Obsession With Schooling

Everywhere I look, each place I visit, and most any conversation I have these days, ends up becoming a discussion or a debate about which school to choose for one’s children! Agreed, there is a paradigm shift in education, as is the case with a younger, more aware, hyper-restless generation of learners. To become obsessive about what school to send them to, or to place all but the entire onus of an education on the school, seems like a stretch.

A child’s first point of contact, and the most constant influence remains the people at home. Parents, grandparents, staff, family friends, friends. This the world that the child inhabits for a vast majority of his or her life, at least in India, for an overwhelming majority, until the child is an adult and college-ready. Shouldn’t it follow then by sheer logic, that a lot of the child’s ‘education’ will come from their immediate and perennial familial observations, interactions and circumstances?

Why then do parents place increasing stock in schools, worse still, blaming the educational institutions for any/all behavioural, learning, developmental shortfalls!

I’m the first person to understand and appreciate the vital role a good schools plays. In my own case, I think my schooling had a profound impact on the person I turned into. Having said that, equally influential was my home-environment, good, and bad. I tend to think that somehow as parents today, we’re a tad escapist. For reasons that range from a genuine lack of time, to a more disingenuous lack of parenting skill and interest; we have found a ready scapegoat in the child’s school. What’s arguably even more reprehensible is that is a child falters, the school is to blame. If he shines, the parents are to be credited!

I can only hope that we as young parents (or parents of young kids) take a little more initiative on our own with regard to our children’s upbringing and education. Make time, spend time, set right examples for them to follow. We are equal, if not greater stakeholders in our kids’ education, and we ought to pull our socks up and accept the task!

Culture Influences Children!

We are civilized people who live in a cultured society. The word culture represents a certain predisposition in the way we conduct ourselves personally, professionally, and in our general way of living and interacting with the world. Children too, naturally, are products of the ‘culture’ they are exposed to, both at home, and outside. However, in order to really understand in what ways ‘culture’ impacts and influences a child, we need to examine culture in its various forms.

FAMILIAL CULTURE

Every home and household practices & follows a certain culture. A status quo of behavior and a belief system that is usually a result of what the child’s parents (in a nuclear family), or patriarch/matriarch (in an extended joint family household) have established over a period of time. And since a child’s earliest understanding and education is imbibed from observation of what goes on at home, the culture prevalent at home greatly influences how the child behaves, be it a positive or a negative manifestation. Let us take an example. If there is a home where the parents are quite emotionally reserved and unexpressive, and that is what the child has seen since the beginning, chances are that either the child will imbibe that ethos as is, or turn rebellious and go the other extreme. That is of course, a behavioral aspect of the culture at home. Let us take another example. If a child belongs to a very wealthy business family, and has seen that there is a culture (propensity) on the part of the elders to discuss money all the time, a leaning towards a show-of-wealth, again, chances are that the child too, will adopt a similar ‘culture’ (habit). As parents and guardians, we need to therefore be acutely aware of what kind of precedents we are setting for the child/children in our homes, because whatever that may be, it will be observed, digested, and put into practice.

RELIGIOUS/COMMUNITY CULTURE

Not too distant from familial culture is culture that is derived from the religious beliefs and practices of a specific family. If a child grows up seeing a lot of time and effort being devoted to religion, prayer, ceremonies; that is the culture he or she might also adopt. Similarly, communities and their peculiarities also form part of the cultural exposure and inheritance of a child. If we were to generalize and use a cliché, a Bengali family where there is omnipresence of the arts and other intellectual pursuits, a child in that environment will be obviously influenced by that kind of leaning. Similarly, a different community that might propagate a philosophy of austerity, it is likely to be inculcated in the children of that family too. Culture then, is really what kind of atmosphere the child grows up in.

