To Truly Close Prisons Forever

By Javeria Kausar, 21, who is an internationally published flash fiction writer, a national award-winning essayist and a prize-winning poet. She is currently pursuing a Masters in English at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. She lives in Vijayawada, India. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

A young, tender hand reaches for the well-worn handle of a school door and a child steps inside.

That’s nothing new.

That happens nearly every single day.

The child then enters the classroom and tries to make sense of what is being taught. The teacher drones on, not stopping to make sure whether the students understand. The child tries to keep up, but there are so many emotions, so many feelings, and so many thoughts clouding the mind that the knowledge being doled out goes completely unheard. The child would like to learn, but the teacher has already moved on to another topic; so there’s no choice for the child but to try and keep up with this new lesson at least.

That’s nothing new.

That happens nearly every single day.

It is recess now and the child is backed up against the wall, trying to shield the self from the laughter, the taunts, the curses, the abuses, and even the fists of the other students. No one tries to save the child; no one tries to stop the abuse.

That’s nothing new.

That happens nearly every single day.

But today there’s something the child plans to do. Something that will put an end to the misery. Something that will eliminate the pain. Something that’s new.

Something that does not happen nearly every single day.

The child, according to plan, enters the classroom with a gun in hand. Thoughts, emotions, feelings, pain, suffering, and fears fuel the weapon, and culminate in a senseless, ruthless massacre. Massacre of those that caused great distress to the child, and those that hardly knew him.

The next thing the child knows is a prison door being opened for him/her—they cannot do this themselves because the young, tender hands that once held the school door’s handle, now lie shackled, incapable of holding anything—neither a feather nor a future.

How I wish that this scenario, this story, was just that—a story. However, I am sure that every single person reading this essay would have recognised this as familiar. Familiar because we hear and read about these horrifying and bone-chilling incidents, dubbed ‘school shootings’, very often these days. In 2018 itself more than sixty incidents of school shootings have been reported, that too in America alone. If we look at the world total of school (and university) shootings in the twenty-first century, then the numbers are too shocking, shameful and heart-breaking to be articulated.

Victor Hugo, the popular French writer had said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”

It can be safely assumed that by ‘school’ Victor Hugo means ‘education’ or ‘knowledge’. Then here arises the haunting question: If education really could close a prison door, why, at a time when the quality of education is at its peak, have the number of student-led crimes (particularly in schools) increased exponentially? This question becomes more intense and layered when we add universities, the epitome of modern education centres, to the list of places where student-led crimes happen.

When I read Hugo’s words, I found it difficult to agree with him; especially because of the growing problem of school shootings, bullying, substance abuse, and violence perpetrated by students who were undergoing top-class education in highly developed nations like America, Canada, France, and Russia. There certainly seemed to be no shortcomings in the “knowledge/education” that the schools and universities provided.

Then where lies the problem? Where comes the difference? Is it in the time frame and the society?

Hugo lived in nineteenth century France, and I initially assumed that his statement perhaps stood true and was relevant at that time. To support my hypothesis I tried to look for proofs. I found a very interesting research paper by A. R. Gillis titled Literacy and the civilization of violence in 19th-century France in the journal Sociological Forum. Gillis, through research, found that the crime rate then was declining, and that the decreasing crime-rate was associated with increasing literacy. So this supported my initial thoughts. However, Gillis also found out this: although violence towards others had decreased, the rate of suicides had greatly increased. As Gillis puts it, “the education system itself may have been the causal agent in transforming expressions of passion from an explosion of violence against others to an implosion of violence against the self.”

It must be emphasised that any kind of violence—whether it is against others or the self—is dangerous, and can almost always lead to a prison, be it the tangible prison for the human body, or the metaphorical prison for the human mind.

But, for a moment, let’s forget the ‘prison’ part of Hugo’s words. Let’s just focus on the part we should have focussed on a long time ago—the ‘school’ part.

I think Hugo then saw schools in the same light we see them in now. We think of schools as places that educate us and impart valuable knowledge that will drive away our ignorance and make us better, whole human beings.

