Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.
John Stuart Mill
As children grow into their teens, their minds are fast developing in the intellectual space. As part of their increasing need for autonomy, they want to take decisions and do things on their own; discover their strengths; work over their likes and dislikes; and understand the complexities in societies. They often resist parental intervention and prefer to take charge of themselves. At this age they are pulled in many directions—on the one hand they want to be very individualistic and prefer to be left on their own; on the other hand, they share a strong bond with their peers and veer towards group identity. They sometimes compromise on their choices merely for the sake of consensus or fitting in. They are under pressure to keep up with ‘the latest’ in clothes, music and the ‘cool’ trends set by the media. There is not only the growing influence of peers, but there is also the impact of fast media and the ever-growing internet with its tentacles spreading into the lives of both children and adults in equal measure. Marketing companies create ads that drive consumer behaviour and fuels herd mentality. Amidst these influences and pressures, it can indeed be difficult to know when one is thinking on one’s own.
Teachers teaching this age group often come across situations of hurt born out of group dynamics; or actions wrought by stereotypical thinking; or trends dictated by herd mentality. How should they respond to these? How should they help children examine the drawbacks of wanting to be a part of the crowd? How does one help them recognize these influences and pressures? Further, not all outside influences are bad or detrimental in shaping one’s views but being unable to think for oneself can make one miserable or a puppet of someone else’s machinations. It may be too late before they realize the truth. So, how does one help children to think for themselves? Needless to say, adults too could be equally blind to these influences that shape their thinking. Is it possible for us to take a pause, slow down and allow ourselves a careful exploration of what it means to ‘think for oneself ’?
A ‘theme meeting’ that we conducted for classes eight, nine and ten gave us an opportunity for this exploration. Both teachers and parents are responsible for a child. This meeting offered a space to learn and explore aspects of a child’s growth together.
The theme meeting
A large number of parents (of classes eight, nine and ten) and teachers came together for over three hours on a Saturday in August this year. The format of the meeting used a combination of video talk, presentations and discussions, to examine this issue in depth.
‘The Danger of a Single Story’
We watched the video of this TED talk by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. It highlighted how, as humans, we tend to hold on to a single story that gets popularized by powerful voices. Holding on to a single story prevents any kind of relationship on an equal footing. The forming of stereotypes is the forming of a single story. The problem is not that stereotypes are not true, but that they are not complete. They make one story become the only story.
Small group discussions
We collated eight situations from our everyday experiences as teachers of this age group which included herd mentality, inclusion/exclusion, unmindful group behaviour, peer pressure, media influence, etc. Parents and teachers sat in small groups examining these situations, raising questions in order to bring better understanding without taking recourse to labelling or moralizing. It is an important challenge we all face as adults. This exercise enriched our understanding with different viewpoints.
An example of one such situation is illustrated below:
A girl enters the classroom and is met by classmates who are excitedly discussing something. Curious to know what they are talking about, the girl asks them, “What’s up?” The classmates name a TV series that all of them are following these days on Netflix. This girl does not have access to Netflix and does not particularly follow any TV series. She is at a loss to respond to this topic. Her classmates laugh and tell her that she is not up to date on things since she does not watch this series and has no information about it. The girl feels left out when the group moves on to the other end of the classroom to continue their animated conversation without her.
- Without labelling their actions as right or wrong, discuss whether or not the children involved in the situation were thinking for themselves.
- What were the influences at work for each of the students?
- Is it specific to a child or the age group?
- In what other ways would such influences impact the students? Are there ways to recognize it?
- How challenging is it for a child of this age group to think differently in the given situation?
- How do we enable a child to develop a sense of quietening and empathy in all contexts and not just in their area of interest?
‘How Social Media Ruins your Life’
We watched another video, this one by a tech expert Jaron Lanier, to understand the impact of social media on our thinking.
It highlighted the addictive and manipulative nature of social media. The problem is in the business model where the customer is not the final user, but it is the consumer companies advertising on social media. Data about the users gets shared very easily with these companies without any respect for users’ privacy. Some of the best brains work here and use well established behavioural research techniques that attempt to manipulate and modify user’s behaviour. These techniques are often invisible to users. It made us realize that we may almost be living a life designed for us, that we are getting homogenized and how dangerous this could be for a society, where individuals are robbed of their free will, blocking any avenues to develop multiple perspectives. Given the addictive and manipulating nature of social media, which has become a big part of both children and adult’s life, how can one be helped?
Towards the end of the video, when asked for advice, Jaron Lanier recommends youth to stay away from social media for six months. He advises them to travel, know themselves, do different things and develop a perspective instead. He finally makes an important point, that as long as we can have small percentage of individuals outside of this loop, societies will find voices to get multiple perspectives.
‘Importance of Thinking Holistically’
We had a final presentation by a colleague on this theme. It started by exploring the questions—What is the role of questioning? Is it merely an employment of one’s intellect? A masterful application of a learnt technique? A clever, logical argument crafted to prove a point? What kind of thinking would we like to see in our children? What is ‘good thinking’?
Good thinking surely is about exploring dimensions of thinking which go beyond the intellect. Could it embrace dimensions of uncertainty, vulnerability, questions of moral and ethical rightness, issues of sensitivity and compassion for the other? Zen believes that the intellect has a particularly disquieting quality in it. The intellect can raise enough questions to disturb the mind, but it is also frequently unable to give satisfactory answers.
Much of our modern education values how intelligently a student can criticize and counter an argument, which in turn has unsurprisingly found its way into the larger canvas of adult life. Have we endorsed a culture of criticism in which merit is assigned to those who can intelligently negate an idea, a work of art, or increasingly and alarmingly, a person? It seems vital that we need to work with ourselves and our children to learn how to think ‘wholly’ and ‘authentically’ for ourselves.
Large group discussion
This session brought to the fore certain pushes and pulls of the fast-paced competitive life of today. Questions from parents came almost promptly. Do we really have time for all these reflections? How practical is slowing down and giving a chance to others?
It raised an important question for us as to what we really want out of our life. Socrates (469–399 BC) had observed of his time, “…the children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room”. The expression of alarm over the ways of the young is certainly nothing new. The quote shows that the problems between generations are not just a recent occurrence. They are timeless. Where and how do we draw our lines?
Recollecting what Krishnaji said, “So what is right education? Is it not both the cultivation of a brain that can function excellently in the world and also psychologically understand the whole meaning of existence, the self, the I, the psyche? Couldn’t these two go together—like two well trained horses trotting along harmoniously together—you understand my question? And apparently one horse is highly developed, the other is still a baby, a foal”.
One has to traverse through stereotypical thinking fuelled by a single story, understanding the various influences which cripple thinking, recognizing what is happening to us when we are using social media and the importance of developing various points of views, examining the disquieting nature of mind and limitation of intellect, and finally making connection with our daily living through the questions raised. It was a meaningful exercise done in a leisurely manner which helped to bring about a better understanding of our role in Krishnamurti schools, both as teachers and as parents.