OUTSIDE-HOME CULTURE

A huge part of what influences children also includes the kind of culture they are exposed to, outside the home environment. Educational institutions, especially school (since those are very impressionable years), plays a significant role in shaping a culture that a child will adopt for the rest of his or her life. I can tell you having been to a very close-knit residential school myself, one that lay a lot of emphasis on pursuits outside of academics; that I am now, and will remain forever, a person who believes firmly in the merits and power of overall development, and this philosophy will find its way into every aspect of my life, including the way I approach parenting my own child. My point being, the kind of value system and beliefs that children are exposed to at school and during their formative years of learning will undoubtedly have a huge impact on how they turn out, negative, or positive.

NATIONAL

Finally, of course, there is a culture and an identity to be inherited from one’s motherland. Even children, and subsequently adults, who may believe that they are global-citizens, will in some form or fashion, consciously or unconsciously, digest a culture that has been part of the place they were born in, and grew up in. While there are undeniable commonalities across the world’s citizens, it is this nationality-induced difference that makes us uniquely diverse, and that, is a cultural standpoint that children can-not escape. Without pronouncing any judgment; a simple example will demonstrate this. An Indian child, when he or she grows up, is less likely to put their parents into a care-home, choosing instead to keep them at home, and care for them personally, than say, an American. That is usually down to a cultural difference between these two nationalities.

Culture is then, a term that straddles and encapsulates a whole lot. It is a wide gamut of ideologies that children are privy to from various sources, and what children finally practice is an amalgam of all this varied assimilation. All we can do as parents and care givers is to try our best to ensure that our children are exposed to the ‘right’ kind of culture, at home, and outside!

Politically Correct!

The country is in the firm grip of election fever. Homes, streets, offices, are abuzz with election-talk, with people offering their individual perspectives on who will win, loose, and form the new government. It also seems like one of the most unpredictable elections to call. In this kind of politically charged atmosphere, there is a huge part of our young Indian society, missing. Absent from the general discourse, absent also from having their own opinions on the matter.

I am referring to middle to high school students of India. Although they may not be in a position to cast their vote, does that mean they shouldn’t have an opinion? I feel it is vital that they do. Having said that, are they really knowledgeable, invested, aware, enough to have an opinion?

Students in India are made to study how our political establishment works. By middle school, most students gain an insight and understanding, at least of the basic fundamentals of the Indian Democratic & Parliamentary systems. How elections take place, representation, voting, constituencies and the like. But perhaps this theoretical knowledge is too rudimentary, and doesn’t evolve into a more reality-based understanding of anything that is politically current. Our students, especially those attending ‘good schools’ in metropolitan areas, go to great lengths to hone their debating skills and participate passionately in a forum such as the MUN (Model United Nations), debating furiously, international problems and seeking possible solutions. While this is a worthy pursuit, should there not be a platform such as the MUN for our own, native politics? A regular and prestigious event that will compel tomorrow’s voters to research, gain different perspectives, and form their own opinions on national political history, issues, parties, states, regions, problems. It will familiarize them with the current political landscape of the country and engage them in a manner that will best prepare them to make informed decisions when it comes time to cast their own votes in the real world.

This kind of grounding and base-formation will also prevent young Indians from blindly adopting a political ideology that they seem to presently either inherit from their parents and families, or imbibe from their suddenly politically charged college environment – there is an argument here that when a young Indian voter does start thinking about his or her politics, it is too late already to really form one’s own, personal, well thought out perspective.

I remember my own experiences as a child, in most quarters of my family, there was this overwhelming loyalty towards the Congress Party with senior members of my family entirely dedicated to Indira Gandhi. I just accepted this bias towards the Congress to be the gospel truth because I had no other alternative. No forum to debate, explore, or historical perspective on which to base, and come to my own conclusions and opinions. I suspect the influence family holds over young students today isn’t vastly different. And it is time that we, as parents, educators, and responsible adults bringing up a new generation of Indians, thought about this, and provided an opportunity to young India, to decide what’s politically correct for them, themselves!

Is Your Child Fearful Of The Future?

During my interactions with students across middle and senior school have yielded a disturbing reality. That unlike when we were young, unworried, unhurried, kids nowadays are a stressed lot. They seem to carry the weight of the world on their tiny shoulders. While some are constantly burdened by the heft of unrealistic and sky-high expectations, of academic and non-scholastic achievements & targets; others feel a tremendous pressure to create an identity for themselves that is unique and differentiated, yet enabling them to ‘fit in’.

However, among all this psychological load that students tend to feel these days, it is an uncertain future, that many of them seem mortally frightened of. Why, we need to ask as parents and educators, do our kids feel this kind of bleeding pressure? Why, rather than being hopeful, enthusiastic, excited, and optimistic about the future, are they scared, troubled, dismayed, and pessimistic about it?

STOP NAGGING & COMPARING

My own perception of this troubling trend is down to the conscious and unconscious competitive pressure that we place on our kids. Without even realizing it, we constantly nag our children, comparing their performance and achievements with those of their friends and peers, on occasion, even proudly siting specific kids as examples of how THEY should be! All this causes a child to lose not just interest, but a will to explore, discover, and find themselves. It is a behavioral pattern that we as adult care-givers must correct, forthwith.

OPEN FUTURE OPTIONS

The other facet of this increasing disillusionment with the future comes from a predetermined future course of education and career. Now, planning for the future is all well and good. However, many times, as parents, we don’t merely suggest and expose our kids to options, we pretty much assert, even brainwash them into a certain chosen future path, that has little or nothing to do with the child itself, not accounting for his/her likes, dislikes, passions, talents, interest areas and aptitude. In this kind of a scenario, the future, rather than presenting itself like a hopeful and joyous prospect, becomes a tunnel with no light at the end of it. We must therefore, however hard the temptation might be, steer clear of defining our children’s’ future plans, academic, and otherwise. We need to let our kids make their own choices, give them the power to own their own lives.

ALL KIDS ARE THEIR OWN UNIQUE INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE

Lastly, the sooner we can accept that it isn’t necessary that our children are either versions of ourselves, nor is their intelligence defined ONLY by academic achievements, the better the environment that we create for them, will be. If there is a student who is not performing well academically at school, rather than berating that child about it, taunting, warning of a bleak future; the child will be infinitely better served, if as parents, we focused our energies and efforts in identifying areas that the child is good in. I have seen countless examples of students who were my own contemporaries, and even today from among my students, who don’t present an aptitude for traditional subjects, but are remarkably adept and ingenious in alternative areas. One example that comes immediately to mind is a local Jaipur story of this boy who dropped out of school, and employing his immense entrepreneurial skills, today owns and runs one of the most successful chains of Burger Restaurants called Burger Farm!

The future, as it is, isn’t looking particularly rosy. With all the problems that plague the world, the last thing we need is a generation of worriers! In fact, what is required, is the complete opposite – a set of people who are confident and optimistic enough to bring significant change in the world, and heal it. Let us begin by making a small change in our own parenting philosophies today, and enable our kids to shine tomorrow.

A Legacy Of Learning

When I was a student at boarding school, now over two decades ago, my teachers told me that there wasn’t a single day that they didn’t learn something new. These were masters we idolised, worshipped, poked fun of, at the same time, revered. To have them confess that they did not know it all, was a revelation.

Of course, this confession was long forgotten. Relegated to a deep recess of my memory, until recently, when I, the accidental teacher, stumbled upon the very same realization. And from that crevice of my mind’s labyrinth, these words from my own teachers, revealed themselves.

Teaching has been a cathartic rebirth for me. For someone who was firmly set in a media career, doing well, then became disenchanted and decided to shift tracks, unsure of what the alternative would be; I’d go so far as to say that teaching has fulfilled me, completed me, in a way that perhaps not even music could (my first love that never quite materialised). My fortuitous foray into the world of teaching has reacquainted me with myself. It has given me purpose, pride, and ignited a passion that probably always existed, only it was dormant.

