Eleven pairs of bright black eyes stare at me from eleven attentive faces, their pencils hovering over the page. I am about to give them a definition of the word ‘refugee’. I begin: “A refugee is a person who has had to leave her country because—”. Midway, the definition has caused mass consternation. “Her country?!” one of them asks. “Why her, aunty?” another protests. A third student asks me anxiously, “Aunty, can I say his or her?” And a fourth, with an air of having satisfactorily solved the problem, comments to a neighbour, “I just changed it to their country, so it’s ok.” I wonder whether to abandon the lesson on refugees and talk instead about gender issues, but I am hesitant because these are just ten-year-olds. How would I open up this complex and manysided topic with such young children?

A few weeks later, the same eleven children are working on writing their own short stories, set in India. As they busily scratch away, one of them asks me, “Aunty, give me a name of an Indian girl for my story.” So I suggest Fatima, a name I’ve always liked.“No, Aunty, I need an Indian name.” Should I now begin a discussion on how Indian isnot synonymous with Hindu, or let hercontinue with her story?

Time and again, I’ve been faced with interesting situations like these. Ten-yearolds, it seems, are filled with innocent prejudice. Hijadas are people without a brain, Americans are stupid, Africans eat people, these and more I have heard them express with utter confidence and naiveté. Which is why I call it ‘innocent prejudice’. It is not born of hatred or fear, as we think prejudice usually is. It is not buttressed by false ‘facts’ or any attempt at reasoning. Yet I would be reluctant to deny the strength and power of these early dogmas, if they may be called that. In fact, I suggest that they are the basis of a messy mass of sociological theories that children derive for themselves from their experiences in the social world. How do children formulate such ideas in the first place? I think it is the result of an unfortunate collaboration between two powerful forces: the mind’s ways of working on the one hand, and external forces of conditioning on the other. While we are all familiar with the second, the first may require some explication.

A little psychology

Decades of research in child psychology have resulted in at least one unequivocal fact —little children are not passive receivers of stimuli and information. Study has revealed the extent of their participation in forming theories and models of the world around them. Most psychological study has focused on children’s theories of their physical world, and less has been written about their theories of social structures. But there is no reason to suppose that they expend any less effort in understanding the complex social world they live in.

Babies only a few days old show an overwhelming preference for the world of socially relevant ‘objects’—human faces and voices. When they are just a few months old, they begin to show a remarkable sensitivity to the world of human emotions and feelings, as evidenced by their reading of facial expressions. Between two and three years of age, children have already developed a serviceable social-cognitive theory of‘another’s mind’.

Against this backdrop of sensitivity to social phenomena, we have the little scientist’s pattern-seeking mind that Piaget and others have described so vividly. This mind is driven to categorise, name, generalise and differentiate—functions, by the way, that are essential to learning language and understanding concepts. It is on these two crucial cognitive processes that much of our thinking rests, and it is exactly here that I think the clue to the young ‘sociologist’s’ theories may lie.

Let’s look into what has been studied in these two areas for a bit. In the area of learning language, psycholinguists like Noam Chomsky propose that the human brain comes wired with certain constraints—rules which govern the way children will interpret the speech they hear. The constraints ensure that they quickly learn the ‘right’ level of specificity and generality for most words. For example, children learn to correctly use the word ‘rabbit’ for all rabbitty creatures, and only for rabbitty creatures.

And in the second area, work by Eleanor Rosch and other cognitive psychologists suggests that we understand a concept through the creation of a sort of stereotype, a ‘best example’, if you will. Anything we encounter must be matched against these stereotypes in order to be understood. I am sure you see that the words ‘generalization’ and ‘discrimination’ take on new meaning here—they are useful (necessary?) tools to understanding, though at the same time they are pejorative terms in a social context! And yet, in general, theories of people are possible to some extent because we have a stereotypical way of thinking about individuals as members of broad classes.

If I may add one more ingredient to the mix, there is a further constraining tendency in the mind, one that has been studied in depth in adults but far less in children. It is called the ‘fundamental attribution error’, wherein a person is more likely to attribute others’ behaviour to internal causes—she’s a nice person, that’s why, or he’s insecure, that’s why—and to attribute her own behaviour to external causes—I had a bad day, that’s why. What a perfect setting in which to create generalized images about others!

The mind meets the world

Little wonder, then, that we encounter so early on these simple, sometimes laughable, stereotypes in children. Their concepts are fashioned by conditioning forces in the family, neighbourhood, school, books and television—all of which serve only to perpetuate certain stereotypical representations—because the mind, it seems, can do no better than incorporate those stereotypes into neat, serviceable shelves. A chance comment by a relative (so sad, you’ve become dark as a crow!), overheard snippets of conversation among adults about one religion or another, stories about helpless females and strong males— all these are the stuff of children’s early concepts. Every time we adults celebrate our nation’s victory over another (in cricket, of course, not war!) it must get recorded somewhere, somehow in a young mind, and we must not be too surprised when we hear it later in a starkly oversimplified form.

So much for understanding the formation of these ideas—but as teachers we naturally are eager to dispel myths and ‘fix’ those thoughts. At one level, it should be possible to encourage children to look at their ideas in a more balanced way. We can expose them, where appropriate, to the available facts and help them revise their ideas. Especially in children, there is every chance of gaining a more enlightened way of looking at things, and this approach, one of critical analysis in the field of knowledge, must be followed imaginatively. But even though I do this often, and will continue to do so, as a solution to such a pervasive problem it seems inadequate.

Knowledge as prejudice

Somehow, I can’t escape the feeling that however well-intentioned my efforts are, in the final analysis they will merely replace one set of concepts with another. All that has been written above ties in closely, I feel, with what Krishnamurti has said about naming and image making, and therefore prejudice. In his teachings, he often referred to the way in which we see everything only indirectly, through the filters the mind imposes on the world:

“You look at a flower, and what is your relationship to the flower?... Are you actually looking at the flower... or are you looking at the flower with an image you have about the flower—the image being, that it is a rose? The word is the image, the word is knowledge and therefore you are looking at that flower with the word, the symbol, with knowledge and therefore you are not looking at the flower” (Krishnamurti on Education).

This kind of interaction with the world, he explained, would inevitably limit us, forcing us to see and understand in predetermined categories. Knowledge, being the culmination of conditioning, is of the past, while intelligence, he suggested, is the capacity for direct understanding, free of prejudice and opinions. In using the word ‘intelligence’ differently than it ever had been used before, Krishnamurti held out the possibility of seeing without those categories—“the words, the symbols, the images…are crippling your thinking. To beaware of them and to find out whether you can go beyond them is essential if you are tolive creatively...” (Life Ahead)

I read this and come to a full stop—so that’s the real issue. Not the particular concepts and stereotypes, but the mind that’s constantly creating them. How helpless I feel in the face of the inevitability of the mind’s workings—especially since it’s been working this way ever since I was born!

Now, my ten-year-old student and I are in the same place. We both function from image-making minds, except perhaps where her prejudices are innocent, mine are not. The only thing we both can do, is watch.

Education is not acquiring a stock of ready-made ideas, images, sentiments, beliefs etc.; it is learning to look, to feel, to imagine, to believe, to understand, to choose and to wish.

[M. Oakeshott]