A creative and critical mind seems to be a problem in today’s world, and society often tends to look at it as some kind of a deviation from the normal, rule-abiding, passive mind idealized by mainstream schooling. An occasional painting, a clay vase on the potter’s wheel, a piece of craft made from waste materials, or hobby class in music or theatre is seen as a recreational or co-curricular engagement, but on a day-to-day basis as far as the main life course of the child is concerned, parents and teachers often prefer that they take well-trodden paths that are low risk, high return, and stable in terms of the parameters that society values the most, such as financial stability, social security, or power. How many of us really want our children to grow up as independent and sensitive thinkers with a questioning-exploring mind of their own?
It has been widely recognized that individual thinking and sensitivity have nothing to do with modern education. That is the reason why students are often denied the right to question in the classroom; parents keep scolding their children when they no longer unconditionally follow instructions or question things around them. When children grow into adults, the community denies them the freedom to raise their voices against social injustice, fight for their rigs or even express their emotions without the fear of being judged. From the home to the school and the community, children are discouraged to think, question, feel or be sensitive to the world around them. They are expected to walk the path that somebody else has decided, borrow their dreams from the market logic, and fit into the mould society has cast without doubts, questions, or a mind of their own. People who dare to look at the world differently are often labelled idealists, puritans, or impractical.
While working with different groups of students and talking about questioning, sensitivity, and development of critical consciousness, I became aware of the many ways in which our community tries to silence creativity and uniqueness. Our teachers often reprimand students who don’t understand concepts in one go or ask questions that are apparently not in the syllabus. Either the child is labelled as dumb, incapable, or mentally insufficient or is called over-smart, rebellious, or spoilt. A child who is questioning is likely to be participating in the classroom, taking interest in what is being taught or wanting to expand his/her knowledge, but instead of appreciating the child and opening up avenues for them to explore, many teachers and parents see this as a problem or symbolic of the child crossing their limits, being disrespectful of adult authority or acting beyond their age! You can very well see the repercussions of this in our classrooms where students are expected to memorize answers from the book rather than form their own understanding of things, follow classroom instructions without questioning, participate in activities ranging from classroom teaching, craft-library periods, examinations and assessments, conducting experiments in the science lab all with the consistency of a lifeless robot that is programmed to follow rather than think and feel the world around itself.
The system wants every course of action and method to be uniform under the control of a highly regimented process that seems to be manufacturing well-programmed robots instead of creative-critical and sensitive human beings. Market oriented learning, parental and social pressures snatch away children’s uniqueness and creativity and bring up dull individuals who have not had a chance to develop their own consciousness or sense of identity beyond the social programming.
During my interactions with children they often reveal how a mind becomes narrow and insensitive. In a lower-middle class family, a girl is expected to handle domestic chores but a boy is expected to study and the parents ensure that he is provided with a suitable environment. If the girl questions her mother, asking her why she is compelled to cook and clean while her brother is encouraged to study, paradoxically the parents don’t reflect or rethink their parenting, instead they reprimand the girl and say, “Bahut mu chlata hai” (You talk too much). A girl looking at the world with her own eyes, questioning the patriarchal status quo or asking for the chance to be treated equally with her brother is seen as a problem in the family and often girls who dare to question are either married off early or caged within the walls of the home. With time, most children stop questioning and adjust with the system knowing that this is how things are and shall forever be for them. Is the child denied critical thinking because of the danger that he/she will now understand the paradox of the society, question its power structure and age-old customs? Are children who ask questions seen as problematic because they reject tradition, hierarchies of knowledge and insist on democracy and justice?
The author is founder of Shiksha Swaraj Centre, Patna. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.