“This light, let it light many lamps.” — A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Have we taken Amartya Sen’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’ too literally to our hearts? Are we raising a hue and cry about nothing simply for the sake of doing it? Are we looking for disputes when in fact some applause is called for?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have gone to some extremes to ensure that the entire nation’s students listen to his Teachers’ Day speech, but let us look beyond how the arrangements were made, to what the speech actually relayed. No other Prime Minister interacted and engaged with his country’s future the way Mr. Modi did. Here was a man who showed that he cared; that he is not simply a power figure but is ready to level with children, as their teacher and guide. Looking back at my own childhood, I can assure that there is no way I would have listened to any speech by my own free will; compulsory attendance is what our educational system is sustained on, but it is a necessary evil if children are to be given an important message.
In the September 10 issue of The Hindu, David Brooks’ piece drew a lot of eyes. It was titled ‘Becoming a real person’, and brought out the lack of character building and moral aspirations in the western education system. The emphasis in the elite institutions is on cognitive abilities and money-making ventures, and the lessons of life are left behind. “The system pressures the students to be excellent, but excellent sheep.”
This is where Mr. Modi shines. His message to children was of a wholesome development, of nurturing the body as well as the mind. In the world of technological leaps, we are losing the humanistic connection with each other. We are a generation of trivia, not knowledge. And here comes the importance of a teacher. The value system that the PM rightly emphasises on, needs to be saved and cherished. No machine can teach what a teacher can- the whole of life, and the art of living. The Chinese saying that he drew upon, speaks volumes in this context, indicative of the importance he places on education as a way of moulding the beings of children: “Those who plan for a year, sow grain. Those who think 10 years ahead, plant fruit trees. And those who think of future generations, invest in human beings.”
As Vamsee Juluri, a Professor at University of San Francisco writes, it was precisely Mr Modi’s ability to see the mundane and the insignificant as worthy of a Prime Minister’s attention that signals a ‘civilizational renewal’, and his address must be welcomed as the beginning of a new era of leaders as teachers, who realize the impact they have on young minds, and who must take the responsibility of engaging with the future of the nation.
Understandably, the warning of surprise checks in the schools and the call for mandatory attendance after school hours have again given rise to paranoia about the fascist tendencies in the Modi government. But let us not fall into the trap of politicising everything- something which we accuse our governments of doing. The Prime Minister did a great job of connecting with the children, engaging with and emboldening them, emphasising the importance of the individual while at the same time calling forth the energies of the whole nation as a collective in order to bring about changes in the society. Let us criticise where criticism is called for, but keep our minds open to ideas that inspire, to moments that connect, and to people who guide.