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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Tyranny of Obedience

Learning ought to be a disruptive and subversive process. Otherwise, it perpetuates proverbial bricks in the wall

Written by Shelja Sen | New Delhi |
October 25, 2020 7:00:57 am
Social pressure demands for kids, children and education, obedience, schooling, parenting, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express newsLearning curve: Children question everything as this is what they are wired to do and this is how they make sense of the world. (Source: Getty Images)

Why do we send our children to school? The primary reason is that this has been an accepted practice and a societal norm. It is a taken-for-granted way of life. School, college, work — the conveyor belt of life moves on. Social pressure demands obedient children who grow up to be conforming, law-abiding and dutiful adults. To become another proverbial brick in the wall!

“He does not understand anything in the online classes, but his school insists that he sits through each one. So, now, I have to leave my work, my household chores and sit with him every day” — so many young mothers have shared their daily struggles with me. This is ridiculous! Here the world is crumbling due to the pandemic, but little ones have to sit through classes that don’t make sense to them or their families. These little beings will be ready to start work in roughly 20 years. We don’t know what the world will look like then, we have no idea about the kind of jobs humans will be doing and what jobs would be taken over by robots or digital media. And here, we are insisting that they sit through every miserable, droning class!

Imagine if this year all schools had decided that they would scrap all subjects and instead focus on building critical thinking in children. What we need now, more than ever, is subversive thinkers, children and young people who challenge us. Who question the norms, the givens, the shoulds, the taken-for-granteds, the musts, the established, the so-called common sense and typically prescribed ways of life. Children have the courage to think differently. They have the audacity to stand up against dogmas that we have dredged over centuries. Our children are active change-makers who feel very strongly about their world. It could be about climate change, sustainable living, preserving wildlife or handling problems like poverty, corruption, communalism, terrorism — issues that we are struggling with. They challenge and shake us out of the lethargic stupor that we have let ourselves slip into. Their inborn sense of justice, fairness and forthrightness make them suitable and natural agents for change.

These are some of the questions that children have asked me:

* Why are my teachers so cruel to some children in the class? Isn’t it hypocrisy that they tell us to be kind and not bully others?
* Why are the big companies blind to what they are doing to the environment? Do they not know or do they just not care?
* My parents tell me to study so that one day I will be successful, but with climate change, we don’t even know if our planet will be alive when I grow old. What is the point?
* When the boy in my class made filthy remarks about my body, the principal told me that I should take it is a compliment. Whom can I complain about him to?
* If I am not comfortable being called a girl or with pronouns she/her, why must it be imposed on me?

We have brought our children into this unfair world and expect them not to question it. Why do we value obedience and conformity in our children so much? Because it is much easier to have children who toe the line, are obedient and compliant, and it is inconvenient to have children who are ready to challenge our authority and ask us uncomfortable questions. Therefore, what we tell them is “sit still and be quiet” — the antithesis of what children are designed to do. And then we wonder why children hate school!

Children question everything as they are wired to do so. They make sense of their world through questions. Curiosity is a necessary spark for learning. Every child carries that light, but somehow it gets overlooked, pushed aside or dimmed. They need that curiosity and critical thinking to deconstruct the world and then make it their own.

I have grown to derive a lot from Paulo Freire’s (Brazilian educator and philosopher) ideas on education. This quote is from his 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (the title says it all!) “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.”

Our only way forward is to let children question and then when they do that, to listen deeply with respect. Wonder with them, be curious, explore, co-research, collaborate. Children are not passive recipients of our knowledge and skills. They have amazing know-how, skills and ideas that can change our world for the better.

If you are a parent or a teacher, ask yourself these questions:

* Are my children spending enough time questioning, exploring, challenging taken-for-granted ways of living?
* Are they consciously aware of climate change and are we making sure that their ideas are being heard and implemented, even if it is at a micro-level?
* Do we have discussions on intersectionality and how different kinds of discriminations intersect and overlap to create marginalisation? Are we questioning dominant and damaging ideas on gender, sexuality, race, caste, class, religion, disability?
* Do we talk of shame and how it thrives when others are seen as not worthy or good enough just because they are different in terms of the colour of their skin and looks?
* Are there enough conversations on privilege and how we are born into it without deserving it and how we need to be constantly aware of people who might not live with the same privilege? And how it is our obligation to do something about it?
* Do we talk to them about power and how it operates through constant self-surveillance and self-policing? And how the people who are damaged by power the most are least aware of its presence?
* Do we have discussions on ethics and consent regarding gender? Do they know what accountability means and what they would need to do if there are transgressions?

If these are happening, rest assured education is taking place, if not, something else is happening but let’s not call it education.
As Freire puts it, “There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” What are we choosing for our children?

(Dr Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, co-founder, Children First, writer, and, in this column, she curates the know-how of the children and young people she works with. Write to her

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