I could not naturally talk about the plump girl in the neighboring window about whom all my classmates had written poems or the revealing pictures one ingenious classmate shared from his elder brother’s Playboy collection. I soon learned the trick of converting some minor event into a problem and presenting it as an issue to the table. When one teacher, for example, had pulled a student’s ear, I narrated it and then quickly turned it into a leading question: Is corporal punishment a good idea?
However ineptly I did it, the talk promptly snowballed into a lively discussion. Father was a soft-spoken man, but I was surprised to find he had strong views on what is good or bad in teaching. Mother had the misleading mien of the classic Asian woman, terminally polite and seemingly diffident, but I knew she had a mind brisk as a bee and tough as tungsten. The guests waded in, often with wit and verve. The resulting debate was my first initiation into the miracle that teaching can sometimes be and the disaster that it mostly is. It was the first clue to what teaching should really be.
When I look back on my days in school, college and universities, even doctoral work, it seems like a desert. I have learned little – nothing that I could not have learned quicker and better by simply reading good books that existed even then. And taking the help of tools and technology that exist today. By and large, schools and colleges use primitive methods and outdated tools to teach indifferent students mostly things that would be of no earthly use to them later on, except occasionally to get a job by waving a worthless certificate.
Didn’t I learn anything in school or college? I did, principally by pursuing my own interests in my own way. Often by ignoring or defying what I was being told. Languages and literature are a prime example. The teaching of language in most schools is a monstrous waste of time. The proof of that is abysmal quality of language in Facebook, in business, in the daily transactions of life. It has neither precision nor elegance. Practically everybody learns a foreign language or two while growing up or later; practically nobody remembers more than a word or two after a few years, except the few who travel a lot, live abroad or earn their bread by using a foreign language. The enormity of the waste, of time and money, is simply staggering.
The first day I attended a class in Logic in my college, I went to a café afterward with six friends. They all agreed that the class was a total waste of time. They had learned nothing useful and, from what the professor said about future lessons, they expected to learn nothing useful from future classes. When I disagreed, they asked me to explain why. In response, I went over the subject taught in the class, linking it to their experience and emphasizing its use and significance. At the end, they all agreed that logic was worth learning and said, “You taught better than the damned professor.” From then on, after every class in logic, I re-taught the same class with the six in the same café. I had taken the first step in teaching.
Eventually I taught for sixteen years, invariably as a visiting or adjunct professor, alongside my work as an executive and later as a diplomat. I taught in many countries of Asia and some countries of Europe and the Middle East. I went by a simple guiding principle. People learn only when they want to learn and exert to learn. The teacher’s only job to create the motivation for that desire and exertion. I came to a nihilistic conclusion: There is really no such thing as teaching. There is only learning. The teacher’s only role is to help the student learn in his or her own way. Students’ ways are invariably varied. So must be the ways the teacher has to help, responding flexibly and empathetically to each student.
If that sounds like an impossible role, so be it. Man or woman, the teacher has to be Superman. I know of no more insightful claim than that of Maria Montessori, “My students work as if I don’t exist.”