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What we need in all walks of life: Competence, and a fine balance

The writer is a veteran school educator based in Kolkata
Published : Dec 13, 2019, 2:06 am IST
Updated : Dec 13, 2019, 2:06 am IST

Curiously, all these three words can be used to describe parenting and teaching today.

Adolf Hitler (Photo: AFP)
 Adolf Hitler (Photo: AFP)

Recently I learnt two useful words that describe the governments of today, in our country and elsewhere. The first is kakistocracy, which means “government by the least suitable or competent citizens of a state”. The second word is chirocracy, meaning “government that rules by physical force”. A third term, which was originally used to describe Neville Chamberlain’s policy towards Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, is now heard in the context of votebank politics. It is appeasement.

Curiously, all these three words can be used to describe parenting and teaching today. The first, kakistocracy, is an extremely handy word when we see some of our own political leaders and those of other countries. Their pronouncements are so ludicrous that it surprises us that anyone could have voted for these incompetent, arrogant, stubborn and unenlightened people. Incompetent yet smug parents are very common. However, they haven’t been appointed or elected, but have come into their positions biologically or voluntarily, if they have chosen to adopt children. Unfortunately, there are no training courses or apprenticeships for parenthood, so we can’t blame parents for being incompetent or unfit for their job of bringing up children. It is totally different in the case of teachers, as they undergo specialised training programmes and serve as trainees or interns before they are given the licence to teach. Therefore, the scarcity of really competent teachers is surprising. Perhaps, it is because as a rule — and this is most unfortunate — the teaching profession, at least in our country, doesn’t attract the best minds for various reasons. Sometimes, people take up teaching for all the wrong reasons and not because they are interested or have a passion for it. Indifferent people can never do justice to their work.

So far as physical force is concerned, the law does not allow teachers to use it, although one still hears horror stories of what transpires in the classroom. Although parents make a tremendous fuss (and rightly so) if they hear that physical force has been used by any teacher to discipline their child, they themselves don’t think twice about mercilessly beating up or administering a stinging slap to a recalcitrant child. They feel that they have complete ownership of their own children, so they are entitled to do whatsoever they please with them. As for political leaders, there are plenty of examples in the contemporary world, where brute force is used to quell rebellions or get people to toe the “official” line.

Appeasement is the converse of chirocracy. In dealing with other countries, sometimes the weaker ones adopt a policy of appeasement to prevent aggression from a stronger power. In other words, bullies are flattered and pleased in concrete ways to prevent any harm coming their way. Children today wield a lot of power over their parents. Besides, they know how to manipulate adults and get their way. Increasingly, I find that it is the children who are in the driver’s seat and are calling the shots. We all know about child-centric education, but that is education where teachers have the best interest of the child in mind and lessons are designed and tailored with the focus on the child. However, the wish to please or appease children has developed in recent years in the wake of a rising resistance to too much discipline exerted by teachers. The parents of today seem to be far more indulgent and are largely reluctant to say a firm “no” to their children.

The result of these developments is that the “child-centric” education of yesteryear, prescribed by the great stalwarts of education such as Rousseau, Montessori, Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky, has now been distorted into an education where the teacher’s role has deteriorated into an extremely submissive one. The teacher is not permitted to speak her mind, she is not permitted to indicate a candid assessment of the student's personal qualities. Reports are full of euphemisms and parents do not really get to know their children’s shortcomings -- nor do they want to know. They are happy with the teacher who sings praises of their son or daughter and they come away feeling satisfied with the “positive” learning environment in the school. Recently samples of teachers’ letters to parents trying to convey the truth about their children’s behaviour and performance in a palatable way were doing the rounds on the social media. Hence, the meddlesome child is described as one “who wishes to help everyone”, the hyperactive one is called “spirited” while the one who makes up answers to test questions is labelled “imaginative”. It is true that “damning” reports can be damaging and demoralising, but children should learn to take honest criticism, otherwise how will they address their weaknesses and build on their strengths? It is also true that children thrive on encouragement and tend to wilt in the face of constant criticism. But it is disastrous for a child to grow up on a diet of undiluted praise.

More than constant praise, it is the widespread practice of child-pleasing that is so harmful. The tendency to “appease” has increased in recent years, partly because parents are genuinely afraid that their children will go and do something “drastic” if they don’t get their way. This fear has been compounded by frequent news reports of children taking their lives for flimsy reasons. These reasons range from a reprimand by a teacher or parent to being denied a new mobile phone. Cold statistics of suicides by children can certainly generate anxiety, but keeping them cocooned from the realities of life and protecting them from disciplinary measures is a sure path to ruining their future.

In all walks of life, therefore, what is needed in this age of reason is competence along with a fine sense of balance.

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