Three days before I was due to leave India my mother died in England. I reached Huddersfield, England in time for her funeral. I felt relieved both for myself and for her. At 96, she was ready to let go. For me it is the end of an era, a further cutting of my ties with England and it’s traditions. While I was there debate was raging in the press over a government proposal to outlaw ‘smacking’ of children: to me another welcome sign of the continued decline of tradition there. I wrote the following on the plane from Mumbai to London.
The naked face of European tradition-as-process can be seen in what Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child, called ‘the poisonous pedagogy’, better known as the Victorian way of parenting.
This can be characterized by a few sayings that are not yet forgotten: “Spare the rod and spoil the
child.” “Children should be seen and not heard.” “Don’t answer back!” “Respect your elders.” “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” “Behave yourself.”
It survives to this day, known as the authoritarian method of raising children. It is based on the belief that children need to be controlled “for their own good.” Violence is considered an acceptable tool serving that end, i.e. Spanking. While violence against adults is illegal in all western countries, in many (including Canada) violence against children is not.
Over the last century the science of psychology has revealed how detrimental authoritarian parenting is to human development. Parents have considered it appropriate to coerce their children into conformity with preconceived traditional roles, regardless of their innate character. In the last fifty years, first among the parenting skills that have emerged has been listening. It has arrived together with the notions that children have innate characters which need to be drawn out and that adults can learn something useful from children. This is the beginning of dialogue between generations. It also points up the fact that traditional parents and teachers do not listen to children, believing that there is nothing to be learned from them. They regard a child as a ‘tabla rasa’, a blank slate on which adults write.
The educational establishment is conservative: one of the last strongholds of tradition. If there are two poles in attitude towards the younger generation, firstly that children are innately good and need to be drawn out and, secondly, that they are innately bad and need to be controlled, the school system tends to the latter. The many more-enlightened teachers have to struggle against this system.
Children, at age five, who are already well-versed in the business of learning, having taught themselves how to walk and how to talk, are told to sit down, shut up and listen. In my understanding there are two principal intentions of schooling, beyond custody. One is to pass on all that is valuable in the culture: the content of tradition. The other is preparation of the children to lead productive and fulfilling adult lives.
The methodology of schooling is like the programming of a computer: input of information – the
curriculum. The curriculum is a very carefully selected, but necessarily narrow, segment of all the
possible information that could be inculcated. For example, in high school I studied four years of
history. This history was centred around the names and dates of kings and battles and left out social
history, which I find more meaningful. Also left out, because I was in an accelerated programme, was modern history. The teacher said to avoid that question in the exam!
However, from my perspective, the greater oversight in instilling any curriculum, the price that is paid, is what could be achieved by drawing out rather than putting in. (The root of the word ‘educate’ is ‘educe’ which means to draw out.) That which could be drawn out is the innate personality of each individual, her talents and creativity, her spirit. At present, for a minority, this becomes the major project of adult life: personal growth, to unveil the individuality which was suppressed into conformity by traditional parenting and schooling. As I see it, most if not all that goes under the name of personal or spiritual growth is about undoing the damage that was done by misguided parenting and schooling. The decision to put in information rather than draw out character is based on a mistaken assumption about human development.
But here I paint a picture in black and white when the reality is really grey. There has been much progress in sensitivity towards children’s individuality since the Victorian era. Violence towards children is now the exception not the rule. My own experience of receiving no personal acknowledgment in seven years of high school would be very rare today, even in England I imagine. There is, however, still a long way to go.
One small step, but immensely significant in my view, may be imminent. This is the issue of student feedback to teachers. It has started in the form of a website called rateyourprof. com, in which students share their impressions of college and university professors. Currently these institutions act as if it makes no difference who delivers the curriculum and pay no heed to training teachers in communication skills. I hope that such initiatives as this website will change this, leading to teachers understanding how both they and students can benefit from feedback. Teachers who listen to feedback and adjust the style and content of their teaching accordingly become more effective and develop closer and more satisfying relationships with their students. Students who are asked for feedback by their teachers – “How was that for you? How do you feel now?” – are drawn out.
Feedback, freely requested and freely given, is the end of monologue and the beginning of dialogue, the segue into a culture of dialogue. Creativity, which is encouraged by dialogue and the process of being drawn out, is one-and-the-same-thing as adaptability, the ability to change with changing circumstances. Whether people believe that the future holds unprecedented catastrophe by way of climate change and the end of abundant, cheap oil or unprecedented splendour of technological magic, there must be consensus that there will be unprecedented change. Dialogue and creativity are what is needed, not more information, swallowed and regurgitated but not digested.