Searching for the Heart of Education

I recently happened to read a book called “Killing Monsters: Why children need fantasy, superheroes and make-believe violence” by Gerard Jones. The book is about what goes on in children’s minds when they watch violent cartoons, or play violent games (live action and video games).

There has been a widespread public sentiment against violence in children’s media in the US since the 1960s, based on the fear that exposure to a lot of violence in the media during childhood could desensitize children, and potentially make them violent persons later in life. There have been many studies which have attempted to find a link between exposure to violence in the media during childhood and violent behaviour later in life, but they have all been inconclusive.

Most caring parents and adults find it abhorrent that their child is so engrossed with something that they find distasteful and fear that their children may get desensitized. Nevertheless, have we stopped to ask why our children are so glued to cartoons and games embodying so much violence? What are they taking away from it? How are they looking at it and making sense of it?

Gerard Jones says that most of the time the children are not passive consumers of the media, but are actively engaged in weaving their own fantasies around the content that they are engaging with. This, he says, is a way for the children to make sense of the world they live in, and a safe place for them to explore and understand what they find intriguing and disturbing in it. So the violence that they are being exposed to in the media may indeed be benefiting them. There are no studies which have conclusively shown it either way.

Jones says it is important that the adults, repelled by the literal meaning of the content in the games or books their children play or read, do not impose their anxieties onto the children. He says that most of the time, children know the difference between their fantasies and the reality, and imposing our anxieties on them would mean taking away this safe haven, and blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality, making them doubtful of their own control over their emotions.

Why do children need to fantasize? Right from birth, a child has to struggle to learn about the world she finds herself in, to learn to stand, to walk, to run. And all these involve innumerable failures. Every day of her life, she has to come face to face with her own inability. What keeps her motivated to persevere in this extremely difficult and potentially demoralising process of learning? She needs a sense of triumph, a sense of being in control, of being powerful.

This struck a chord deep within me. I could feel this child within me, with the insecurity of feeling unequipped to face the world. Especially since middle-adolescence, probably because around this time the fantasy worlds of my previous years disappeared, due to my evolving outlook of the world and life. I still feel completely unequipped to face the world today.

I had always thought that the purpose of education should be to prepare a child for understanding the world she finds herself in and enable her to act in it. But can there really be such a state of being prepared to meet something as complex and unpredictable as life? Can we be educated enough to act coherently and intelligently always?

And this is where the book struck a chord within me. Perhaps it’s not just children, who need fantasies to live with their incapability. Even adults have to face the fact of their inadequacy every day of their lives. And even they need a fantasy world to help them feel as if they are in control, and get on with their lives.

Whereas children’s fantasy worlds seem to be dynamic and ever changing just like them, the fantasy world of adults seem to be static and stagnant- it is embodied in the notion of settling down in life, getting a job, marriage, building a family and so on. Most children lose the colourful worlds of their fantasy as they grow into adults, and it gets set into the world of security that helps them meet the challenge of life and feel in control.

But can education help them meet the challenge of life differently? Can it help children to grow to be able to live with their incapability and not be intimidated by the world in the wake of their incapability? Can it help children realize that it is alright to be incapable, and that there is no one in this world who is actually in control outside their fantasy worlds?

Governments and corporations and advertisements and the media will tell you that they are in control and if you want to be in control, all you have to do is to follow them. But doesn’t anyone who has looked at the world a little more closely know that that is just fantasy? Wouldn’t you say that the world is just tumbling through time and space somehow, if you look at the massive inequality and ecological destruction and violence in the world?

Why do I need to live in a fantasy world to be secure? Can I feel secure in my incapability and continue to learn and do what I can without needing to feel in control?

Can education help a child do that?

Churning of the Ocean of Thoughts

The sun disappeared behind the distant hills, in what could have been a scene taken right out of a painting, and I got up to head back. Walking alongside the Bhima, I couldn’t help turning my attention to a largish bird which was performing fantastic aerial stunts above the water. I’ll ask Prabhat to find out which bird that was.

As I reached the path that would take me back up the hill to the school, my thoughts again went back to hovering around the reality of my being here- in this place, at this moment. I suddenly noticed a dark piece of rock lying on the ground, and for no reason tipped it over with my foot. It revealed a fascinating shiny crystal formation on the other side. You find so many such crystals lying around here. These hills are believed to have been formed in massive volcanic eruptions around 60-70 million years ago.

I’m fascinated by the mere fact of my being here, of having spent almost a year here, so far away from home. On second thoughts, what is home? Where do I really belong to? Isn’t the whole world my home? Well, this place definitely feels like home.

The new path has made the walk down to the river and back up an easy affair. In a few minutes I’ll be back in school, in time for my evening prep supervision. Prep is a good space to sit quietly and observe the children. In class, so many things happen at the same time and you yourself are fully engaged in the moment, so there is no opportunity whatsoever to step back and observe the events from a distance.

