Fighting the inner wars

G. Gautama

For the better part of 30 years I have been trying to get young students and colleagues to speak their mind and to listen to each other. This has been based on the understanding that if people speak their truths, however unrefined, and own their feelings and assumptions, and if they carefully and non-reactively listen to other views, there is the possibility of something new emerging. Something that does not belong to any one person, but owned collectively, seeded with wisdom from each one and collectively held, harmoniously. And I have seen this happen multiple times, people shifting their views, suggesting, questioning assumptions and co-creating solutions, adjustments and new directions. Today in this endeavour, I find myself in the middle of a war…and inner battle zone.

Schools and school teachers have been struggling to educate the young and have discovered many hurdles. One reason is that school education needed individuals to read and repeat to demonstrate understanding. It being assumed that this process will help them understand and they will be able to get into colleges and get jobs. As every teacher knows there are barriers to this logic and equation. Repeating what another has said, in a book or class, rarely leads to understanding. The context and atmosphere of the school has a great influence on the learner. Fear of the teacher, peers or anxiety about how one will be received block exploration and thinking. And this leads one to a predictable circular orbit. Stay safe, don’t attempt something new, repeat that which kept you safe!

In the face of this dilemma, I discovered, like many teachers, that people learn best when they can try something new without fear of consequence and listen to each other. Much of my life as a teacher and head of school, I have spent my energies in conversation… with the young and the adults. And conversation meant that people spoke and invited each other to speak. I wrote a small piece called ‘toolkit for a flowing community’ that summed up the dilemma of creating a participatory fabric…. Today I find myself reading a different toolkit in the world around us…

The toolkit I have followed since 2000…
We are who we are from wherever we are and no one knows us fully, not even ourselves. We know others, our children, colleagues, friends little. Thus when we speak or listen we are unlikely to fully communicate or fully understand. The only thing that is certain is that we understand partially. Thus incomplete and inaccurate understanding will be the rule.

Can we give each other permission to understand what we say in ways different from what we may want or prefer. Can we say to ourselves and others: Speak and you will be incompletely or wrongly understood, but please speak nevertheless.

When you find yourself reacting to me, please state your feeling since I may not understand. Also please remind me you are not responsible for my feelings.

Whenever something is told to you or asked of you, you can and must seek clarification about the intentions of the speaker. For example: What do you want me to do with what you have told me? Are you telling me something so you want me to do something about it? Why do you think I should do something and not somebody else? Do you want my view, a decision, discussion, just listening?

Easy agreement is dangerous. If you find us agreeing easily, ask, for example: Why are we agreeing on this point? What do you see as the limitations of this idea, proposal? Are there alternatives we should be considering, which we may have overlooked? Are there hidden assumptions in our conclusion, decision?

The new toolkit offered for 2019…
We know who we are from where we come…. We know others, our children, colleagues, friends and also our enemies. Thus when we speak or listen we must beware of our enemies. We must fully communicate and make others understand. Getting others to understand is our strength. Understanding others, enemies is capitulation, yielding to a weakness.

You have permission to misunderstand anyone who opposes you. But beware of being misunderstood! Say to yourself and others: Speak and you will be incompletely or wrongly understood, so don’t speak unless you are ready to suffer indignity, attacks verbal or physical.

Your feelings are precious and should not be injured by anyone. And you will never know what injures another. So it is safest to keep your mouth shut. You never know who will get injured.

Whenever something is told to you or asked of you, ask only the most superficial questions. For example: What result do you wish to see? It is ok if you don’t do anything, but don’t ask any questions. People don’t want your view, a decision, discussion. They just want you to listen and do what they want.

Agreeability is the same as agreement. Anything else is dangerous. If you find us agreeing easily that is the best; friends agree, enemies disagree, is it not obvious?

All ideas are limited so don’t criticize anyone. Don’t make the mistake of pointing out limitations to others’ ideas. The world has hidden assumptions and you must beware! However much we say ‘we’ there are ‘them’.

I am not just afraid, but terrified of the consequences at this dramatic crossroads. I am terrified for the implications of the new toolkit for education and for the direction India is taking. My questions for school education are –

  • Is it wrong for a child to ask what bathing after an eclipse does for our body and mind, or why we wear caps or a bindi, or why we follow a ritual?
  • Do children need to hear different views on a subject or just one view, one explanation? How is one view, one explanation different from indoctrination, brain washing?
  • Should children be invited to construct meaning and learn from multiple constructions, or should they be given just one interpretation, one construction, one gospel?
  • Does India want its young to participate in the new world where disruptive thinking is the order of the day? Will children learn to use their intelligence or just conform?
  • Do we wish for children what Tagore dreamt, an India ‘Where the mind is without fear’… or do we teach fear? Fear of another view, fear of speaking and fear of consequence…retribution.

On the one hand, we want India to be a world economic superpower. But on the other we seem to be sowing seeds in the school education system that will hamper the people leading India into the future.

As a teacher I face a dilemma –
Do I teach resilient participation and ownership to students so they can be effective citizens? Or do I teach them conformity, to obey commands and orders? Do I teach for the young to own and solve challenges of the 21st century or to be Macaulay’s children, clerks who will do the masters’ biddings?

India cannot have both – healthy advancement will be through an intelligent population that collaborates through freedom of thinking. This cannot happen in an atmosphere where the minds are gently or toughly required to conform to given thoughts. Conformity will bring order and tame the masses, at least outwardly. But what about the human spirit that defies restrictions? Such an approach will serve, not India, but the same colonial forces that once bridled this country. And in a system where the individual is bridled with fear… there is but one natural consequence… uprising, disorder, mayhem, bloodshed …I quote from a young mind who expresses herself eloquently in an unsought piece –

“Mere independence does not mean freedom. Many countries, individuals are independent, but are they free? Freedom and intelligence go hand in hand. By being able to question and observe we get the space to know the various factors that surround us in our daily life.

For a community/country to function without chaos or confusion, there ought to be norms that will help everyone explore in a safe manner. These rules can be considered in two ways – restrictions and restraints. Restrictions are when one does not understand the purpose of the norm and consider it to be an obstruction to their way of living. It is an external action and not thought about deeply.

Restraints on the other hand, are controlled responses, which I feel can only occur when one truly reflects and knows why something is being said. I think freedom plays a role here too because you have an opportunity to respond carefully.”Deeksha, Grade 11

But hope does not die easily in the human heart. If the terror of consequence is a restraining force, then the hope of a place where one can be oneself, express one’s being, lies deep in the human heart. India has won independence as a country but is there freedom for the individual? As J Krishnamurti says, “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

The author serves as an Educator – Learner in Pathashaala, serving in the roles of Director and Secretary at Palar Centre for Learning (PCFL-KFI), one of the six educational centre of KFI. He can be reached at

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