That I have no formal education that qualifies me to teach, a fact sometimes held against me, I feel is my biggest advantage. It does not colour my approach to my work. In fact, I hardly perceive it as work in the first place. No training, no career-long teaching experience, are facts that have, in fact, granted me a great sense of freedom and liberty. My interaction with my students is spontaneous, freewheeling, spirited. In turn, their’s with me is uninhibited, uncensored, unfiltered. The way I plan, and un-plan my workshops and lessons benefits from a similarly open and experimental ethos. There is a destination but how my students and I reach it is random, interactive and, on occasion, emancipating!

I have come to realize that to be an effective teacher and an inspiring mentor, the person can not feel or act ‘above’. That there MUST be a genuine openness to learn with each encounter, each interaction. That students in fact, in many cases, teach the teacher more, than the teacher does, them. Teaching then, is a legacy of continued learning. A process that is infinite. A pursuit that endless. A calling.

A Boarding School Education

Two decades after my own Boarding School education finished, I’m still regularly asked – “Should we send our kid to boarding school?” I suppose people feel that I can offer them a unique insight into the world of residential schooling, one that perhaps eludes the vast majority of folks who attended regular day-school. Perhaps they’re right. And then perhaps, it really comes down to common sense.

That a boarding school education can be infinitely enriching. That it can expose a young mind to limitless possibilities of self-discovery. That it can liberate a student from many conscious or unconscious constraints. These are foregone conclusions. Ones that most people are aware of.

Having said all of this, there is one insight I can offer. And that is, that for all the wonderfully exploratory benefits of a boarding school; it is NOT necessary that these will prove to be assets for each and every child. Boarding School is a testing environment. People used to believe that as long as a particular boarding school does not have bullying, it is well and good. But even WITHOUT bullying or ragging, it is STILL a testing environment. It is a space where a child needs to be strong-willed, self-confident, and self-driven. If there is a child who is extremely attached to home, isn’t particularly self-motivated; chances are that the atmosphere a boarding school offers will not sit well with that student. In the best case scenario, that student will go through the motions (years) at school not benefitting at all. The worst case scenario could be much more tragic, with the student developing many complexes and issues, that might become permanently embedded!

So, when it comes time to send you ward to boarding school, it is less the advice of other people, less the reputation of a school, less your own enthusiasm as parents that should determine your choice – and more your own child’s disposition, of which, you should have a clear, objective, un-biased perception and assessment. ONLY if you feel that your son or daughter can ‘handle the pressures’ of a competitive space where one has to work immensely hard to carve out a niche, should you take the plunge.

Like I said at the beginning, while people may be able to present many advantages and disadvantages of a boarding school education, it is for you as a parent, to really judge what you realistically feel your child is best suited to. And if that means sacrificing a boarding-school education to preserve his or her well-being, so be it. It can be a life-altering education but it can unfortunately also be, a scarring one. So THINK hard before you commit your child to it.

Learning is AGELESS

Through the four years I’ve been actively teaching, I’ve come to certain realizations. Good ones. First, that there is no such thing as having attained ‘complete knowledge’. This is a concept I  was introduced to when I began learning Hindustani Vocal as a young boy. I heard my own Gurus and doyens of Classical Music say that they remained students their entire lives. That there was no limit to gaining knowledge, honing one’s craft, improving, evolving. Now, I am experiencing the same phenomenon myself. With each session, either as a result of interacting with a wide age-range of students who constantly keep me fresh with a perspective unique to that generation, or through having to answer a slew of diverse queries,  I stay informed not only about my own subject but the world and its people. It is a beautiful thing to happen, especially to an educator – to stay fresh, relevant, and energized.

By that same token, I have been blessed to have students who are as young as five years, and as mature as fifty-five. That published authors and writers would come to a much younger and relatively inexperienced writer like myself to take a Writing Workshop is proof that there are people out there, living and breathing the philosophy I earlier mentioned. That despite their laurels, they are OPEN. To gaining more exposure, to putting themselves out there and being among other students, I suspect to gather different view points, a myriad of shared experiences, and partake of the buffet of knowledge that is served up with each new human interaction.

