Social awareness and non-prejudiced knowledge of our society in education

Correspondence between Mansha Sidhu (student at the National Law University – Delhi) and Mourad Bezza (student at the Mohammed Premier University – Oujda)

Dear Mourad,

I hope you are doing well and are getting through these tough times.

The topic for our dialogue is ‘Social awareness and non-prejudiced knowledge of our society in education’.

Social awareness is defined as the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. It is very necessary that people have this ability for the development of a society. People with more social awareness can bring changes to each and every sector that requires change. Be it poverty or climate change, every problem of today can be resolved by a population which is socially aware. I say that because, when we are teaching students social knowledge about society, we are making them aware of the reality of the society around us. For example, as I mentioned, in relation to poverty, students educated in such a system will be more aware of this problem and at least some of them will have a desire to work to improve things. It is the same for climate change. These students are going to be the change makers of tomorrow and we need to provide them with basic social knowledge to instigate the desire for change. A population which is socially aware can think from a perspective of change (even if not all of them, at least some) because we have provided them with that required impetus and knowledge to drive an urgency for change and they can actually work to achieve this in the future. I believe that the right time to inculcate social awareness and non-prejudiced knowledge of society is during school years, because once we become adults we take a certain perspective, and to unlearn it and create a new one is a difficult task.

The education system as a whole plays a very important role in shaping the personality of an individual, as well as the thinking of that person. We usually get a perspective through our environment and surroundings, and as a child we spend most of our time in schools and educational institutions that shape our perspectives. Talking about schools, when we are young and our minds are still developing, we tend to believe whatever is taught to us and whatever we see without thinking twice. In this regard, I will give you an example of a real-life event that happened with a child in my family, who is a small kid in the pre-primary stage of school. One day when we were talking about something, she told me that because she has a dark skin tone she is not beautiful. This is the seed of racism that has been planted in a child’s brain and this happened because, in her school, she wasn’t given the role of a princess and only fair girls were selected or even considered for the role. This is a very small thing for the teacher who did this, but for the child this made her realize that there is a belief that having a darker skin tone makes you inferior and less beautiful than anyone who has a fair skin tone. Now, as she grows up, this seed will grow and will become rooted in her brain. One of the reasons for this to happen would be a lack of social awareness as a part of her education. Whatever social awareness she will gain will be subjective, for example, from her surroundings, and as these tend to differ from person to person, we won’t know if she will ever realize that a dark skin tone is as beautiful as any other skin tone. This is just one example. I can list many other examples of how the different seeds of political agendas, body shaming, discrimination, homophobia etc., become planted in the mind. I understand that every person has their own perspective and point of view. But children who are building their perspectives and points of view should be given a neutral viewpoint so that, when they are older, they can analyse the situation with knowledge about both sides and develop an informed point of view.

We need to understand that children will be the leaders of tomorrow. And for a better population or generation as a whole, we need to give them a non-prejudiced social awareness and this should be part of the education system. Neutral social awareness can work with the practical skills and knowledge that will help a child in its future.

Now let me give you a more personal example. I was a chubby kid at school and the first time that I realized I was fat and that, according to society, this was wrong, was when a teacher in my school pointed this out. For a very long time, I hated my body and actually made critical judgements about anyone who did not have a conventional body. It was after I finished school that I realized that I was wrong and I had to unlearn a lot of things. And the reason why I was able to unlearn and develop my own perspective was because I entered an environment that was open and non-judgmental. But this is not the case for every person, and people do tend to follow the societal norms despite them being wrong in many respects.

Another example is when we had a biology class and afterwards we were discussing transgender people. The next teacher who came in told us that it is not okay to talk about these things, and that we should not do it. This again might seem a very small incident but it leads to a more important issue of homophobia – such an incident begins the whole process of making a person homophobic.

