Guru Poor-nima: Why Do Curious Students Upset Indian Teachers?

Social Commentary

Guru Poor-nima: Why Do Curious Students Upset Indian Teachers?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

I have to confess that I was a supremely annoying kid with an insatiable curiosity. I would constantly needle the grown-ups for answers to my never-ending questions –   “Why does the moon become smaller every day?”, “Why do boys cut their hair short?”, “How does Santa fit in the chimney?” Everyone – from my hapless parents to my siblings and relatives – were potential victims. When I started school in Toronto, my teachers were the targets.

At eight, I even won an inexplicable award for being the “Most Inquisitive Member” of my Girl Guides troop. It was quite a feat considering the two dozen girls around me spent most of their time aggressively asking, “Are we there yet?” and “When’s lunch?”

Yet, all my pertinent questions paled in comparison to the horror of the generic “Why?” I asked a teacher when I was in Class 9. My family had just moved to Mumbai and I’d joined a school close to home. Our science teacher told us that the chapter on reproductive system would be taught separately to the boys and girls. “But why, miss,” I asked without thinking. I did not get an answer but I earned the school equivalent of fire and fury… by being asked to stand outside the classroom during the science class for the whole week.

After that day, I never asked questions in science class, even if I failed to understand something.

Even if the teachers want to, they can’t afford to answer queries because time is a huge constraint.

While studying in Toronto, my whys were often met with a polite explanation or a “let’s look it up.” New to the Indian education system, it took me some time to learn about its two important commandments: 1) Never question a teacher. 2) Never tell a teacher he/she is in the wrong. That’s what you learn in the 12 formative years of your lives.

In our schools, a “why” is never treated as an innocent query from a child who genuinely does not know better, but an open challenge to the authority of a teacher. Similarly, “I don’t know” rarely features in the dictionaries of Indian teachers. Instead, as any student can attest, the kid who dares to ask this inconvenient question is usually asked to “shut up” and “stop asking stupid questions”. Or on a good day, instructed to consult a textbook. For inside the confines of Indian classrooms, curiosity is a sin.

So, with only a touch of irony, I’m forced to ask: Why? Why are Indian teachers so upset by curious students?

The fault probably lies in our education system. Too often, classes are teeming with over 50 students where a teacher is mandated to cover an eye-watering syllabus thicker than a hardcover of War and Peace. Even if the teachers want to, they can’t afford to answer queries because time is a huge constraint. As a result, students surrender themselves to the joys of rote-learning. Indian teachers might have the job of teaching, but they don’t have the luxury of doing it well. Unlike in western classrooms, where there is less pressure to teach students and more emphasis on imparting knowledge.

On the other hand, our teachers’ aversion to being second-guessed is also an extension of the archaic guru-shishya tradition that we’ve blindly upheld for centuries. It demands that a student completely trust the unquestionable wisdom of their guru. Remember the greatest Indian student ever? (No, not Sidharth Malhotra from Student of the Year.) Arjun’s nemesis Eklavya from the Mahabharata. Eklavya cut off his thumb and handed it to Dronacharya as guru dakshina without questioning him. We are all expected to be Eklavyas.     

Somehow, the idea of a student who checks his ego at the door of the classroom has given birth to teachers with inflated egos who can never be in the wrong. These students then grow up to mirror what their teachers have inculcated in them – the stubborn resistance to admitting that you do not have all the answers. And now, it’s a shared Indian mentality. When in doubt, we don’t ask questions – of our parents, of our bosses, of our seniors. And we believe we know it all.

As last year’s IT system breakdown at British Airways highlighted, even our most renowned industries are full of highly skilled workers who, after years of being taught to avoid questions in classrooms, are now ill-equipped to ask for help in their jobs. When the IT glitch caused widespread chaos, many blamed the Indian IT workers who were supposed to be in charge of system maintenance. Foreign IT workers accused their Indian counterparts of not knowing how to troubleshoot issues and downplaying serious issues only because they had no fix for it.

Who among us hasn’t asked for directions from the guy at the tapri, only to find out that his super detailed road map is full of shit and like Jon Snow, he too knows nothing? How often have you dealt with the plumber who insists that, “Hum sab karlenge memsaab, tension mat lo,” right after he’s caused the flood in your bathroom to flow out into your hall? Or gotten mad at that friend who was convinced about frequent public transport being available at a sleepy hill station? Who hasn’t been that person taking things at face value instead of questioning its existence? I know, I have.

It’s no wonder that years of framing “I don’t know” as an admission of incompetence has inevitably taken its toll on our collective ability to find answers. Maybe it’s time to go back and answer all the whys – or at least, begin asking.