Teaching beyond Books

Writing, in general, is a taxing exercise and writing about a teacher is far more toiling and gut-grinding. Going by the standards of our society, it means that you are trying to analyze someone superior, both by virtue of intellect and respect. Having said that, the methodology of teaching and its appeal is, we all know for sure, continuously losing its gleam and glitter in our society. There may be numerous reasons for this but the methodology adopted for teaching and the coercive pressures of the deadlines, both on the pupil and the preacher cannot be ignored as well.

Khalil Gibran poetizes an ideal teacher by saying “whoever would be a teacher of men, let him begin by teaching himself before teaching others and let him teach by example before teaching by word. For he who teaches himself and rectifies his own ways is more deserving of respect and reverence than he would teach others and rectify their ways”. This is indeed a very idealistic view of the teacher but very noteworthy.

This becomes pertinent, especially when we want to differentiate between a literate and an educated person. Such teachers can save the soul of the society from the hazardous effects of “literary dredge”, as William Hazlitt puts it.

Born in the family of scholars, poets, and teachers, I was raised to believe in the philosophy of teacher being next to God. There was indeed a time when schools were considered as the temple of knowledge and the teachers as the agent of knowledge. But now the consumerist ideology of capitalism has penetrated through all walks of life and the holy temple of learning is no exception. If we take a cursory look at the private schools mushrooming speedily in Kashmir, one understands their main concern, which is a hefty fee structure, however, minimal attention is paid on instilling creativity. Is this the main goal of the vocation of teaching? This exercise has made our education system primitive and teachers less expert in imparting wisdom to students are given this vital responsibility. Good teaching is not all about making students cram but it is about inculcating insights and criticality which is beyond books. It is about making students think beyond the syllabus. A good teacher does not want his pupil to turn into a book worm, which wraps himself up in his web of verbal generalities and sees only the glimmering shadows of things reflected from the minds of others, instead, he wants their imagination and criticality to fly high to the zenith.

Rabindranath Tagore expresses the same concern in his short story Tota Kahani, a story about a free-spirited parrot who only knew how to hop, skip, fly, and sing all day. A king ordered that the bird be “civilized”, so it was put in a golden cage. So much instruction was forced down its throat that it soon forgot to sing, hop, and then, could not even squawk. When it tried to fly, its wings were clipped. Soon the parrot died, with nothing to say or sing. This is exactly the case with our education system where students are trained to cram rather than search inside the truest nature and gift that a student possesses. Cramming is encouraged and the treasure that lies deep inside is utterly discouraged. Under this system, no flower can bloom, no wanderer as proposed by Paul Feyerabend can be shaped; only the menagerie of “one-dimensional” practitioners as envisioned by Herbert Marcuse can be produced. In such a milieu, finding a teacher like John Keating as depicted in a remarkably sensitive film Dead Poets Society is almost impossible. This all boils down to our capitalist understanding of the interest-ridden education system where the focus is mainly on inculcating “technical skills” not the cultivation of the self.

In our own Mouj Kasheer (mother Kashmir) teachers have ceased to ‘teach’ and are merely performing their ‘job’ of training the potential human resources for the world of capitalism. They are preparing the students for examination rather than extending liberalizing mental training that may boost a creative urge in them. This is exactly like Grad Grind, the notorious, Headmaster in Dickens’ ‘Hard times’ who has a strictly utilitarian sense of education and considers poetry and other creative subjects as “destructive nonsense”.

Brought-up in such a milieu, a child is hardly encouraged to think. No room is left for his/her creativity and imagination. Original thinking is discouraged as students are encouraged to turn bookish and turn away from the fruition of personal experiences. This has made the system medieval, much like what Francis Bacon rigorously opposed. Facts are produced as indispensable for successes. This leaves virtually no room for creative engagements.

This system of ‘Cram-It-All’ produces a cornucopia of experts of memorizing who merely aspire to ace an examination. The famous Bollywood blockbuster, Three Idiots is a vital cinematic act to showcase this tragedy.

This puts a whole gamut of responsibilities on the shoulders of teachers. Teaching has never been an easy task. But it has been the deciding factor in changing societies and civilizations. Socrates drank the cup of poison calmly, Plato had been thrown behind the bars, Bruno was burnt at stake and Galileo had to suffer miserably at the hands of bigots and reactionaries. It is their sacrifice and many others who gifted us this modern civilization.

If this kind of grotesque system is not refined, the society would be left to intellectual ruins and disingenuous rubbles. After all, it is the society that reflects a teacher!

(Eesar Mehdi is a Ph.D. scholar in International Relations at South Asian University. ).