I am sharing this particularly addressing the many people who think that they are ‘past their prime’, that they’ve ‘missed the boat’. There is simply NO such thing. As the cliche goes – It is REALLY Never Too Late. And this is what Teaching has taught me. That a teacher can improve with each lesson, as can his students, no matter who or what they may be – that is the beauty of knowledge and shared, lifelong learning. An eternal quest that only rewards and enriches!

An Age Of Deceit

many faces veil man’s innate ugliness

truths lurk in plain sight obscured by wafer-thin lies

we are creatures of habit, prone to the worst kind

deceit, not decency, becomes the family heirloom

with the habitual ease of a fair weather friend

we purge not deception but embrace fabrication

and think absolutely, entirely, completely, nothing of it!

 

Get Engaged!

If the title of this piece was misleading and led you to believe it will propagate marriage, I apologize!  However, it may not be matrimony that I espouse; it is, arguably, an even more important kind of ‘engagement’ that I wish to talk about.

Our formal education provides us with a certain amount of knowledge and skills in a specific sphere of study. To my mind though, that has little to do with acquiring a real education, which, to me, is about wisdom, and a heightened awareness of the people and the world around us. I’m often asked, “how come you speak so well?” “How do you know so much about various things?” Before you assume this is some self-indulgent show-off; let me tell you, I quote my own examples merely to illustrate my point. That being, it is much less one’s ivy-league degree that endows one with an education and a world-view, and perhaps more, engagement, with people.

I say this because especially in today’s context, while interacting with many students on a regular basis, I am a bit disturbed when I find that most of them seem to exist in this intangible bubble that is defined by ‘me, myself, and my phone’. There seems to be precious little interaction with the WORLD.

From a casual conversation with a bus, auto or Uber driver to a chance meeting with a Pulitzer-winning writer; EVERY and ALL human interaction, is crucial, and leads to immense LEARNING. Even if one does not physically get to meet people, one can still be engaged. I make it a point to follow, listen to, read, and watch people I admire – be it for their oratory skills, their infinite wisdom, their political acumen, their intellect. Even with my students, I suspect it is I that learns more than they do :).. Seriously though, it is through constant human interaction and engagement that we learn the most. By being present and consciously employing ourselves with seemingly ordinary mortals.

Knowledge and education are omnipresent. We only have to seize each opportunity to soak it all up. The greatest virtue of learning is that it is infinite, and the same is true of human-engagement as well!

Hiding In Plain Sight!

As a Parent and Educator, and most of all as a human being, I have been profoundly impacted by the recent ‘me too’ campaign. It has brought back many ghastly memories of unfortunate incidents of sexual violence I have been privy to at very close quarters; all of which were swept under the rug in the name of this so called ‘societal image’. And that disgusts me!

I’d like to share two primary aspects to this entire sexual-predator phenomena. One, it isn’t always the case that it is maids, staff, and people from a lower strata of society who prey on our wives, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces and children. On the contrary, it is often times within the uppermost echelons of society, that these monsters lurk. In the garb of patriarchs, uncles, intellectuals, educators, captains of industry; they seek refuge in the assumption that their ‘goodwill’ and fame will make them above both suspicion as well as the law. Two examples from popular culture and literature immediately spring to mind. One is Mira Nair’s masterful Monsoon Wedding. And the other is a running theme in my friend, author Ratna Vira’s writings. That evil exists among us, often times in our very homes!

The second point therefore brings up the most important question perhaps. How do we control this menace? One definite answer is to empower our children. Scores of young people, girls especially, after experiencing a horrific violation, will not have the courage to do ANYTHING about it. Be it shame, or worse still, an inherent belief that the ‘victim’ somehow was to blame; there are many reasons why the violated, do not tell a soul! And that is just tragic.

I did not willfully write this rather sullen post towards the end of the year. But maybe instead of the many relatively banal New Year Resolutions we tend to make around this time of year, this once, we can vow to talk to our children, educate them, sensitize them, and make them aware of what is OK, and what isn’t, and give them the courage and confidence in themselves and in us, that they should not, and CAN NOT stay mute, and MUST SPEAK UP. That from this moment on, all the Sexual Predators that are hiding in plain sight, BEWARE!