Monday, 30th October 2017

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The mentor's dilemma

Time has come to worry about the distasteful possibility of teachers being compelled to impart a specific veiwpoint

  • Published 5.02.20, 1:28 AM
  • Updated 5.02.20, 1:28 AM
  • 3 mins read
It is the responsibility of every teacher to allow a student’s critical, objective and analytical thinking to grow unfettered (Shutterstock)

This New Year, with its telling numerals, prompts us to acquire a clarity of vision. The latter is required urgently at this point of time because we are being constantly exposed to mixed messages, polarities of thought and belief and the cloudy statements of confused people and fence sitters. We have just had a strange festive season in which, on the one hand, our students sang the usual songs of Christmas ushering in peace and goodwill on earth while on the other, they were agitating and protesting against the government in the streets. I did not feel the customary uplifting spirit of the season because of the state of the world in general and of our country in particular. The streets of Calcutta should have cheered me up. They were brightly lit to celebrate Christmas and the New Year but I found the lights gaudy and overdone, almost aggressive. My negative perception of these lights reminded me of a friend who wrote to some of us soon after the citizenship (amendment) bill was passed in Parliament. He explained how the ‘outside’ can affect the ‘inside’. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act had caused inflammation outside, in the form of protests, riots and police brutality, and inflammation within, in the form of a troubled mind and resultant physiological disturbances. Further, he wrote that the leaders we choose should be generating in us parasympathetic responses of calm and rest, not vitriolic reactions of ‘fight or flight’. Leaders must strive to bring about unity, not divisions.

This was quite a unique way of looking at the unrest raging in our country and within most of us. It made me reflect on the dilemma that most of us teachers face in our profession, especially in the present circumstances. Our senior students study politics, economics, history and international relations. Through these subjects we encourage them to be critical thinkers and learn to weigh both sides of an argument and the different perspectives of individuals and groups. They are encouraged to arrive at independent, informed opinions. After all, most of them turn 18 in their last year in school and become eligible to vote. This is the time when they not only start thinking independently but also feel passionately about issues outside of themselves. They also become conscious of the ‘conditioning’ they have been subjected to through the years by their elders.

At this impressionable age, it is the responsibility of every teacher to allow a student’s critical, objective and analytical thinking to grow unfettered. The question is, if a student asks for the teacher’s opinion on any topic, does the teacher hedge and always give a ‘safe’ answer? There may be instances where a teacher does not know enough to form an opinion. But opinionated people who base their beliefs on half-baked knowledge, or take a certain stance because they do not have the ability to process the specious arguments of persuasive people or have fallen prey to the oratory of charismatic people, are dangerous. Fence sitters, though, are basically cowards. However, the teacher should not, consciously or otherwise, impose her opinions and beliefs on young people in her charge. Every teacher should keep in mind that her position makes her a natural influencer.

So what should be the brief for a teacher discussing sensitive topics in class? The standard brief is that they should not indicate any kind of partisan attitude. The handling of such subjects should be objective, clinical and dispassionate. Their aim should be to encourage students to carry out further research in pursuit of the truth (which is usually elusive) or to arrive at their own conclusion. It should be pointed out at this juncture, that the teacher’s dilemma arises only if she takes her classroom discussions beyond the prescribed textbooks because, sadly, our school textbooks tell the students exactly what to think and give them the responses to the questions that will be asked in an examination. I remember that for decades the textbook chapters on the 1857 movement in India were written in the following safe format: there would be points in favour of it being termed ‘The Sepoy Mutiny’, others that would justify it being called ‘The First War of Independence’, and then it would be stated clearly that it was actually ‘something in-between’. The teacher would never face any dilemma, nor would she get into trouble for giving a specific viewpoint. The time has come for us to worry about the distasteful possibility of teachers being compelled to solely impart a specified viewpoint.

In any case, the significant point that is being raised with regard to the teacher’s role in class discussions is that we cannot always remain ‘neutral’. We would then seem insensitively detached and indifferent to global concerns while discussing the world in the 21st century. Many seemingly apolitical issues are actually connected to politics. If we wish to develop thinking individuals who are not afraid to question a higher authority and express differences in opinion, we must be honest about how and why we hold certain opinions on issues such as climate control, immigration, economic disparity and religious policies.

We teachers would be doing no harm if we spread the message of peace, global unity and humanity through careful reflection and logic. It would be a matter of pride for us if our students sang songs of peace and joy on the one hand and protested against divisive forces on the other. This is because all love is good and any kind of hatred is bad. This truth is indestructible.

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