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The guru shishya parampara has lessons for modern education systems

Several scholars and social commentators are making the link between the rising tide of overt nationalism and a discomfort over the democratic nature of some educational spaces in India today. Janaki Nair, the feminist and historian from JNU, wrote yesterday in The Hindu that:

“The moral panic that has gripped large sections of the Indian public is… related to the fears about the democratising opportunities offered by campuses today. In this expression of outrage, the newly moralising Right ….. aims to replace critical thinking with worship, forms of hard-won equality with structures of deference, and forms of new community-building with a return to the ideal of the patriarchal “family”.”

She goes on to cite an example that is a bit uncomfortable for me. She sees in the Indian Council of Historical Research’s program to institute fellowships that will foster a Guru-Shishya parampara a patriarchal design. She says that shishyas will be tied in “a relationship of obedience and honour, rather than thinking and debating”. She sees this as a problem.

While I buy her point about the important place of critique and question in the process of learning (refer my earlier post on this issue), I’m not sure her understanding of guru shishya parampara is accurate. I’m no authority on the subject, but I’ve been a shishya, first of Hindustani classical music for many years and in recent years of kathak. In these years, I’ve interacted with many gurus and shishyas, heard many stories of how the gurus learnt and experienced first hand the complexity of this relationship and my comments are limited to the learning of the performing arts.

The relationship between the guru and shishya has some prescribed rules. Broadly, the shishya is expected to train rigorously and usually has limited freedom until this period of training is completed. This period may vary. Modern gurus permit their shishyas to perform in public much earlier than what was the norm a generation ago. Once the shishya is past her training period, she is not only free to make her own adaptations and improvisations to her art but is in fact expected to do so, while taking the traditions of her guru and gharana forward. A good guru will appreciate out of the box thinking, though the tolerance to deviating from the gharana’s essential style may vary. In the classical arts, learning is a lifelong process. In the traditional form of the gurukul, theoretical training involved both reading and debates among students and with the guru. The education was not designed to be a one-way dictatorial process and Prof Nair seems to imagine, though the status of the guru was (and is) undoubtedly exalted, with respected to her many years of rigorous sadhna and the exalted knowledge derived from this.

There are many positives to this model in my view – a long period of sustained interaction, an expectation of commitment, peer-to-peer learning and the setting of high standards. I do not believe the guru shishya parampara is in conflict with freedom of expression or dissent; yes, it is a system in which charting your own path comes after years spent learning the basics and that is the nature of the kind of knowledge the system was designed to impart.

In today’s far more transactional education system, with its short-term targets and restricted rather than expansive curriculum, the guru shishya parampara often finds itself out of sync. That I do perceive. I also feel that our dislike of religion-based politics must not blind us to the positive aspects of our traditions. And so, instead of writing it off, we must reflect on how to weave in some of its positives into our discourse on pedagogy and education.

Why I’m working towards hands-off parenting

In a hyper-aware super connected world where paranoia is becoming the main strategy by which we live our lives, parenting has become a complex job with immense responsibility. As parents, we are constantly aware of the grave consequences of wrong decisions. We obsess over every choice we make with regards to our kids, from choosing a school to monitoring the company they keep, from the toys we  buy to the places we take our kids to.

As a mother of two reasonably intelligent and talented kids, I am constantly stuck between two distinct models of parenting. The very structured and demanding ‘Tiger’ mode that Amy Chua eloquently bats for in her book[Ref: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (2011)] and a more relaxed instinctive style that allows children to experiment and set their own pace. I’ve tried both and I’ll say this: Tiger mode is seductive for parents who are ambitious for their children and need to feel in control but relaxed mode is more fun, more gratifying, more humane. I’ll also tell you why I’ve come to this conclusion.

Children are individuals, parents do not ‘own’ them

Someone recently asked me this: “Aap apne bacche ko kya banaana chahte ho?”- What will you make your child? It’s a common enough question in Indian society. “Why would I make him anything?”, was my incredulous retort. Mine wasn’t a naive statement. Questions like these imply that parents own their children or at least own rights over their future, and I do not buy that.

Children, right from the moment they are born, are individuals. They have ideas, a sense of themselves and their place in the world. These ideas are shaped in the early years by their parents and guardians, teachers, friends, caregivers, by what they see and hear. In this, a parent plays a defining role. But to extend that role to decisions about their careers, or who their partner should be, or where they should live and what they should wear is a gross mistake and a fallout of an erroneous patriarchal construct that we need to urgently challenge. For several reasons, and I will not go into those here and now, but simply because freedom is a right. No parent wants their child to live in chains. To examine our own relationship with our children and see the chains we feter them with for what they are is an important step of good parenting. A step we should not take with a sense of insecurity and trepidation, but with a sense of empowerment, knowing this is the right thing to do.