Now let me give you an example of an ideal world where, apart from basic education, social awareness and non-prejudiced knowledge about society is a part of the curriculum. The children who graduate from this kind of system will be more open-minded and accepting. They will understand the differences in people and will accept that there are differences and it is completely okay. This new system would not only tell them how the world should be but also give them a heads up about how the world is. Through this new system, we can inculcate the new seeds of problem-resolution so that, when they get out into the real world, they can bring about change. For example – we teach children that males and females are just physiologically different and apart from that there is no difference between any gender and everyone is equal. With this we also teach them that the reality is different because we have had a patriarchal society in which heterosexual men are considered to be superior to women or any other gender. In this way, we can teach them the real situation and give them alternatives and explain why these alternatives are important. Everything is explained logically without any prejudice.

I seriously believe that if we give our time and do the research, we can come up with a proper list of issues and things that would be taught as a part of social awareness. There is a need for a working plan that will vary from place to place and to work on that plan.

This is what I believe and I would love to know your point of view Mourad.                                          

Eagerly waiting for your response.

Yours Sincerely,                                                                                                                                         

Mansha ☺

22-MARCH-2021, Delhi

Dear Mansha,

I am doing great, thanks for asking, and I hope you are doing fine as well. Your letter helped me see the topic of social awareness and non-prejudiced knowledge in education from another perspective, and I really appreciate the real examples that you provided.

Correct me if I am wrong, my friend. By reading your letter, I see that you think that childhood is the best period of life for acquiring new perspectives, and it is the best period for educators to engrave the fundamentals of social awareness in the minds of children as well. I also understand that you think developing a proper curriculum is the best way to address the lack of social awareness and prejudiced knowledge.

However, I think that the roots of the problem are ingrained in each society and need substantial change instead of a superficial modification of the curriculum. The fact that two out of the three teachers you talk about in the examples you provided initiated prejudiced perspectives proves that the issue is deeper than it really seems. In addition, based on what I have learned at the school of life, I believe that a problem should be resolved from its roots and not from the extremities. In order to do that, we must have a closer look at the origins of the prejudiced ideologies and try to identify the main factors that empower them. 

The first factor which I think has a major impact is the recruitment of competent and qualified teachers. By this, I mean people that are not only totally aware of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders, which is raising the leaders of the future, as you called them, but who are also capable of transmitting the seeds of social awareness to the next generations. So, firstly, are the people in charge able to recruit the right persons to do this heavy task? Secondly, what criteria are they going to refer to in order to determine whether the teacher is well placed to communicate with children?

The second factor that interrupts the implementation of non-prejudiced knowledge is the environment in which the child lives. The child’s surroundings play a determining role in the perspectives they take, which is why I think that it is a priority to come up with laws that organize the public environment of our children based on ethics and good manners. These rules should also be accompanied by sanctions to enforce the obligation to respect them, thus we can maintain social peace and facilitate the propagation of social awareness. For example, the phenomenon of bullying, which means to aggressively dominate or intimidate another person through the use of force and coercion. This behaviour is often repeated and habitual, and not only has a negative impact on the victim, but also affects those who witness it. The spectators of an act of bullying are divided to three groups: group A is composed of people who think that someday it might be their turn to be a victim of such an act and they won’t be able to do anything about it; group B is composed of people who enjoy the show and think that it is cool to be a bully, and consequently start bullying others; and group C which is composed of people who are socially aware that the act of bullying is not right and should not exist just because in the minds of the victim and the persons from groups A and B it initiates a prejudiced way of thinking that will eventually be generalized in all aspects of their lives.

The third factor that I think is worth talking about is segregation based on social class, referred to as social stratification. Class conflict, frequently referred to as ‘class warfare’ or ‘class struggle’, is the tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socioeconomic interests and desires between people of different classes. Children who come from upper social classes mostly have false stereotypes about the children who come from a lower social class and vice versa. Making it easier for poor students to access schools that are presumed to be rich students’ schools may start an interaction between the two classes of society and get rid of those wrong stereotypes, because in the end we are all humans.

