The moral education of the young is naturally of great concern to teachers, and there is a hoary tradition of using stories and fiction for the purpose of such moral instruction. From the Panchatantra to Aesop, stories have been used to convey simple (some might say simplistic) values and principles, and this has been true to some extent in the modern Indian educational context as well.
In 1997, Ms Ahalya Chari (Ahalyaji to those who were close to her), trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation India and widely known and respected educationist and founder of this Journal, wrote a simple but profound book called Thinking Together which was published by the NCERT. This book too was about ‘moral education’ and used fictional situations, but with a very different slant from the traditional moral fable. Ahalyaji was concerned with the exploration of ethical questions by teacher and student alike, not just with the simple communication of messages. The adult and the child were voyagers on a journey of understanding the complexities of life, and the stories she narrated (drawn from simple everyday occurrences), opened up fundamental problems and questions that we all face. She stressed that there are no straightforward answers; rather, our sense of maturity and moral growth arise from our deep investigation, with a questioning spirit, of life itself.
Below, we have reproduced an extract from one of her chapters in Thinking Together. Inspired by her writing, the editors of this journal have come up with their own stories for investigation, and we have included some of these as well.
There was a general grumbling session on and they were talking about their teachers—some nine or ten students sitting by a lovely lotus pond. None of them watched the goldfish in the waters, for their eyes and ears and minds were on the conversation. They were discussing their teachers.
Their feeling was that a teacher who develops a prejudice against a student never drops it. However hard you tried, it was always the same story; the same distant look, the same harshness in the voice, the same remark in the notebook. They may talk of not having fixed opinions, but the students’ experience was different. If they liked you, you could do no wrong; otherwise you were always in the wrong. “Teachers are very partial”, they argued.
One of the girls said, “I don’t like them generally, because most of them are so narrow-minded, conservative”, using haltingly the latest word she had learnt in class. “Look! What is the point of having a co-educational school, if girls can’t talk to boys or boys can’t talk to girls? We have to sit separately, eat separately, and read separately. The other day, Saleem and I were together looking at the Encyclopaedia in the library to find out all about dolphins and there was Miss X giving me a nasty look. I wished I could have gone under the sea myself.”
They conceded that there were exceptions and some of the teachers were wonderful people but in a large school like theirs, the verdict was that most teachers cannot be loved. Teachers are to be feared and obeyed. In another corner of the school, correcting notebooks of various classes was a group of teachers discussing students. They felt that students were no longer eager to learn, no longer hard working and innocent as in their days. “They are a bunch of lazy, good-for-nothing kids,” they grumbled. Gone are the days when you saw their eyes shine in class with understanding, when hands would be raised before they answered, when all their work was neat and tidy; something has gone wrong today. There may be exceptions but, on the whole, students are not interested in their studies. They are too distracted. Perhaps it is because of the cinema or the radio or the television. Their minds have become restless. They are pleasure-seeking. They are bored with everything except those things that arouse their sensations. “Their parents are to blame,” they said, “Do you think parents have any time for children these days?’’ they argued. Yet another teacher said, “I don’t mind their being pleasure-loving or even lazy but they are so arrogant these days. They no longer show any respect. They come to school because they have to. The other day one of the boys answered me so rudely that I could have punished him. I feel children should be dealt with very firmly”. As this teacher spoke, you could tell from his face and his voice that he was smarting under a hurt.
Have you thought about your own relationship with your teachers? Is it based largely on fear, or do you feel free to talk to some of them? ...What is your relationship with your parents?... Have you ever been hurt by them or by conflicts with them? How are you related to your classmates? Does anyone bully you? Are you very shy by nature? Why should you allow anyone to bully you? Can you not be strong yourself?
Thinking Together, Ahalya Chari
The beginning of the summer was here. The early morning breeze was still cool and pleasant. Later in the day the air would become so hot that it would make your clothes crinkle like paper. There was water at the bottom of the pond left over from the rains in November. Urmi threw a pebble in the pond annoying the frog. The ripples shimmered in the morning light. “Would these ripples upset a boat? Not a real boat, but may be a paper boat. What a weird thought!” A tiny smile lit her eyes up but immediately her brows furrowed together as other thoughts rushed in.
Five more days for the last board exam and she would leave this place which had been like a second home to her for the last nine years. She still remembered her first day of school and the fear that clutched her heart as she saw her parents leaving her to face her boarding school life. Similar dread was filling her at the thought of leaving school although the last two years had been terrible.
She was thought to be the coolest girl in the class until class 10. She was good at everything—studies, singing, dancing, games, and art. She was popular in the class. Both teachers and students were very fond of her. Yet here she was, dreading the thought of going to breakfast and meeting others. Already, Urmi was slowing her steps in the hope that others would be done before she reached the dining hall. She did not want to meet anyone; especially she did not want to meet Sandeep. He would plead with her to meet him at the dance cottage. The early morning classes would have finished by now and there would be no one there to disturb them. She would feel tempted by the invitation but would be sure to regret it later. Her mother had pleaded with her, before the board exams, to concentrate on her studies and not to be led astray by her emotions. She didn’t like troubling her parents. Perhaps she should refuse to meet Sandeep. She could picture the wounded dog look on his face as she said ‘no’ to him. He was already deeply hurt by his parents’ separation. If she left him now, he would lose faith in relationships. He needed her and she could not betray him. She was tired of these seesawing of emotions. Maybe she owed something to herself. She should perhaps skip breakfast and just take refuge in the hostel after other girls left. That seemed the best idea at the moment.
