At its most basic, education has two dimensions – what is taught and how it is taught. Everyone would agree that the most excellent content can be taught very poorly. It is less obvious that good pedagogy can overcome the handicap of indifferent content by enabling students to self-learn, a skill they can use to find content that meets their needs.
This reflection should lead to the conclusion that how we teach is more important than what we teach. Even more so in an age when old content dates rapidly and new content is added daily. In such times the only skill that ensures survival is that of self-learning beyond the classroom.
We no longer live in times in which students were prepared for careers that lasted lifetimes, and for which they required foundational training to which they added incrementally by learning on the job. Today, careers are here today and gone tomorrow – and students need cognitive abilities to adapt to radically altered job markets.
In such times, the approach to teaching also needs to adapt. Pedagogy itself can be viewed in two ways – the first emphasizes filling students’ heads with information that some authority or committee considers useful and training them for the job market; the second stresses nurturing the intellectual development of students to enable the full realization of their potential, whatever it may be.
Once again, it should be obvious which approach is more relevant in our times given the rate at which information becomes obsolete. Consider how many who studied physics and chemistry in high school remember what they were asked to memorize. The purpose of having such subjects in the curriculum was not to memorize the speed of light or the periodic table but to learn to be surprised, to ask questions, formulate hypotheses, devise experiments, record observations, and derive logical conclusions. Those skills, if acquired, became second nature, and lasted a lifetime proving valuable across any number of domains.
Much of these insights were ignored when education was transformed into a vehicle to mass produce workers for an industrial age – an age when training, discipline, and compliant behaviour were attributes most desired by most employers. As an added benefit, such education also produced placid citizens who would not question their rulers.
But the insights themselves were known since much earlier times. Socrates described education as the kindling of a flame, not the filling of an empty vessel. His focus throughout his teaching life was on the acquisition of self-knowledge by the individual and his method of choice was to teach learning through questioning, the celebrated Socratic Method.
We don’t teach Ghalib anymore as it is worthless in the job market, or if we do it is only to memorize six ghazals by grade 5 and recite two of them (not necessarily on pitch because music is not fit for the classroom). But if we had, we would have recognized the Socratic Method in just this one couplet: “kya farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-sa javaab / aa o nah ham bhi sair kareN koh-e tuur ki” (Is it a given that all will get the same response / Come let us also take a stroll around Mount Tuur)
Of course, one would also have had to know some history to figure out ‘koh-e tuur’ – but that too we have discarded as useless.
Thinking along these lines should alert us to the danger of choosing education that is content heavy, and pedagogy that aims to fill an empty vessel. We will inevitably fill our children’s heads with whatever content is deemed ‘right’ at a particular time to serve the ends of adults. That is both dangerous and unfair to children who are unable to protest such manipulation of their lives.
Kindling a flame avoids such dangers. For example, anyone taught to question and sift evidence would be sceptical of the belief that one can be taught to be good in a classroom – had that been the case one would not have had the problems in the Catholic Church. They would be similarly sceptical of a slogan like ‘One Nation, One Curriculum’ – having observed what happened to ‘One Nation, One Language.’
The argument that one can have the best of both worlds – the head can be filled with content and the mind can be allowed full reign to be creative – has not been proved anywhere. Students tend to one mode or the other. They mostly conform, though some rebel; Bertrand Russell famously said that schooling does not succeed in destroying everyone.
The SNC has to be evaluated on two counts. First, is it focused on how to teach rather than on what to teach, and is it abreast of modern trends in education? And, second, does its pedagogy subscribe to kindling a flame or to filling an empty vessel? If the latter, who will decide what will be filled into the empty vessels?
The last is an especially important question. Setting all my misgivings apart, I shall be prepared to bless the SNC if I am shown a chapter, vetted by reputable historians, that students are asked to memorize on what happened in East Pakistan. How many of our students born in this century even know that Bangladesh was once part of Pakistan?
How many of the rest recall the song we were made to sing with such patriotic fervour that had this line about Golden Bengal – “vahan ka bachcha bachcha apni qaum pe marne waala hai” (every single child there is willing to die for his/her nation). Which nation? Our committees have erased all that history from what is to be filled into the heads of our future generations.
For educationists, the SNC is sadly wanting on all counts; it is a cut-and-paste exercise that is confused, outdated, outmoded, and a minefield of unintended consequences. It needs to be revisited in good faith and with an open mind.
Parents need to voice their opinions on whether they want their children to be blinkered, compliant cogs in a political game or confident, thoughtful innovators ready for the future. Just as goodness and patriotism cannot be taught in a class, neither can innovation or entrepreneurship – these are attitudes of the mind that emerge out of a process of learning that kindles a flame.
Half a couplet from Ghalib is the best summing up of the learning process I can think of: “tuutii ko shash jihat se muqaabil hai aaiiinah” (the parrot is confronted from all six directions by a mirror).
In our tradition, talking parrots were taught to speak by making them see their own reflection in a mirror while an unseen human voiced the words. What happens when the mirror is distorted?
The point to ponder is whether we are raising thinking human beings able to comprehend the truth, whatever it is, or parrots regurgitating platitudes that their masters wish to hear. Not to forget that even parrots trained through distorted mirrors can only take that much distortion without losing their minds and poking out the eyes of their trainers.
The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.
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