“Tis the cause, the cause, my soul…”

Bubla Basu

I’m glad I didn’t wait for the sunset – the last day, the cards, the gatherings and the goodbyes – the curtain call at retirement. This year, at 51, I chose to leave my position of Senior English Teacher at a South Mumbai school. This puts a full stop to a long (but interrupted) 25-year teaching career and I consider myself fortunate to have the health, the circumstances (which do not mean economic stability!) and the will to quit while I am ahead.

My reasons for quitting school are not the conventional ones – of moving to another state or to a more suitable school, or to consciously change a field of work, or to follow a calling, or to seek a more lucrative job, or because of a family crisis. These were the reasons that had made my teaching graph waver earlier.

This time, it is simple – a disagreement with what is called learning and what schools, in general, have learnt to call teaching – and I don’t mean this of only the school I quit.

What seems to matter to most schools now is the right equipment, state-of-the-art technology, that their students host or attend the many meaningful or meaningless inter – school events in their city or even beyond it and that these students look smart, talk glib and score well in the public and competitive examinations. Only when this checklist of appearances – the “look and feel” – is satisfactorily met does a school merit distinction.

From a teacher of another city school who was as taken aback as I was, I learnt that children in schools were “clients,” and that it was because of these “clients” that teachers held their jobs. “Clients” should be satisfied with schools and schools should ensure their maximum comfort.

To me, this patronising sounds absurd. An institution should have no reason to beg for brownie points or for its students to drift along in such indulgence. Whether for an institution or an individual, “ambition should be made of sterner stuff.” Rigour and discipline do not necessarily mean a military regime and in a dynamic learning atmosphere, demands placed on students more often than not encourage students to demand more of themselves.

Chillingly matter of fact, a student of 15 remarked to me that as school prepared one for life and as life was really about following instructions, there was no point in reading, far less in thinking about or taking “The Road Not Taken.” This corresponds to the sentiments of an administrator who spoke glowingly of a student’s greatest quality being “so eager to please.” In other words, why struggle to learn when you are learning not to struggle?

As an English teacher, I am also concerned about the English that students pick up – or don’t – in the course of learning other subjects. The media is a favourite scapegoat for all social and educational ills, but students are taught from textbooks too. In the flurry of textbook facts and terminology, students have lost the ability to use words or expressions correctly. It is alarming that the words “position” and “possession” are substituted so easily or that “correspondence” and “correspondents” are considered to have the same meaning because the spell check on the computer (which is not context sensitive) deems so. This is not a dyslexic error or the error of simply using the wrong word, or using American spelling – it is to do with the (un)familiarity of what is read and heard. Words not understood but memorized – from sub-standard guides (whether human, printed, or cyber) with errors in diction (opp-or-tunity) spelling (“This is are school”) and usage (“He’s gone out” these days is expanded to “He is gone out”). Words, words, words – like Eliza Doolittle, everyone is so sick of words that they don’t even know or care what the words mean any more. So, just as Professor Higgins had warned us, “there even are places where English completely disappears.”

This slamming down of words is most apparent in the project work that is meant for the internal assessment at the std. IX and X level. This is an unfortunate practice that marks are inflated in school records so that students appear to fare better when the internal assessment marks are added to their marks in the public examination. Principals defend this in the interest of their school profiles as do most teachers. Clearly, the idea of assessment is an eyewash because what the student has learnt is to download reams from the Internet and what the institution, has in effect taught, in this ethical compromise, is that such pointless work is worthy of high marks.

I am not about to join the anti-tech group as yet, because great moments can still be found even in the much-maligned technological present. I have optimally used the facilities of the computer, video, audio, and all that makes our world as interconnected as our education should be via the Internet. But somewhere, in my opinion, students are slipping through this net and juggling more information than they are able to grasp or process.

Apart from information overload, what schools seem to offer a student is a head full of irrelevant, densely muddled matter, frustration with the written word and the inability to apply knowledge to specific contexts. Skills as basic as concentration and attention to detail which determine work ethic; perception, and observation which arouse individual insight and opinions; the ability to express viewpoints – whether orally or in writing – are ultimately being killed along with the sense and the sensitivity of the system, syllabus, institution, administrator, teacher, and the taught.

“Tis the cause, the cause my soul,” that makes me end my teaching career and as I step out of a role that defined me for so many years, I start anew, for in life one must indeed seize the opportunity to “play many parts.”

The author is an educationist and associated with media. She conducts independent classes on Shakespeare, Film Studies and Creative writing. She can be reached at bubla@rediffmail.com.

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