Nanditha saw Urmi quickly slipping into the hostel with her hang dog expression. “Had she missed her breakfast again?” Nanditha had a soft spot for Urmi. She had joined as a teacher the same year that Urmi had come into class 4. As was the tradition in school the new teachers and students were to put up a cultural programme for the fresher’s programme. She still remembered Urmi’s bubbly spirit. Her own apprehensions about being a new teacher disappeared when confronted with Urmi’s effervescent spirit. She was only eight years old but she carried the wisdom of an eighty year old and was quite talented. She skipped, danced and hopped all the time. She was such an adorable girl. She still was but looked troubled all the time. She had hardly seen a smile on the girl’s face in the last two years. What was it with these girls? What happened to their spirit as they grew up? Obviously she was seeking asylum in the hostel. She should be in school preparing for the last exam. Should she get her out or let her be?
Sandeep was the first person to enter the dining hall. He did not want to miss Urmi. He had hardly four days left with her. On the last day she would be busy with her exams and would leave for home soon after. He waited till the last person had left. Urmi had skipped breakfast again. Was she avoiding him? Did she care for him? He could not control his emotions. He was worried. He was angry. He felt like smashing something. He could not afford to lose his temper now. He had already been sent home twice this term for erratic behaviour. He desperately needed to see Urmi. She was the only one who could calm him down. Only she understood him. Was she in the hostel? There would be no one around. Should he go in and meet her? If he got caught there would be another letter to his parents from the Principal. Things were already fragile at home. His mother and father would now fight about this. Each would blame the other for what they called his bad upbringing. He was desperate to see Urmi. There was no other thought in his head.
What is the right kind of relationship?
How does one nurture a relationship without letting it erode you?
What is the role/effect of dependence in a relationship?
Two men got into a Metro on their way home. They wore nice, expensive shirts, ties and trousers; socks and shiny shoes. They were chatting about work, and about how their boss was so rude.
“I don’t think he even sees beyond the end of his nose! Never, never has he looked at me properly and said even a good morning.”
“Exactly! Most of the time he totally ignores me. If at all he says anything, it is, ‘you haven’t yet filed your report’.”
“Yeah, he treats all of us as if we are furniture or something.”
“You have time for a quick dosa?”
“Why not...let’s try that new Pai restaurant, apparently it’s very good, and right across the street from the metro station.”
“Is it AC? It’s too hot, man. Can’t sit under a fan with this shirt and tie.”
“Yeah, of course it’s AC. Who can live without it, man!”
They got out at the next stop and crossed the street. The restaurant was very fancy on the outside. A man stood by the large carved wooden door. He was dressed in strange clothes, as if in costume for a play. The top was full-sleeved and layered, with several buttons, a coat on top of it all. His pants were tight, like churidars, and he wore the most uncomfortable shoes imaginable, pointy-toed and poking his feet. He had spent nearly eight hours in that spot already, and was due to finish his shift in half an hour. He saw two men crossing the street toward the restaurant, and when they were about five feet from the door, he opened it wide for them. A blast of cool air shot out from the inside, and they walked right in, not even noticing the doorman.
The restaurant was half empty, though some tables were occupied by groups, couples as well as singles. Finding an empty table by the window, the two men sat down and continued chatting. A waiter came up to them and asked what they would like. Hardly glancing up, they ordered a masala dosa each. In a brief pause in conversation, one of them looked up, and his eye was caught by a young couple sitting on the table next to them. Both were occupied with their own mobile phones—the girl was talking to someone and laughing softly, while the man was busy texting on his phone. This reminded him that he had better call up his wife and let her know that he would be late reaching home. Otherwise she would be mad at him. He reached into his pant pocket for his mobile phone.
What preoccupations do we seem to live with in today’s world? How does this affect our relationships and sensitivity to others? How does this matter?
The stars in his mind
The teachers were worried about the middle-school students. They seemed to know so much about the world, to have so much information at their finger-tips. “It is superficial knowledge,” said one teacher. “They have a few words and feel they know a lot.” “I am more worried about their lack of wonder,” said another. “I take them star-gazing and all they want to know is how big the stars are or how far they are. Something about the magic of the cosmos leaves them totally untouched.”
Some teachers spoke with the middle schoolers about a sense of wonder. They discussed with students about the beauty of nature and the importance of approaching life with an open mind. Tarun, a class 8 student, was confused after the conversation. He had a lot of big colourful encyclopaedias at home, with titles like Astronomy for Kids. He loved these books and the pictures in them. He also loved watching many astronomy documentaries on the internet. They showed nebulae and galaxies in beautiful colours and he often imagined what it would be like to fly around them in a spaceship. He would land on distant planets and have adventures. When looking at the night sky, he was full of excitement and wanted to share this with others.
Was Tarun looking at the stars in his mind or in the sky? Was there a difference and did it matter?
How can education awaken a moral sense, a feeling of empathy with the other, in young people? Does such a sense need to be awakened at all or is it ‘intrinsic’ to the human experience? As educators, we will undoubtedly have our own models and theories in this complex field. What Ahalyaji’s thinking stories inspire is a re-look at our assumptions as educators, the essential starting point when we consider our sense of responsibility for the young.