The fourth factor is ethnicity and race. Ethnicity is used as a matter of cultural identity of a group, often based on shared ancestry, language and cultural traditions, while race is applied as a taxonomic grouping, based on physical or biological similarities within groups. Sensitization campaigns associated with the power of marketing might be the right key to press in order to erase the residue of historical events. Race is a more controversial subject than ethnicity, due to the common political use of the term. This factor initializes negative perspectives, such as that princesses must have a fair skin tone, and all the other known aspects of racism. I believe that American history is full of examples that prove that racism is a huge obstacle to the spread of social awareness.

What it all comes down to is that in order to inculcate social awareness and non-prejudiced knowledge in education, all the factors mentioned above should be taken into consideration. While they definitely are not the only factors that can prevent us from reaching our goal, they are the ones that I think have the major impact. Each one is a nest of wrong perspectives that can be rectified by methodical thinking, by which I mean a critical way of thinking that does not accept or reject any information received before being processed and analysed. Only qualified teachers can provide tools to the new generations to build and adopt perspectives based on good manners and social awareness. Tools that are offered to the teachers first by their own instructors, through a curriculum adapted to the needs which will secure a bright future for humanity.

That is all I can think of for now concerning the topic, looking forward to hearing from you soon my friend.

Best regards,

Mourad 😊

26-MARCH-2021, Oujda

Dear Mourad,

I am also doing great and I am extremely sorry if this letter reaches you a little bit late. I have been busy with the Indian Festival of Holi.

In the second paragraph of your letter you mentioned that I believe that childhood is the best period of life for acquiring new perspectives, I would like to frame it in a different way. I believe that childhood is the time when a perspective is formed. It is the time when we acquire a basic knowledge of our society. In early childhood, the child’s brain is like a blank sheet of paper, and through different experiences the paper becomes filled. Any particular kind of knowledge or perspective which is filled in on that paper at that time is difficult for that child to erase in later life, making it hard replace it with a new perspective if the need arises.

The second thing you mentioned was that I believe creating a proper curriculum is the best way to work against a lack of social awareness and prejudiced knowledge. I would like to explain myself a bit more on this. I believe that the curriculum is one of the ways, because I consider that the perspective can be changed even when the person grows up. What a curriculum does is streamline the manifestation of a socially aware perspective without which social awareness might become subjective and properly understood by some but not by others.

I agree with your point of removing the prejudiced ideologies at the roots, but the point suggesting that changes to the curriculum and providing social awareness within the school system will only provide superficial change is something that I disagree with. Because we need to understand and accept that this prejudiced knowledge and lack of social awareness is something that has been passed on from generation to generation. Yes, it does get better with every subsequent generation, but the older generation has a certain perspective that cannot be changed overnight.

You have raised some important factors that should be kept in mind to bring about a substantial change. The first factor you talked about is ‘recruitment of competent and qualified teachers’ and then you asked some genuinely relevant questions. I believe that a good teacher is someone who teaches well and if they can teach their subject well they are competent and qualified teachers. On being capable of transmitting the seed of social awareness, I believe that isn’t something that can be tested and checked while recruiting a teacher. Instead, what I believe and have seen is that teachers also lack knowledge about the emerging social awareness. For example – LGBTQ+ awareness has in recent years become widespread and this wasn’t something common when the present generation of teachers were young, so we cannot expect them to be aware about it, but if we can initiate conversations about such topics with the teachers and explain to them how their small-minded behaviour can scar a child for life then I believe we can target two generations and groups of people at the same time and make them socially aware.

I believe that, in my previous letter, I wasn’t clear about bringing change to the education system and that one of the means through which it can happen is by bringing about change in the curriculum. Another element could be, as I mentioned above, training teachers to be more thoughtful and neutral. The main gap for teachers, as well as for the students, can be filled by the right kind of awareness and knowledge. For teachers, this can be given through training, while for children it can be included in their curriculum. But the main thing that should be noted is that this curriculum for both teachers and students should be uniform throughout a country, at least, and it should be developed through a lot of research and given by empathetic individuals who understand the other side as well. This is like a cycle, professional empathetic people train teachers and then teachers can in turn teach all this to students.