Freedom nurtures creativity, creative people drive change

By conditioning children to over-instruction and putting in place a system of rewards and brickbats, we teach them that seeking our approval is the chief objective of their lives. As adults, they continue to work towards the approval of someone or the other. A spouse, a boss, a friend.

Pushing kids through rigid structures and pressurizing them to over achieve may drive excellence and cause success in the short-term, but it severely compromises originality, believes Wharton Prof Adam Grant. “Limiting rules,” he writes, “encourages children to think for themselves.”

No one can be in doubt that we need original thinking to take us forward. We need new  ideas to tackle a host of problems, from malnutrition to climate change. We need innovative technology to drive economic growth and create prosperity. We need creative people to compose music, write plays and books, make films that entertain as well as enrich us immeasurably.

Easy to say, hard to implement: ‘Letting go’ is a mindset change

Even if you buy my arguments for less structure and more freedom, how do you act upon it in an increasingly competitive world that drives you to measure success instantly (and share it on your social media feed even faster!)? For a parent, taking a step back is incredibly hard. Taking the long view seems like a risk. What if it backfires? What if my child does not get through the best colleges? What if her musical talent goes wasted? We worry about the possibility of a perceived failure in the future because we are comparing our children constantly to their peers and to the best in the world.

My main rejoinder to myself when I find myself worried is that less structure does not mean apathy. It must be accompanied by an emphasis on quality interactions between parents and children and a concerted effort to create opportunities to expose our children to multiple stimuli, experiences and information sources. So the formula changes from choosing a select set of structured activities and ensuring they are done, repeatedly, till excellence is achieved to something else. Choosing fewer of these structured routines to free up time for a wider variety of less structured ones.

To make this shift happen is requiring me to change the way I think about life, about choices, about expectations. It is pushing me to place more value on the here and now and worry less about a future that I, in any case, cannot determine. Increased conversations are creating opportunities for debates within the home, often about complex and ethically difficult issues. About sex and gender, about the drug regime and politics, about the failings of the modern parent even!

I hope this journey will make questioners of my children (and push me to question too, as I learn everyday from these two and the students I interact with on a weekly basis). Those of you who know how disturbed I’ve been over what has transpired in university campuses across India these past few months may now understand why the muffling of dissenting voices is deeply disturbing for me. While I persevere in a difficult personal journey towards hands-off parenting, I fail to understand how a political agenda that envisages a nation of minions instead of one with creative thinkers will serve a nation that professes an ambition to inclusive economic growth.

Mr Modi, the critics are the ones you should be talking to

It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”

This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?

Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.

Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.

For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.

‘Go to Pakistan’! Do Indian politicians think ‘Pakistan’ is a dustbin?

Bunches of unwanted Indians are being sent off to Pakistan pretty often nowadays. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has conveniently asked all Indians who want to eat beef in the face of a beef ban in Maharashtra to go to Pakistan (“or Arab countries or any other part of world where it is available”). In April this year, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad requested (for the umpteenth time) all such Indians to go to Pakistan who do not agree with their policy of Hindus reproducing vehemently so that they can outnumber Muslims and correct the demographic balance. Whatever the reason for the banishment, I am baffled by this business of sending the unwanted to Pakistan!

Instead of permitting dissent and strengthening the idea of India among a wider audience, the right wing is threatening to send all naysayers to a 'Pakistan' that I suspect is a dark place in their imagination and not really the country next door!

Instead of permitting dissent and strengthening the idea of India among a wider audience, the right wing is threatening to send all naysayers to a ‘Pakistan’ that I suspect is a dark place in their imagination and not really the country next door!

When we were little children and the two Indo Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 were still relatively fresh in people’s memory, Pakistan was a regular butt of children’s (everyone’s actually) jokes in India. The toilet was, in a twisted form of jest, commonly referred to as Pakistan. Every time someone suffered flatulence, they were asked to go to Pakistan!

I must have sniggered at this as a kid, but I’m no longer amused. Is Pakistan some sort of dustbin that is willing to take in unwanted and ostracized Indians, whether beef lovers or Muslims, ‘seculars’ or liberals? Or is Pakistan the name of something quite different in the heads of the extreme right? A place where the unwanted can simply disappear into? An equivalent of the Nazi gas chamber?

This rhetoric about Pakistan has to be explained. If any Indian who questions the Hindu right wing has to be banished, then they must spell out what they mean by such a banishment? Is the threat of Pakistan simply intended to silence dissent, a sort of replay of the Partition that will strike horror in the hearts of Indians and make us question where our loyalties lie and in the process make the naysayers appreciate India more? Or is it a more sinister threat than that?

Parliament adjournment symptomatic of an absent culture of debate and civilized dissent. Need to change this!Sep 7, 2012

It’s nothing short of a shame. The Parliament sessions being adjourned. I wince, but walk on as a citizen of the country, when young children get raped, when countrymen kill countrymen, when visitors from neighboring nations get lynched. But today, my head hangs down in shame.

