Never “settle down”
What follows is basically a rant that has taken a long time to come to fruition, driven by a chance impulse — on kids, schools, teachers, science, research and education. And why one must never “settle down”.
As I walked back to my office, two gentlemen of the grown-up kind stopped me, and generally inquired about the institute. After answering some general questions about entrance requirements and all that, the conversation shifted to something else — how much time does it take to finish a PhD here, isn’t it a vocation that delays other things in life, like when you’re going to “settle down”? I don’t think I answered to their satisfaction — something like, “settling down late” (by which I think they meant having a ‘job’ and a ‘family’) is an occupational hazard and you sign up for it because it’s part of what you want to do, as much as the risk of being killed in combat is an occupational hazard to a soldier. Not that the two even compare! They didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about. There was also some confusion about the kind of work (‘research’) that people here do. It turns out these two gentlemen were mathematics teachers in schools and I felt sorry for their students. Sorry, because they did not seem to understand (at least) the point of what was being done here, if not the content thereof. I might be wrong (and I’d be happy if I am) but they seemed least inspiring. I doubt if any of their students have been particularly inspired to take up mathematics for higher studies because of their teachers’ ability to enthuse and motivate them. They did not seem to understand what motivates basic research in science and maths — that it’s not particularly for the money or the “security” that comes with it that you do science, but to satisfy a deeper urge to reach out to some truths that underlie the very structure of our world. Of course, different people would have different reasons for doing science and mathematics, but this one is probably the most basic one of them.
There are a few things I want to express here: first, the need for teachers to show some enthusiasm for their subject and to share it with their students; second, the need for science and mathematics researchers to take some time out of their busy lives for outreach and communicating the point of their work (so that it may enthuse some young kid out there to explore the subject, and also dispel the stereotype of “esoteric” scientific research which seems to be the predominant public perception; after all, most basic research is publicly funded and we owe it to society to at least share what we do, instead of perpetuating a scientific elitism of sorts); and third (most importantly) to give kids the space to figure things out for themselves instead of making things too linear and predetermined for them.
Enthusiasm is the difference between a great teacher and an ordinary one
All through my academic life, the teachers who have had the greatest impression on me (and in some sense helped me shape the way I think and relate to things) have been the ones most enthusiastic about what they teach. They have not necessarily been the “best” or “know-it-all” teachers. But they certainly have been the most enthusiastic ones. And they have been genuinely interested in their students as persons, as individuals with a mind of their own, and capable of discovering things for themselves. There’s a certain measure of confidence that children develop when they learn that the teacher treats them as real people, and not as automatons to be fed with appropriate ‘programs’ for life. Whether its maths, science, history or poetry, the teacher has to be able to communicate the joy of doing what he/she does. One does a lot of damage to young minds by taking up teaching if one’s heart is not really into it. For then teaching becomes just another chore instead of a mode of self-expression and of sharing one’s enthusiasm and passion for learning. Many kids who grow up to positively hate a particular subject do so because no one ever was enthusiastic enough to introduce the subject appropriately to them. And that is a bad thing. Even if you are not particularly interested in something, for someone to make it even worse (and make you positively hate it) is tragic.
To reach out is to enrich your community, and in turn, yourself
Academics, it has often been said (and perhaps rightly so in most cases), live in an ivory tower. And from that ivory tower, one cannot grasp what the folks outside perceive your world as, nor even the complexity of the ‘real’ world outside; it does not matter whether we communicate or not, some might say. I’d argue otherwise. If you fail to communicate what you do (or at least the point of what you do) to those outside your ivory tower, no one’s going to be able to appreciate your work. But if you do, then you might be able to inspire some kids to join in for the ride! A culture of communication and interaction can only benefit society in the long run. To be scientifically literate is a vital prerequisite for our society to make any progress towards a better world in this century and thereafter. And it is part of the collective responsibility of teachers, educators, writers and researchers to participate in the process of communicating these things. At the very least, it will make knowledge more available to those who wish to partake in it. The Internet has made information more widely and cheaply accessible, but we will not get very far if the human aspect — real interaction with those who do science — is missing.
Give kids their space
The culture of ‘received wisdom’ is very much a part of growing up (at least in India). The teacher (or the guru) is traditionally a revered figure, to be always obeyed and all that. This obedience to elders is generally inculcated since childhood. The assumption underlying this approach is that a child’s mind needs to be moulded in an appropriate way, so that he/she is fit to participate in a society of grown-ups when the time comes. And that grown-ups know better. Leaving aside the merits and demerits of such an approach, what one must recognize is that it plays a big role in shaping ‘conventional wisdom’. So a child, right after school, is supposed to become an engineer or a doctor (quite “preferred” career options in this country) and is supposed to participate in that rite of passage called the IIT-JEE exam, or some such equivalent (Medical entrances et al).
Of course, that is a rant very often repeated by people who never made it to an IIT (count me in!). I have nothing against the exam per se. What I have a problem with is that most kids never get enough time to figure things out for themselves. And decide what they want to do. They have to be told to do this or that. Everyone’s running, so you must join the race, whether it’s your race or not is immaterial. Forget about your dreams and aspirations that somehow survived the onslaught of ‘received wisdom’! Get real! You need to grow up and “settle”. After that you can do whatever you wish to do. After that? Really? Fact is, if you spend the most creative and defining years of your life worrying about the mundane things in life and keeping your dreams on hold, when the time comes (if it ever does!) for you to take them up, you are likely to find you ‘are not now that strength which in old days’ could have ‘moved earth and heaven’. You know what “settle down” means? It means to give up, to stop dreaming, and to become complacent and permanently wedded to the status quo. It means to become yet another brick in the wall. And spend the rest of your life searching for a fulfilment that might never be yours because at some point you were too scared to reach out for it. And you still are.
Children need to be given the freedom and the opportunity to carve out their own creative niche, whatever that may be. And teachers have the most important role to play in this, in enabling their dreams. As Keating, the epitome of the kind of teacher I have been referring to, points out (do watch Dead Poets Society if you haven’t),
Only in their dreams
Can men be truly free,
‘Twas always thus,
And thus will be.
Postscript: Here are some videos that might get some of these points across (and more) far more efficiently
1. Sir Ken Robinson on Public Education: