Winner of Kyoto Prize Donates Award Money to Rural Indian Schools

December 18, 2012
University Professor Gayatri Spivak, seen here with Hiroo Imura, chairman of the Inamori Foundation, was awarded the Kyoto Prize at a ceremony in Japan. Image credit: Inamori Foundation

Soon after winning the prestigious Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, University Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak said she would donate the $630,000 cash award that comes with the prize to the foundation she established to support primary education in her native India.

“What I do there is what I do here,” Spivak said. “I give my time and skill to train teachers and students together.”

An internationally renowned scholar of postcolonial theory whose work focuses on the importance of the humanities in the redress of the economically dispossessed and marginalized, Spivak was honored by the Inamori Foundation in the field of thought and ethics, for speaking out against “intellectual colonialism.”

“She exemplifies what intellectuals today should be through her theoretical work for the humanities and her devotion to multifaceted educational activities,” the prize committee said. “Her relentless efforts to elucidate the structure of oppression, which is rarely visualized in modern society, and to fulfill her ethical responsibilities as an intellectual are attracting profound empathy and respect, both within academic circles and among a wider international audience.”

Spivak has been funding primary schools in her home state of West Bengal since 1986; in 1997, when a friend left her $10,000, she created the foundation named for her parents, the Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Rural Education Project. There are six schools for girls and boys ages 3 through 13, located in the rural district of Birbhum, one of the least developed areas in West Bengal.

Teaching at the schools is about “how to make words, rather than only learn spelling, understanding mathematical principles, not just doing sums, how to understand what is studied rather than learn by rote,” she said in a recent interview in her office in the Interchurch Center. “Literacy and numeracy without a good education are worth nothing.”

The schools enroll about 300 students, most of them children of illiterate, landless, former untouchables and aboriginals, the lowest sector of the electorate. They start coming “as soon as they can toddle along,” she said. “I want them to feel that school is a comfortable place.”

“Every year at exam time,” she said, “the students spend time preparing in the traditional way so that they can survive the system and continue to secondary school, where the quality of teaching is alarmingly poor.” Two former students have gone beyond high school.

Spivak, the chief donor to the nonprofit foundation, travels to India three or four times a year and spends at least two days in each school, working with students and teachers. “My standards are the same here and there,” she said—making sure that “students understand what is taught and are prepared for intellectual labor.”

The Kyoto Prize is just the latest honor in Spivak’s remarkable career. Born in Calcutta—today, Kolkata—she earned her B.A. in English at Presidency College at the University of Calcutta and wrote her dissertation at Cornell on William Butler Yeats.

The 70-year-old professor first gained wide attention in 1976 for her translation and introduction to Jacques Derrida’s "Of Grammatology," which introduced the theory of deconstruction to the U.S.

Later, she was hailed for her scholarly examination of women and other powerless groups in formerly colonized countries like India, a field sometimes referred to as subaltern studies. (“Subaltern,” a junior officer in the army, is a word roughly meaning “those who only take orders.”)

An expert in feminist and Marxist theory, she has written numerous books and articles and translated the fiction of Bengali writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi. At Columbia, she was a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.

After returning from Kyoto in November, where she and the other prize recipients accepted their awards in an elaborate formal ceremony, Spivak said she will continue to fund the operations of the rural schools out of her salary. Meanwhile, interest on the award proceeds will go toward raising salaries for the schools’ teachers and supervisors.

Her foundation doesn’t construct school buildings until the school has achieved educational quality. Then the foundation runs small fund-raisers in the U.S. and builds buildings. Two schools, both with female teachers, have reached this stage.

“You don’t need much money to build a school in this area,” she said, noting that the buildings are simple structures with tin roofs. “I say first schools, then buildings. It’s more important to produce problem solvers than just buy land and build buildings.”

Spivak spoke of the satisfaction she gets from gaining the trust of some of the poorest people in West Bengal, where illiteracy remains high. The land for the second school has been donated by a group of illiterate people from the community who have no land to cultivate. “My kind—although my parents were anticasteists—has oppressed these people over thousands of years. It’s a small repayment of ancestral debt that I have earned their trust.”

—by Georgette Jasen