Teaching keeps one young in mind

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee 

If you do your best where you are, the world
will take care of itself. – Anon

The reason for remaining young in mind is very simple: you will almost always be teaching to those who are younger to you. And this has a double effect: it makes you feel at least youngish if not actually young if you happen to be at a certain age and, secondly, it will keep your mind active because you will never have the answers to all the questions that are asked. Therefore you will have to think them over and go look for the correct answer, otherwise you run the risk of sounding stupid, which you would not want to. Remember the saying: there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

Any teacher worth his salt will never say ‘shut up and sit down!’ whenever a student puts a question to him. It means that the student is thinking, and surely this should warm the heart of any teacher. It is only religions that do not allow any fundamental (no pun intended!) questioning. You have to obey for fear of going to hell or being ostracized if not being vowed to perdition by some violent means ici bas itself. Hence the difference between teaching, which encourages you to become a free thinker, and preaching, which aims to put thoughts in your mind and control it through them. Religion is mostly about dogmas, and dogmas do not allow any space for independent thinking.

Teachers should be proud of the trust that is put in them, and they should live up to it. For doing so, they are honoured by the celebration of a Teacher’s Day. According to Wikipedia, the concept of celebrating teachers’ day originated in India to remember the great educationist Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. He was one of India’s most influential scholars of comparative religion and philosophy, whose dream was that ‘Teachers should be the best minds in the country.’ Are they?

In India Teacher’s Day falls on 5 September – because he was born on that date in 1888. It is considered a “celebration” day, where teachers and students report to school as usual but the usual activities and classes are replaced by activities of celebration, thanks and remembrance. At some schools on this day, the responsibility of teaching is taken up by the senior students to show appreciation for their teachers. In other countries the event is celebrated on different dates, but with the same underlying idea. 

Why we can’t get rid of failing teachers 

These thoughts came to me as I was reading an article in the American Newsweek magazine entitled ‘Why we can’t get rid of failing teachers.’ I learnt that roughly for the last half century, ‘professional educators believed that if they could only find the right pedagogy, the right method of instruction, all would be well. They tried New Math, open classrooms, Whole Language – but nothing seemed to achieve significant or lasting improvements.’

But in recent years, what may appear only too obvious has come to be realized, to wit that ‘What really makes a difference, matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher.

I am sure that all genuine teachers intuitively know this quasi-self-evident truth. They are the first class ones; the rest, the secondary ones, need the various props with high-sounding names and terminologies. From personal experience as student, and teacher at various stages in my career, I have always been convinced that yes, it is indeed the quality of the teacher that makes or breaks the student.

I have given the example before, but it is worth repeating. I had almost despaired about biology when I was in Form III, but was redeemed during the very first period in the subject in Form IV by the overwhelming Noel Asarapin. That day, he performed a miracle as far as I am concerned, by doing the one thing I feel that a teacher should above all do: firing the imagination of his student, so that the latter is propelled on to a path of exciting self-discovery.

Just a few days ago, I met a contemporary stalwart of the same calibre, Karl Mulnier. At 82, his mind is as sharp as when I was privileged to be the target of its lucidity about half a century ago, and I was not surprised when he invited me to a lecture on Darwin that he is giving on 8 October. Currently, he was continuing his forays in the German language, and was reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in the original (German).

Wah re wah! as we would say in Hindi. He was also taking coaching classes two days a week in German language aimed at hotel staff, amongst whom there were some Hindus. For some time now they have been addressing him as ‘Guruji,’ and he felt honoured – but though he knew that Guru refers to teacher, he could not make out the suffix ‘ji’. So in a reversal of roles, it was my pleasure to explain to him the etymology of ‘guru,’ and the significance of ‘ji,’ and that from the Hindu perspective the guru is, strictly speaking, the one who removes the darkness of ignorance and replaces it by the light of paravidya or Higher Knowledge (of the Self), as opposed to Lower Knowledge or aparavidya (knowledge of the external world). In popular language guru is taken to mean a teacher, and imparts the Lower Knowledge.

Which is quite exciting too – and it is the teacher who makes any subject appealing to the student, and this is so easy nowadays what with Power Point and the host of variations that it allows. But it has also been emphasized that the role of parents is absolutely capital in the education of children, a point stressed by Ramesh Beeharry, in his article ‘Language in Education’ in last week’s issue of this paper, when he quotes Parmanund Soobarah who wrote about the paramountcy of ‘parental interest and involvement in a child’s education.’

Ramesh gives a vivid account of how his father and mother encouraged him to learn by their direct involvement in his homework, something that has remained engraved in his memory. And all of us belonging to that generation have similar tales to tell: our parents, whether they were literate or not (mostly the latter), exerted direct oversight and supervision over our learning at home, complementing the formal teaching in the school by the teacher there – a culture we are tending to lose, what with parents busy watching endless, mindless serials. I have had occasion to write about this in the past, so I will refrain from repeating myself.

If today’s parents want to, there is nothing to prevent them from ‘accompanying’ their children in the latter’s learning right from the start. In so doing they are not only complementing what is done in the classroom but, more importantly, they are helping to prepare the future generation(s) of citizens of the country. Surely this is a most worthwhile aim – shouldn’t this, after all, be one of the main purposes of education?

Food for thought 

I would like to end with some extracts from a Convocation address delivered by then Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to Aligarh Muslim University in 1964. They offer much food for thought, for they apply to students of today also:

Whatever your station in future life, each one of you should first of all think of yourselves as citizens of the countryThis confers on you certain rights, which are guaranteed by the Constitution, but it also subjects you to certain responsibilities, which also have to be clearly understood.

A good citizen is one who obeys the law, whether there is a policeman around or not, and who takes delight in performing his civic duties. In the olden days sense of self-restraint and discipline was inculcated by the combined effort of the family and the teacher.

The responsibility of our young citizens is great. In my view every station in life is important in itself. Work has its own dignity and there is great satisfaction in doing one’s own job to the best of one’s ability. Whatever the duties, we should apply ourselves with sincerity and devotion.

We have to see whether we have done our own job well before thinking of criticizing anybody else. All too often, we succumb to the temptation of decrying others without bothering to look to ourselves.

Never forget that loyalty to the country comes ahead of all other loyalties. What I have said stems from a desire to see that the youth of our country prepares itself in a disciplined and determined manner for the responsibilities of tomorrow. 

A democratic country is sustained not by the greatness of a few but by the co-operative effort of the many. The future of the country is in your hands and as the older generations complete their task the new ones come along to take their place.

…sincere and determined efforts have to be made to ensure that differences and outstanding problems are resolved by mutual discussion in a spirit of understanding, and not by the use of force.’

* Published in print edition on 1 October 2010

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