Why is obstruction always a better option than debate for us Indians? Why cannot we have a civilized conversation, agree to disagree, or simply disagree with grace and firmness? Is it that we have not tried hard enough to develop a culture of conversation and communication, a culture of debate and civilized dissent? It would seem so.

I look around and see that theory playing out everywhere. Yesterday, students in a private Gurgaon institution burnt down a part of the building because a student died. She had a heart condition and died in hospital, but the students claimed she wasn’t given immediate attention by the institution. By no means is burning stuff down a legitimate response to the rage, the helplessness that the students must have felt in this situation.

We are a very angry people. So caught up in our anger, in our world of grouses that we have stopped listening to each other, to the person in front of us. If the opinion being expressed is other than what we believe in, we tend to shout louder and drown the other voice. What about listening? Listening does not mean you agree. It only means you listen, process, even learn. Then, you reposition your own thoughts in light if the inputs received.

When you debate, you are the strongest when you can convert your opposition’s point to your advantage. That requires you to first listen intently, patiently and then bring your intelligence into play. I’m not expert, but I’m wondering how well our Opposition listens in Parliament.

When the situation is not debate for debate’s sake and a group is trying to take decisions, listening becomes critical. But beyond listening, for those in position of power, is the need to take criticism in good spirit and address concerns in a logical, informative manner. Here is where the leading party seems to mess up. The Opposition would be less successful at disrupting if the Congress were forthright in providing ansers and even accepting mistakes where required. But then, politics isn’t that simple! Those in power will do whatever it takes to stay there, and ethical considerations simply do not seem to figure in the scheme of things.

To me, all of this only demonstrates an urgent need to build a culture of civilized dissent in our society. I was lucky to get a chance to be a debater in school. I got introduced to it by a certain Mother Teresa in Loreto Convent Lucknow, who picked me for an inter-school debate over other established debaters in the school. I went on to win and she encouraged me to hone my skills. Later, in Army Public School, many more opportunities came my way. I lost the fear of questioning, learnt to do my research well, learn to retaliate in a well spoken manner, learnt to back aggression with facts and logic and accept defeat gracefully, even while plotting to down the opposing team in the next round!

However, in our academic institutions, school and college, no one is encouraged to criticize or debate ideas. Students listen, teachers don’t. We perpetuate that culture of one way communication when we become adults and occupy positions of power. Our natural rebellion and dissent, or even curiosity, is suppressed and we learn to bottle it, only to express it as uncontrolled rage on social media or on the streets! We’re a nation of spoilt children, who all had a bad childhood, in a sense.

I’m aware that this is a simplistic diagnosis and a pop psychology type of hypothesis. But seriously, how do we change this and bring into our society a culture of listening, sharing, collaborating and building consensus- ideas, anyone?

 

Artists can be true to their art only if they stay uninfluenced by public perception! Feb 08, 2012

Amitav Ghosh, a writer of fiction who I particularly admire, blogged recently about the dangers of writers facing their audience in response to the recent trend of literary festivals and the Rushdie fiasco at the Jaipur Lit Fest. He makes the point that writers are able to take controversial positions and push the boundaries of thought only because they are separated from their audience. When writers put themselves in a position where they are being questioned, they will also be influenced, therefore weigh their words carefully and lose their spontaneity altogether. On a more serious note, society needs voices of dissent, opinions that ruffle feathers, perspectives that are different from the mainstream; who offers these if everyone is answerable and no one is willing to take the risk of speaking their mind?

I have written earlier about a scary culture of intolerance that is spreading through society. Ghosh’s piece also echoes a similar sentiment. There is an urgent need for defiance in our society; we conform too much, we give in too easily. We don’t want to think things through because we are convinced of the futility of such an exercise. We don’t really believe in change.

But we do want to publicize our smallest achievement and so, expecting writers to only write and not talk about their writing in today’s world is quite impractical. Most of us put up pictures of mundane events on Facebook and its but natural to share our achievements. But Ghosh’s piece made me wonder- When is the right time to share and exhibit our work/talents/creativity? A friend writes decent poetry, but shares her work with a select few, firm in her belief that her writing needs to mature much more before she would be willing to share it publicly. This is not out of shyness of lack of confidence, I suspect, but out of a desire to hone her talent in solitude with constructive feedback. Adulation and popular opinion can often derail a creative process completely.

Even as I blog my heart out to the world everyday, I admire the ones with restraint and patience; the ones who pursue art for art’s sake and worry about its saleability at a different level, that is independent from the process of creation. That’s how I think it should be. I worry immensely when I break my rules and visit the site stats page of my blog, when I should be worrying more about how good I feel about what I have created!

Contrary to popular belief, true confidence isn’t about keeping your art in the public eye constantly; its about making it accessible, sure, but most of all believing in it yourself and continuing to nurture it.

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