When I was three, I had a friend
Who asked me why bananas bend,
I told him why,
but now I’m four I’m not so sure...

Richard Edwards

This is the paradox about confidence. We think that confidence stems from acquired knowledge, or ability, or experience; but it could in equal measure emerge from ignorance. In this poem, there is perhaps more to the tentativeness of the four-year-old persona than his feeling of certainty when three years old.

In the context of schooling, how do we understand confidence and its import? Why is it so often seen as something necessary to develop in our students? How do we go about doing this? What could be the implications of building up confidence in children? Maybe, in the first place, it would help to unpack the word ‘confidence’.

The word confidence is derived from early fifteenth century Middle French or directly from Latin confidentia, from confidentum, meaning ‘to have full faith, to be bold’. It comes from the intensive prefix com + fidere, ‘to trust’. The other synonyms include ‘self-assurance’, ‘self-reliance’, ‘self-possession’, ‘boldness’, ‘courage’ and a certain sense of ‘cool headedness’. We can sense in all these meanings a building up of the self, often against the rest of the world. The repeated use of ‘self ’ suggests a more than a life-size picture of the individual. If you put any of these words into a search engine to find images, you get caricatures of either puffed up people, or batman-like superhero postures.

When a young child enters the portals of school, this self-building apparatus is already in operation. In the school, it appears to get further reinforced at every step. The emphasis on individual achievement, on getting higher grades, on competition, on comparing oneself with others, all work in this direction—the individual versus the rest. But here a troubling question arises—if a child is taught from the start to stand out, to be separate from the rest of the world, where and how does he learn to meet life?

What is the problem with ‘confidence’?

A large hoarding advertises a school in Bengaluru with the picture of a young schoolboy with these words printed boldly beside him—‘I Can. I Will. I Must Be… the Best’. What do we make of this, and what do we feel for this child? The whole purpose of schooling seems to be that of building up his self, the ‘I’ that needs aggrandizement, and placed on a pedestal set apart from the rest. Thinking of the pressures he must internalize in order to ‘be the best’, we might end up feeling sorry for this child. Does not his education, from the very beginning, aim to isolate him, an individual, from the rest of the world. Contrary to the belief that in this approach lies the development of a positive set of attributes, it may in reality be creating a seriously distorted picture of his personhood.

Recently, in a culture class at one of our schools, the students were asked to dramatize some of the group dynamics that they were experiencing—such as group formation, exclusion—and then draw their own inferences from this enactment. In their zeal to justify or to resolve the so-called crisis within their class group, they concluded that everyone was ‘good’ at something— some at studies, some in sports, and others in art; and if someone was not good enough at anything specific, he or she was at least a ‘good human being’. It was comic how ‘goodness of being’ became the last resort when one was not good at anything else.

Isn’t there a problem with an upbringing and an education system that are constantly fostering this sense of ‘I have to be good at something’? Parents send their children to schools, expecting that their child will become strong, resilient, and confident. Teachers are supposed to build this confidence through the process of schooling. But can we pause and ask—as adults are we ‘confident’? Aren’t there times when we experience anxiety, or feel insecure, uncertain? How do we process these feelings, or understand what is happening around us, what is shaping us from inside? Do we help children understand these emotions as they arise in them?

Most systems of conventional education do not concern themselves with drawing out what is inside children. They mostly seem to exert pressure from the outside through various forms of comparison, competition, evaluation, praise and criticism. Students thus end up being shaped by their feelings of success and failure, their emotions caught in a search for self-validation along external yardsticks. As students grow up, apart from school, there is now a whole parallel industry that purports to teach you how to project yourself, how to appear to others, how to impress, and how to exude confidence. In this bid, there are millions of children, worldwide, who lose their inner balance and feel either inflated or defeated by such a system. It is like a double-edged sword, in which the machinery used to build up individuals, is also the one that cuts them down.

Is our idea of confidence a red herring?

As children, we often look up to some sort of role models, persons who exude confidence. They could be seniors in the school, peers, parents, heroes, or teachers. As we grow up, we realise that they too have their insecurities. We discover that our heroes are also human beings with strengths, but shortcomings too. We realize that our parents and teachers also have their faults, that they are not infallible. This is beautifully brought out in the poem ‘The Follower’ by Seamus Heaney in which he talks about his father:

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

Must we not tell children that there need be no idols whom we emulate, no posturing that will lead to so-called confidence through life, and that there is no sense of security in all this. Undoubtedly, many children are often insecure. They could be insecure about peer relations, a situation at home, or their performance in academic learning. They may be insecure because they want popularity or acceptance. What is our response? When a child is insecure about, say, his math ability, how do we respond? Typically, we try to reassure and build up a child’s confidence. Why do adults try to smooth things over? Can we accompany children who feel insecure, without ourselves feeling insecure and tense, and needing to fix it with a measure of ‘confidence-building’? Can we instead tell the child to ‘stay with it’, and not to run away from it? Can we tell him that the pains of living and learning are there, that they are opportunities to learn about themselves? Can the teacher not negate the feelings of the young person, but enable them to become aware of and work through these?

