AT HOME ABROAD: Hey, Teacher! Leave those kids alone! —Angela Williams
We’ve programmed little ones, within 4 or 5 years, not to be contentious in their opinions. Indeed, not to have opinions other than those dictated by the teacher. Tact and self-preservation is one thing, but where’s the spark? Where’s the individual? Mummies! Daddies! Teachers! What are we producing here? Robo-Kid?
Confucius wrote, some two thousand or so years ago, “Learning without thought is labour lost”. Obvious enough, I thought for many years of my life. No argument there... But that was before I came to live in Pakistan and met up with the accepted style of education here.
Now, I would be the first to suggest that it was probably the British in India who taught their colonial subjects that education meant rote learning. And I would imagine that rote learning stemmed from capitalism’s urgent 19th century requirement, both in Britain and in the colonies, for an expanding bureaucracy and for a generally more literate workforce which knew how to clock on and clock off.
Assuming this to be the case, the British ruling class was surely least interested in enlightenment and expanding minds. Who needs a philosophically-inclined clerk, an analytical factory worker, a note-taker who can argue back? No. Neat handwriting, obedience to the system and subservience were what was wanted. Not thinking. And certainly not using one’s own words. The very idea!
Education gives the system what the system requires. It is interesting to note that, in response to 1857, the British magnanimously built five large, imposing colleges across the sub-continent for the sons of chiefs, with the aim of inculcating in those boys loyalty to the British flag, and thus preventing a replay of the ‘Mutiny’.
And while those chiefs’ colleges were instilling loyalty, the Christian missionaries were busy with the neat handwriting, the obedience and the punctuality. A rather neat stitch-up job, I’d say.
But to return to the modern day rote learning issue: I have already suggested that one probable area of blame for this curse lies with the British Raj; but the sun set on that empire over 50 years ago, so it’s about time we got out from under and started teaching children to think independently and to dare be critical of information fed to them.
An anecdote, to illustrate: revising Buddhism in the Class 7 history lesson, I asked the pupils what they thought of this religion. Only one girl dared to say something other than, ‘It’s very nice’. She felt that, while the history of other religions involved battles, betrayal and martyrdom, Buddhism came across as rather tame, uneventful and, she was sorry to say, boring. This girl had recently come from abroad and dared to think outside the prescribed parameters.
Consider these ideas of little children in Pakistan, asked to write about their school life:
“I love my school”. “I love my teacher” “My teacher is very beautiful”.
About pets: “My cat is black in colour”. “I love my cat”.
About the village: “My village is very beautiful”.
About a school trip: “We all enjoyed”.
What, nobody hates cats? No dirty villages? No average-looking teachers? Surely someone, somewhere hates school?
But no. We’ve programmed these little ones, within 4 or 5 years, not to be contentious in their opinions. Indeed, not to have opinions other than those dictated by the teacher. Tact and self-preservation is one thing; I don’t expect “My teacher is downright ugly”, but where’s the spark? Where’s the individual? Mummies! Daddies! Teachers! What are we producing here? Robo-Kid?
Now compare those sentences with these, taken from a collection of children’s creative writing, published in the UK:
“My Teecher is very crule. She smaks peple all day. I don’t like her becos she says I tell fibs.” (Age 6)
“My daddy does love me. But he is very Busy makeing money”. (Age 7)
“I don’t like to see old ladies and men getting married because theyre to old for it” (Age 6)
“Ive got three daddys which is nice at birthdays but not at other times” (Age 5)
“You should never love someone you don’t like much”. (Age 7)
“God should have painted everybody the same colour and then they wouldn’t fight.” (Age 7)
“When you are a baby your mother feeds you from her bozom but she can only do milk.” (Age 7)
Now, even allowing for first language/ second language considerations, these are two different breeds of creative writing. The robotic stuff may be seen as the product of deliberately stunted imagination; the foreign writing is unshackled, refreshing, edifying and innocent. Those uninhibited Western children, (especially the one with the three daddies!) may have gone on to become drug addicts by now, who knows? But with loving parents, they may just have gone on to become lateral thinkers, capable of initiative and originality.
If we love children, we must also love and appreciate their innocence, and allow them to express it, not try to cram them into a neat box of acceptability, shaming them into silence with a swift, well-placed ‘Tobah, tobah!’ if anything untoward is uttered.
Does anyone remember Pink Floyd’s The Wall album?
“We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.”
Whoever would have imagined that Pink Floyd had so much in common with Confucius!
Now please, Teacher! Leave those kids’ imagination alone.
The writer is the Academic Co-ordinator and a founder of Bloomfield Hall Schools. She has been teaching in Lahore for the past 20 years and has directed numerous highly acclaimed stage plays