Sunday, June 7, 2009
Education and the Emperor’s Golden Bed
The little child had just come back from Kerala when Miss Pisces, her primary school teacher who taught her drawing, asked her class to paint a well.
Green is the permanent colour of Kerala – it is green round the year. But when the rains come, it becomes a mad riot of green. And Kerala gets incessant rains for months at a stretch. Listen to Arundhati Roy describing Kerala during those days of torrential rains: “… by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across flooded roads.”
This is the Kerala the little child had seen.
Most homes in Kerala have a well. Her home in Kerala too had one. A very deep one, which gave cool water round the year. Cool water and plenty of exercise – you had to haul the water all the way up with a bucket and rope. The well had a laterite wall and this had a moss covering most of the time. However during the rains the wall, inside and outside, disappeared behind thick moss and ferns. Ferns and moss grew on the inner sides of the well too, much of the way down. And the water itself had a film of moss floating over it. Everything turned green.
And this is what the little child painted when her teacher asked her to paint a well. The well she had seen in her home in Kerala. A green well.
Miss Pisces took one look at her work, held it up for the whole class to see and then said, “Look at this! How stupid! How can a well be green? It has to be brown!” She paused for a moment for effect and then asked the child, “Where do you have your brains? In your bottom?” And she laughed, ridiculing the little girl before the entire class. Fifty titillated little girls joined her laughter at those last words, while the little girl hung her head in deep shame.
A year or so later, young Miss Pisces became my student for fourteen days. On plenty of occasions she tempted me to ask her where she had her own brains. But my culture did not allow me to do so. That is not the way I had been brought up. And that is not the way I had learnt to treat my students.
Many school teachers belong to the class that believes flowers are always red, leaves are always green and wells are always brown. Because that is what the books say and they go by the books. In spite of all the wonderful nature spread gloriously all around you. And they would do anything to make sure their students learnt this eternal truth.
Much education is about making children stop thinking, rather than about encouraging them to think. And stop feeling, rather than making them feel.
There is an old story about an emperor who had a golden bed made for his royal guests in his new guest palace. As the first guest came, the emperor himself took him round the palace. Everything was wonderful. The chambers, the garden with an artificial stream and a little cascade, the birds and animals in the garden, the paintings on the walls, everything. And there was a bed of pure gold for the guest to sleep on. The guest king was delighted.
That night as he lay on the golden bed waiting for sleep to come, four of the emperor’s strongmen entered his chamber. Two held the sleeping king by his legs and two, by his arms. And they pulled him in opposite directions. He screamed, but the pulling did not stop. He struggled, fought, but the strongmen continued to pull him until every joint in his body broke and he died in agony.
The men were trying to stretch the man to fit the bed. The bed was five foot seven –the exact height of the emperor. And the men had standing instructions: the guest who slept on it should fit the size of the bed. This poor king was only five foot five.
The next king who came was three inches longer than the bed. The strongmen of the emperor held him down and pushed his legs into his body until he was five foot seven.
An absurd story, true. But it can describe perfectly an absurd situation.
Many teachers believe that the child should fit education rather than education fit the child. That the child is for education, rather than education is for her.
It was an American educationist deeply hurt by the insensitivity of our modern education system that once said “no child will ever again in his life be as intelligent, as resourceful, as imaginative and as daring as he is on the first day in his school.”
True, there are schools and teachers who are exceptions to this rule. But they are that – exceptions, and not the rule.
If humanity is to be healthy, if humanity is grow out of the insanity in which it lives now, such schools and such teachers have to be the rule and not the exception.
Education is the most powerful tool of man-making. And so it is, of man-unmaking too.
I never met pretty Miss Pisces ever again after those fourteen days years back. But for fourteen days I spoke to her and to her ninety-nine friends about what a teacher’s true job is. That it is not to make every child see alike, think alike, feel alike and act alike, but to make every child blossom into the unique human being he or she is. I wonder if my words helped her see children not as stupid brains to be disciplined and trained, but as beautiful minds to be educated cultivated.