Today they are doing their work silently. Only last week they were extremely noisy and boisterous, and had to be spoken to sternly. What exactly is my relationship with them, as a teacher of Chemistry, as an adult? What is it that I have to help them with? To prepare for exams, to keenly observe the world they live in, to have confidence in themselves?

They are already thinking, aware human beings. Many of them come from urban settings, and this place has made a difference in their lives. Many of them do grow up to be sensitive, sensible individuals. That’s not to say that that doesn’t happen in other places, but I do feel this place provides a good atmosphere for children to grow up. They are already adept at expressing and articulating their ideas and opinions, many of them more so than I am.

They won’t accept most things unquestioningly, but they do listen to reason. I’ve realised that it is important to be very clear in my head about “why do it?” when I ask something of them. This engagement with them on a level playing field, treating each other as equals, has been a huge learning experience for me. But they can also be extremely irritating and trying at times, with their tendency to slip into lousiness, and give in to impulses. It does seem like they need to be held together actively at all times, and that perhaps is one of the jobs of a teacher living with children.

I’m so lucky to be able to do work that I enjoy. It is a pleasure to be able to help children learn about the world we live in, learn new skills… But I’ve also encountered situations in the classroom where the whole exercise seems pointless, when I’ve asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” I’ve sometimes felt that I’m doing the same things to my students that I despised some of my teachers doing to me.

When I started teaching, I was desperate to perceive myself as a “good teacher”, to convince myself that I had taken up the right thing, having decided to deviate from the trodden path. As a result, for some time, I couldn’t accept the fact that I had problems with the work I’m doing. Today, I no longer feel uncomfortable confronting these questions, sharing them with other people. Being able to be honest with myself has been liberating, and has enabled me to begin to tackle some of these issues.

And it’s a boon, to have people around you who are at the same wavelength. It is absolutely wonderful to be in a place where you are valued for who you are- not something easy to find in this world. And the space to pursue all your interests and exercise all your faculties- without having to work around any narrow definition of your role. I’ve surprisingly found a continuity with who I was before I joined college, before I became excessively pessimistic and cynical!

After dinner, I go for a stroll in the cool breeze. The sky is clear, and I can see countless stars. Only last week I had my first glimpse of the milky way, when I went to the library roof with Prof. Mahajan early in the morning and had my first stargazing session. I’m going to spend some time learning about the objects in our night sky and observing them. It evokes a certain kind of wonder, which must be the same wonder our early ancestors had, which gave rise to science and religion.

But being in a place like this, there is a danger of becoming too preoccupied with oneself. It’s important to keep asking the question, “What is my relationship with the larger world?” I’m tempted to say “the world out there”, but I know I’m also part of that world. The world of corruption, powerful and greedy politicians and corporations, millions of homeless people, but also organisations which are making a difference in small ways, often unheard of in the mainstream media. Closer to home, what is my relationship with the dadas and didis (the support staff) from the villages down below, whose silent work keeps the school running? What is the children’s relationship with this world they are living in? Isn’t it a question of crucial importance for a teacher? Not just for oneself, but on behalf of the children too.

On a related but different (and more abstract and philosophical!) note, I have often felt that different parts of me come alive and active when I’m doing different things, when I’m relating with different people. It’s as if I’m a messed up assortment of unrelated fragments. Can I have a single scheme of things where each of these has a place? Not that I want to relate to each person or each activity in the same way, but I want to be the same person when I’m relating to different people or activities.

The children go home tomorrow. The school will become quiet and devoid of life for two and a half months now. I’m looking forward to spending some time here on my own when it’s quiet. That should be an entirely different experience.

The Good Old Days

It is often misleading to compare life in two different eras, but that is exactly what I’m attempting to do in this post.

Recently I have been reading some classic Malayalam novels like Sundarikalum Sundaranmarum by Uroob, Oru Deshathinte Kadha by S.K.Pottekkatt and Unnikkuttante Lokam by Nandanar. All these books beautifully describe the life in Northern Kerala some 90 to 50 years ago. One thing struck me after reading these books, more than anything else- that how sterile the environment in which I grew up- and my childhood- were.

I’m not grumbling or being ungrateful. I like to think that I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have been able to grow up in comfort, with liberty and into a life full of possibilities. But something is missing- big time. I really don’t know how to pinpoint what exactly is missing.

Perhaps it’s the lack of contact and communion with nature, having been brought up entirely in a town. Perhaps it’s the effect of today’s schools(which are more like factories). Perhaps it’s because of the demise of the joint families where cousins got together in their ancestral homes at least during vacations (my elder cousins had this fortune. By the time I was growing up it was too late…).

