazon, after completing their bachelors at some of Bangalore’s most prestigious colleges. The lesson from the Shanti Bhavan experience is that empowering children can be best accomplished through strong academic and personal guidance in a supportive environment. Through their achievements, these children are better prepared to assimilate well within an Indian society that still harbors caste-based prejudices by demonstrating that they too are fit to be part of the mainstream.
A similar model of empowerment may be considered in the United States where minority students continue to encounter racial biases, but social, cultural and political considerations might come in the way. Emphasis on technological tools to remedy underachievement and not placing sufficient importance to emotional and psychological factors that affect learning may not yield the desired results. Certainly, some of America’s most economically disadvantaged communities require more resources, and they certainly include computers, in order for their schools to flourish, but that resource is not necessarily more white students brought in from elsewhere. With the personal attention and encouragement they must receive, the students gain the confidence to prove their capabilities to set them on a path to better learning. Social integration of minorities within the society will be a natural outcome of their professional success that comes from their accomplishments.

There is no doubt that racial integration contributes to greater appreciation for diversity, more tolerance, and social cohesion, but in order to foster academic achievement among minority students, we must turn our attention to helping them gain the self-confidence they need to do well in schools. 

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