Confidence, like capacity, is not something to be asserted; there is nothing substantial in it. In asserting confidence, we put ourselves out-of-sync with ourselves, and therefore out-of-sync with the world. If we say self-consciously, “I am confident”, there is no reality beneath it, it is empty. It is just another projection of our personality.

Krishnamurti says in Freedom from the Known that, “a confident man is a dead man”. Such a statement is so shocking to most of us that it hits us in the face. What could he have possibly meant by that? For a teacher or for that matter anyone else, it is not easy to grapple with such a statement. Perhaps some light is thrown on the matter when one looks at another statement of his in The World Within. He says that, “capacities and gifts are dangerous friends”. He explains why they are dangerous:

You are encased in your own capacities and gifts. And they are dangerous friends. They become the end in themselves and lead to much misery and sorrow. Your food, your clothes, your postures, and your pleasures are making you weary and dull, your mind is becoming insensitive and losing its quickness of understanding. In this state, how can you dig deeply? (pp.188–89)

We, as teachers, are often quick to label ourselves and the students—“I am confident” or “I am not confident”; “she is or is not confident”. Certainly, as teachers we don’t want our students to lack confidence, or to be diffident. However, can we meet situations without perceiving them through a framework of opposites, that is, of confidence vs diffidence? How do we respond to a situation without this division? How do we meet situations as they come, rather than holding on to something ‘in me’ that would enable me to meet situations. There is a fixity to “I am confident”. That’s why it’s a dead thing.

Is there another way of perceiving confidence?

In reality, confidence is not a fixed thing. It flows in and out through our day. We may go through states of being nervous and uncertain, as well as states of being at ease and energetic. Should we then not draw attention to these fluctuations rather than pursue an illusory permanent state? Is it possible to meet situations, while remaining in touch with these inner and outer shifts and movements? Maybe confidence is simply the understanding that there will be ups and downs in the course of life. Perhaps the only security lies in knowing that things will not always be the same. When one acknowledges that life is not a matter of simply achieving pre-determined goals, but is full of uncharted changes, then accepting and living with change becomes easier. When one is faced with a new emotion or challenge one doesn’t have to shrink like a ‘wet meringue’, as in DH Lawrence’s poem ‘How Beastly the Bourgeois Is’:

Oh, but wait!
Let him meet a new emotion, let him be faced with another
man’s need,
let him come home to a bit of moral difficulty, let life face him
with a new demand on his understanding
and then watch him go soggy, like a wet meringue.
Watch him turn into a mess, either a fool or a bully.
Just watch the display of him, confronted with a new demand on
his intelligence,
a new life-demand.

The poem highlights a mind that has sought achievements and accumulations, but has never developed the capacity to meet the unexpected. So, we as educators could also look at the word ‘confidence’ as the ‘capacity to meet life’. Instead of trying to build confidence in oneself or in another, we could educate ourselves to meet life situations as they come. Building the capacity of a student so that he gets high grades in a test may be a good skill. Teaching a student how to respond without berating himself when he gets low grades, to be sensitive to a friend’s problem, or be mindful of the deprivation of a poor person nearby, is an even higher skill. Life is full of such micro-situations that hold potent and valuable lessons in living life and relating with others. We need to learn how to be responsive to these, and to help children be responsive and vulnerable too.

We adults could thus learn to meet life by being relaxed and attentive to life. We could learn to be at ease with changing situations, meeting situations as they arise; and not hold ourselves tightly wound up. We would then learn to work our way through the inevitable difficulties that life brings to each one, perhaps even meeting these in good cheer. We then feel a part of the movement of ‘life’, not just as the movement of ‘me’. This will perhaps leads us to not just trust in oneself but trust in life. ‘To trust’ is after all another original meaning of ‘confidence’. In this there is no need to puff up our chests like supermen bracing ourselves against the world. We learn to flow with the situation, not against it. And paradoxically, this way of being could show us how to be more rooted in ourselves and in the movement of life.

A story is told about Saint Francis of Assisi hoeing his garden. A travelling pilgrim saw Saint Francis working in his garden and asked the saint, “What would you be doing right now if you knew this was the last day of your earthly life?” Saint Francis replied, “I would continue hoeing my garden.” He proceeded to do just that.

If school were our garden, then we too need to continue hoeing our garden, steadily and patiently, paying attention to all that lies within this space. We may let children know that nobody is special, although in a way everybody is unique. We would educate without creating ‘specialness’, recognizing that there are many aspects to all of us, and that glorifying one or two aspects only distorts us. We may then teach our children to meet life in all its nuances, rather than go through life in preparation for some imagined future, or waiting for some apocalypse to shake us all up. We would learn to hold ourselves lightly, with confidence in life, and find ways of communicating this quality to our students.