Perhaps it’s because of the marginalization of society. Especially in towns, people generally interact only with people from similar economic/social backgrounds. This is very evident if you look at the backgrounds of your classmates, whether in school or at college. Perhaps it’s because so much time is now spent watching/listening to various virtual media so that actual time spent “living” is less. Time spent observing and interacting with the real world. So that we have withdrawn deeper and deeper into our shells of comfort and become less and less bothered about what’s going on outside it.

It must be a combination of all these things and more, which I do not have the words to explain- basically a lack of diversity and colourfulness to stimulate the senses and the intellect, compared to the “good old days”. Of course, these are my personal views. I can’t generalize them, but from my understanding of my peers I could confidently say that these conditions apply to many if not most of them too, differing only marginally from person to person.

I simply cannot accept this as the “price of progress”, just like I cannot accept environmental degradation and our alienation from nature as the price of progress and civilization. I sometimes wish I was born at least some 20 years earlier! But coming back to reality, I really do want to explore alternative ways to see if I can rediscover some of that colourfulness…

The Colourful World of Children

I recently read two awesome books centered around children.The first was the Malayalam novel Unnikkuttante Lokam (Unnikkuttan’s world) by Nandanar, about a little village boy of five years. The story is set in a pre-independence Malabar village, and beautifully depicts the village life in those times. Written from the view point of Unnikkuttan, it gives you an idea of how colourful and full of mystery the world of a child is, which a grown-up needs a lot of patience, love and imagination to even begin to understand. Also how the village provides a child with endless opportunities for amusement and a diverse environment that nurtures the child’s sense of wonder.

The second book was a Malayalm translation of the Japanese novel- Tottochan- the Little Girl at the Window written by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi as her childhood memoir. It’s about a small unconventional primary school in pre-war Japan, run by Mr. Kobayashi where she attended for a few years. Totto-chan(as she was affectionately called), a naughty little girl, was expelled from her first school as they couldn’t handle her mischiefs. Her mother then took her to Tomo-gakuen, the school run by Mr. Kobayashi.

There Tottochan finds herself in an exciting and magical new world, and a teacher who understood her and treated her as a friend. The book describes many incidents which happened at Tomo, the friends she had there, lessons she learnt, and her relationship with her teacher. Narrated from Tottochan’s point of view, it reveals many intricate aspects of the world of children. Not only that, it also tells us the role that the headmaster plays in making the children feel secure and happy, and how he “lets them be” instead of constantly telling them what they “should” be (which is what you often experience in schools).

His Experiments with Truth

I read Gandhiji’s famous autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth almost a year ago. I had been told by my friends who had read it before, that it wasn’t really that good and they found it boring. But since I was intrigued and curious from what I had read about Gandhiji’s philosophy, I decided to read it myself. I discovered that it was an unremarkable piece of literature.

But I was simply fascinated by the ideas that originated in his undoubtedly remarkable mind, and presented themselves to me from the book. It was inspiring to read about his experiments with life. How he thought and reasoned and created standards that seemed logical and worked for him, in matters such as diet, medicine, faith, economy and politics. My friends seem at best amused and sometimes even repelled that I find his ideas attractive. Some of them have opined that they are archaic and possibly relevant only to the particular social context that he lived in. If anything, I think they are timeless and as relevant today as they were a century ago.

Apart from this, I found it inspiring that a person who lived such an extraordinary life, and possessed such an extraordinary character, was plain unremarkable during his childhood. Some people might find it hard to associate the shy twenty year old who had to get a friend read out his speech at a meeting of people with a special interest, with the philosopher who would go on to influence the thoughts of billions of people, even decades after his death. I firmly believe that the “achievements”, academic or otherwise, of children really don’t mean anything. What really matters is that their characters are nurtured and they are encouraged to think freely.

The ideal childhood is one which affords the child a lot of freedom and interaction with nature, where he learns how to learn, so that when he grows up he can look at the world with an integrated view and decide for himself what to believe, or pursue. I think this is an important point because of the fuss being made today regarding child prodigies and celebrities. I feel that the long years a child spends learning moribund facts, will be more fruitful if they are let out to play in the mud or climb mango trees instead. When they reach the right age, I’m sure they will have developed a taste for worthy pursuits and a hunger to take on the world.

P.S. Playing in the mud or climbing mango trees have nothing to do with Gandhiji’s childhood(!). They were just my figure of speech in a call for giving more opportunity for children to communicate with nature.

Children and Education

I had learned to realize how precious children of four and five were, and wanted to become as one of them.

  • They have no thought of self deception.
  • They trust people and do not doubt at all.
  • They know only how to love and know not how to hate.
  • They love justice and scrupulously keep the rules.
  • They seek joy, live cheerfully and are full of life. They know no fear and live in security.

Most of these beautiful children would eventually become adults filled with suspicion, treachery, dishonesty, injustice, hatred, misery, gloom. Why? Why couldn’t they be brought up to maintain the beauty of their souls? There must be something wrong with education.

–from Nurtured by Love, by Shinichi Suzuki