Devi Kar | Encourage kids to think, raise questions: Vital for democracy

Exploring the essential role of open discussion and independent thinking in schools amid global and national political dramas.

India’s recent Lok Sabha elections unfolded very dramatically and though we couldn’t quite trust the print media and TV channels, we were vastly engaged as well as entertained by the social media. I was in New York during this entire period and was drawn by the political story that was simmering there around Donald Trump’s trial over the “hush money cases”. It was like an addictive mini serial and finally the former US President was declared guilty on all 34 counts for which he had been charged. This is the first time in American history that a felon would be a candidate for the White House.

Another arena of theatre was the issue of the Gaza war, while Americans were supplying potent weapons to Israel. I read about the unrest in different US campuses and the fiery speeches of valedictorians being shouted down at graduation ceremonies. Next, I saw a prominent opinion piece titled “Harvard Should Say Less. Maybe All Schools Should” (written by Noah Feldman and Alison Feldman, professors of law and philosophy at Harvard).

Now there is a big controversy around this as colleges and universities jealously guard their right to speak freely, to dissent and to speak or write publicly against their school’s as well as the nation’s policy. Till recently, any criticism of the Indian central government’s policy was deemed “seditious” and “anti-national”, but the very definition of democracy implies discussion, differences of opinion, argument and activism. Notwithstanding the earlier protests, Harvard has decided that in the absence of a formal policy governing the issue of an official statement, university leaders “can and should speak out publicly to promote and protect the core function of the university, which is to create an environment suitable for pursuing truth through research, scholarship and teaching”. However, it is not their business to side with Israel or Ukraine or Russia or to show sympathy for Gaza. Universities understand the need to exist meaningfully in a polarised world.

So far as our schools in India are concerned, the media never publishes the discussions and arguments that take place in schools, and I am sure such conversations are not discouraged in the schools that want their students to think for themselves. The pursuit of truth is the central pillar of education and a school should not limit its teachings to the prescribed course material.

I am afraid that when it comes to social science subjects such as history, civics, sociology or even political science, students are usually taught only facts that are relevant to the topics prescribed in their syllabus and the comments are restricted to those mentioned in the prescribed course books. If at all there is any discussion of different views, students tend to present what they hear at home. If there are different viewpoints in class, the teachers prefer to appear neutral. They explain things diplomatically, keeping different sides happy. I have not yet heard of school teachers trying to present their own political views forcefully nor school students arguing powerfully with their teachers. The total absence of discussion of significant or disputed policies is a big flaw in our approach to teaching and learning. If, broadly speaking, education is taken as the pursuit of truth, discussion and differences of opinion must be accommodated, otherwise we end up nurturing students who have passively received knowledge that has been established and conveyed by others and they have not been encouraged to process knowledge independently.

Thus, it is important for people, young and old, to keep questioning, reflecting and pursuing the truth for themselves. While thinking about this, I sometimes, come to the conclusion that the most important virtue one can have is courage -- courage to stand up to people, courage to say something different, courage to not join the herd and courage (and basic common sense) to not be brainwashed by people in authority.

In the school context, it is perhaps important to include an important caveat. We have to make sure that these discussions and arguments take place in an environment that is conducive to thinking and learning. Perhaps it is the worry that classrooms would be transformed into battlegrounds, that factions would emerge and the ultimately harmony would be destroyed that makes schools extra cautious about allowing political discussions in school. However, if the whole exercise is taken as part of the education system and teachers are adept at managing conflict as well as facilitating discussions, the school would become a rich learning ground where children don’t receive information passively or accept the beliefs of the adults around them unquestioningly.

Nation building in a democracy starts with the development of responsible citizens and the building blocks are discussion, argument, consensus and the acceptance of differences. If these practices are not adopted in school, we will not have a mature nation where civilised arguments take place in Parliament, political opponents are not looked upon as enemies, personal attacks are not made and hate speeches are not resorted to.

We should be proud of our democracy and proud of our ordinary citizens who are, in many cases, given attention only before elections. However, it is imperative that young people should be educated to become responsible citizens not only by observing Independence Day and Republic Day or supporting the Indian team in sports competitions but many of them should want to participate in the actual governance of the country. India needs able and upright political leaders.

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