(Image courtesy of Pia Bhatia)
The Shri Ram School

Review: The story of school — four books to read during lockdown

“Nobody has a clue, despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days, what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet, we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary,” British author Sir Ken Robinson said in his TED Talk.

Fourteen years later, the coronavirus proved him right. The pandemic has impacted education in ways nobody could possibly have predicted. On one end of the spectrum is the rise of online school and innovative alternatives, and, on the other, a bleak denial of education. Where exactly we go from here is an unanswerable question for many, and the very definition of education, one we’ve taken for granted since its inception, is beginning to move and shake. 

As an ode to the value of learning in all its forms, and the hope and opportunity that it can bring no matter what shape it takes, here are four books that tell the story of school. 

1. “The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter” by Shilpa Anthony Raj

From a girl who belonged to an “untouchable” caste in India and was saved from female infanticide at birth, Raj presents a necessary perspective in her memoir that is the first of its kind. Given the rare opportunity to be educated in a school started by a philanthropist for poor children, the author presents the conflicting values of her family, school and herself in unforgettably moving ways, and writes with extraordinary honesty and persistence. 

2. “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah 

This book is a raw account of a 13-year-old boy’s experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone and the abject horror he endured. Fleeing violence by rebel groups, the author travels around a country made unrecognizable by violence until he is absorbed into the government army. Unflinchingly, Beah writes about his experience of rehabilitation and healing after being removed from fighting by UNICEF in a mesmerizing story that speaks for itself. 

3. “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield 

Dr. Kay Redfield is one of the world’s leading clinical psychologists and experts on manic depression, otherwise known as bipolar disorder, and what is remarkable is she has suffered from it herself. A major theme in this novel is mental health, and Redfield often explores how her education (in particular, her pursuit of higher education in university) affected her life and experiences through this lens. She is both a doctor and a patient, and her courageous memoir is exceptionally poignant. 

4. “Educated” by Tara Westover 

Profoundly powerful, Tara Westover’s book is about her journey from her upbringing in rural Idaho with survivalist Mormon parents (where she did not have a birth certificate and had never set foot in a classroom before she was seventeen) to her becoming a scholar at Cambridge. A gripping account of the violence and fundamentalism that defined her childhood and her relationship with her family, the author leaves readers with tension unsolved and the looming question of what it truly means to be educated.