But the reality is far from this idealised conception that we blindly believe to be true. If schools really did make us better, whole individuals, Hugo’s words would not be subject to discussion or debate today. But since that’s not the case, let’s try to understand why Hugo’s belief has not yet materialised.

Why is opening school doors not enough?

I believe that it is so because a ‘school’ is just an empty building. What makes it worthwhile or impactful is the body of students and teachers, the content of what is being taught, and how it is being taught. Schooling today has boiled down to the disinterested doling out of facts and figures. There’s no real effort to educate the character of students and to show them what is right and what is not. The only thing we are bothered about today is whether a student performs well in school or not. The system has become so detached from students and so attached to awards, rewards, and results that no one bothers how a student is faring in life.

No one bothers if the A+ student has a good social life or not.

No one bothers if the failing student has a genuine problem or not.

No one bothers if the students have access to harmful materials or not.

No one bothers if the students are victims or perpetrators of violence or not.

No one bothers if the students are mentally healthy or not.

This culture of indifference practiced by the students, teachers, and even the parents, has transformed the schools into breeding grounds for violence and crime. Bullying and peer pressure viciously consume almost every student they come in contact with. While bullying causes physical and mental harm, peer pressure often pushes the students into drug addiction, alcoholism, and perpetration of physical, sexual, and mental violence—on others and themselves.

So what can be done to make schools capable of curbing evil?

In my opinion, our top priority should be ascertaining the quality of life of the students, monitoring it, and improving it. By quality of life, I do not mean the material or the economic aspect; I mean the social and, most importantly, the mental aspects of the students’ lives.

Whom do they socialise with? What is the nature of the information they consume? What kind of ideas do they harbour? What kind of challenges do they face?

Some may argue that we can never know the answer to the last two questions unless a student reaches out. But surely if a student is troubled or is harbouring violent or unstable thoughts and feelings, he/she will not be able to completely hide it. For example, a student’s unusual behaviour and peers’ treatment of said student can provide ample information to assess the quality of a student’s social and mental well-being. We (the parents, teachers, and especially the students) have to be vigilant.

Proper mental health care is indispensable. Not only must there be counselling centres in schools, but the teachers, students, and parents should also be made to understand the importance of mental health and of respecting life—that which belongs to others and that which is our own. This has to be taught from an early age, and it has to be reinforced time and again at every stage of education. This can be achieved through talks, activities, and workshops for the students, parents, and teachers.

In my opinion, education, knowledge, and literacy are worthless if the student’s quality of mental health and social life is bad. Students can never become whole, healthy individuals just by the learning of facts. They will never be able to differentiate between the right and the wrong by themselves. We need to transform our view of education and educational institutions from a fact-focused one to a life-focused one. Only then can schools, universities, and educational institutions close the doors of prisons—physical and mental—forever.

16 comments on “To Truly Close Prisons Forever

  1. Shaik sirajunnisa on

    A great thought .
    Superb comparison of school and prison.
    Very crucial topic to discuss and work upon .
    Awesome vocabulary and language.

    Reply
  2. Chandrika on

    I totally agree with you Javeria, it’s an meaningful essay which every teacher and parent should read theese days in order understand that education is not just acquiring good score. education is not just up to syllabus and books it’s beyond that which teachers and parents should should understand and not only schools every educational institution should definitely have counselling hours to motivate students to help them build there morals and ethics.

    Reply
  3. Valli on

    Thought provoking one. Literacy is different from education. Education is inclusive of character building which should help students to explore their strengths and limitations.

    Reply
  4. Tejashwini on

    Nicely written essay. Keep it up. In my opinion, if you add more Indian centric examples or statistics, it will be even more superb.

    Reply
    • Javeria Kausar on

      Thanks for reading. I feel that just because I’m from India, I shouldn’t limit my thoughts and works to it. This is meant to be a global kind of essay, because the subject and the message at hand are meant for all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Reply

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