No man is an island. Man is, by nature, a social animal. He hates solitude, yearns for friendships and revels in company. Invariably, these are marks of culture that he has inherited and imbibed. Culture may be defined as the sum total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social life. Lack of culture becomes evident in the tendency to have a closed mind, with doors and windows shut as if to disallow the inflow of fresh ideas and other viewpoints. Every process of exclusion betrays lack of culture, just as every trend indicating a willingness to broaden one's outlook shows a commendable cultural trait. Calm reflection will show that attempts to enforce complete unity and disallow any differences of thought and approach would prove counter-productive and self-defeating. People can hold different views on life, religion, social, economic and political systems and yet they can be cultured.
Difference is something to be celebrated, not to be shunned. Everywhere there is difference, everywhere there is diversity. Beauty lies in diversity. When Adam needed a companion, God did not create another Adam. He created Eve. We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity. There is not just one planet or one star; there are galaxies of all different sorts, a plethora of animal species, myriad kinds of plants, and different races and ethnic groups. Difference lends charm to the rainbow and makes music pleasing to the ear. We are constantly being made aware of the glorious diversity that is written into the structure of the universe we inhabit, and we are helped to see that if it were otherwise, things would go awry. How could we have a football team if all were goalkeepers? How would it be an orchestra if all were singers?
Avoiding and isolating those who are different and seeking only those who think and speak and behave and look like ourselves will be the first step towards doom and destruction. Uniformity breeds contempt; it leads to boredom and monotony. We should celebrate our diversity; we should exult in our differences. The law of our being is to live in solidarity, unselfishness, interdependence and complementarity as sisters and brothers in one family – the human family, God's family. Anything else, as we have experienced, is disaster. Thus difference is the unwritten principle that governs our existence.
An attempt to rope in this glorious principle to the domain of education is inclusive education. It is put into practice within school communities that value diversity and nurture the well-being and quality of learning of each of their members. Inclusive education implies a pairing of philosophy and pedagogical practices that allow each student to feel respected, confident and safe so he or she can learn and develop to his or her full potential. It is about making sure that each and every student feels welcome and that their unique needs and learning styles are attended to and valued. It is based on the principle that children with learning disabilities have a basic right to be educated alongside their normal peers.
When children attend classes that reflect the similarities and differences of people in the real world, they learn to appreciate diversity. Respect and understanding grow when children of differing abilities and cultures play and learn together. Inclusion fosters a school-culture of respect and belonging. It provides opportunities to learn about and accept individual differences, lessening the impact of harassment and bullying. At no time does inclusion require the classroom curriculum, or the academic expectations, to be watered down. On the contrary, inclusion enhances the learning experience for all students.
Education is geared towards the all-round development of an individual. Hence inclusive education benefits not only students with learning disabilities but also their normal counterparts. It provides the students a unique platform to know, mix and interact with others unlike themselves, thus broadening their perspectives and helping them develop a comprehensive and all-inclusive worldview.
Significantly, inclusion is bound to play a major role in the Indian context, for inclusion is founded on the same principles that India embodies. Ours is a country that is justly proud of her unity amid diversity. She has been a melting pot of various civilizations, cultures, religions and philosophies since hoary past. These diversities may confound a stranger but in essence they represent the different patterns, colours and designs of the same fabric.
Tolerance has been the hallmark of Indian thought and culture. Had it not been for this tolerance and power to assimilate foreign cultural influences, Indian culture, thought and philosophy would now have been extinct as has been the case of many ancient civilizations of the world. An inclusive classroom can be looked at as a miniature replica of this vast and teeming nation. Inclusion could prove mighty helpful in arming children with the typically Indian cultural traits. They will get a foretaste and an understanding of what is to come. It would better prepare them to confront the challenges that life throws at them and enable them carry the dreams and aspirations of this country, the best way possible, in the future.
Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of difference can be profitably used to provide a theoretical fillip to inclusive education. Saussure conceptualized language as a system of differences. Each element of a language, according to Saussure, is defined by its difference from other elements within the same language. He argued that concepts are defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other items in the same system. What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not. The entire mechanism of language is based on oppositions of this kind and on the phonic and conceptual differences that they imply.
In other words, it is difference that produces meaning. If meaning is an offshoot of difference, then it would not be entirely wrong to suggest that everything attains significance because of difference. You are important because you are different. Nobody, nothing can substitute you. If you can be substituted, you are not that important. You are you because you are different from all the others. Shouldn’t difference be celebrated then? Shouldn’t schools promote inclusive education?
Continuing with Saussure, he introduced the notion of binary opposites into Western thought. Binary opposition is the structuralist idea that acknowledges the human tendency to think in terms of binaries. For Saussure binary opposition is the means by which the units of language have value or meaning; each unit is defined against what it is not. With this categorization, terms and concepts tend to be associated with a positive or negative. We can think of a lot of binary opposites like reason/passion, man/woman, inside/outside, presence/absence, speech/writing, etc.
Jacques Derrida showed that binary opposition applies to the language of philosophy as well. However, Derrida pointed out that binary oppositions are not equal but hierarchic where the second term is considered either derivative or inferior to the first, the privileged one. What allows this inequality and hierarchy, according to Derrida is the tendency in the western thought to privilege ‘presence’ over ‘absence’, which Heidegger had termed as the metaphysics of presence. Derrida argued that these oppositions were arbitrary and inherently unstable.
Post-structural criticism of binary oppositions is not simply the reversal of the binary opposition, but its deconstruction, which is described as apolitical—that is, not intrinsically favouring one arm of a binary opposition over the other. Deconstruction is the event or moment at which a binary opposition is thought to contradict itself, and undermine its own authority. Here, we have a binary opposition, that between normal students and students with learning disabilities. Language itself offers the first ground for decentring, when it calls the latter ‘differently abled’. So, basically, they are abled, but in a different way. Further, studies suggest that such students tend to have extraordinary brilliance in one or more disciplines even though they may lag behind their peers in studies. They are stars on Earth, ‘taare zameen par’. Further, the arguments presented above that see difference as something to be celebrated further break down the normal/challenged dichotomy.
As the normal/challenged dichotomy breaks down, the teacher should view his/her class as a ‘thali’, a selection of different dishes in different bowls (Courtesy Shashi Tharoor). Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast. Inclusion is both challenging and exciting. Celebrate difference.
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Mangal, S.K. (1997). Advanced Educational Psychology. New Delhi: Prentice Hall of India. Print.
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