Another factor you mentioned was the school environment, and again I believe that awareness and a proper mechanism for assistance can help in fixing this factor. For example, if children know that bullying is wrong, then if they witness it they can reach out to a safe non-judgmental place to find help, then things will get a little bit better.

Then you mentioned a few factors relating to social class and ethnicity and races. I believe that when a child comes to school in their pre-primary stage, they are completely unaware of anything like this but eventually in time and within their environment they gain a certain sense of superiority or inferiority and I still believe that this can be tackled through awareness.

OK, to conclude, I might be being overly positive that things can be changed through awareness and making educational institutions safe, non-judgmental places, but I am still positive about this. To develop such a system it will definitely take a lot of time, but just because it will take a lot of time and there might be some obstacles and issues that arise, I don’t think we should just drop the idea. A lot of issues will arise once we start working on something like this, but I am also sure that we will succeed in creating this environment and this model where children are socially aware and do not have prejudices.

I have already passed the word limit and I am extremely sorry about that.

So I will end this here.

Best Regards,

Mansha 🙂

30-MARCH-2021, Delhi

Dear Mansha,

I hope you had a happy Holi my friend, and I am glad to inform you that I am satisfied with the way you responded to my letter. Some of the expressions you used provoked my curiosity and inspired me to read more.

Now, I fully understand your point of view thanks to the clarifications you provide in several paragraphs, which I enjoyed reading by the way. I see that we both agree about the fact that childhood is a period for the construction of socially aware perspectives in the mind of a child. As you said, the child’s brain is like a blank sheet of paper, and that is what got me thinking about the time needed to fill most of it.

As you know, the age that schooling begins worldwide is six. The astonishing thing is that at the age of three, the child’s brain has already reached 80% of its adult size and is nearly 90% fully grown by the age of five. This particular fact points to two things: first, the best time to learn is during the period when the necessary brain cells are created in the relevant area of the brain and they are hungry to be programmed with new connections; second, the importance of pre-kindergarten programmes. The different areas of the brain are responsible for different abilities, but they are all interconnected. They all contribute to the child’s overall health and wellbeing, and these early brain connections set the stage for higher level skills to develop later on, such as emotional intelligence, problem-solving capacity and getting along with one another. Healthy brain development is the result of continuous positive nurturing relationships that the child has with their parents and the adults around in the first six years of their life. Neuroscience has proved that positive interaction with the surroundings during early childhood help a child to feel safe and secure and help their brain to develop a strong, healthy network of connections. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true, studies have shown that negative experiences during the same period and persisting toxic stress such as neglect and hunger, impact the brain development of the child. The reason why I chose to talk about this is that those network connections that the brains of children develop are responsible for the way they behave in society, and the same thing goes for teachers and adults in general, as former children. Therefore, I think that neuroscience, next to all the social sciences, can be very handy on many levels for the process of handling the lack of social awareness in our societies.

I also agree with you on the fact that social awareness evolves over time and that the teachers of today may not have enough knowledge to keep up with its evolution. However, the idea that is not possible to detect this incapacity during the recruitment process is something I must disagree on, because the tests that are used to determine the ability of a person to become a teacher are also constantly progressing. For example, I am certain that the 2021 version of the TET (Teachers – Eligibility – Test) exam, which is organized at least once a year in India, is more adapted to the educational demands of today than were the previous versions of the exam. To sum up, the lack of social awareness is an issue that needs the intervention of more than one part of society. I believe that the whole society, with all its components, should consider and insist on solving this multigenerational malady. In addition, I truly believe that someday this problem will be history due to the continuous efforts of each member of society.

Finally, I would love to thank you my friend for sharing with me your thoughts about this topic.

Best regards,

Mourad 🙂

3-APRIL-2021, Oujda