Parents feel elated when their child starts asking; what’s this? What’s that? Question matters more than the answer simply because it triggers a process that eventually leads to knowledge. All human advancement is underpinned by the spirit of enquiry. As a child learns by asking question so does the human kind in its ongoing historical evolution. In the western intellectual tradition Thales of Ionia (Asia Minor) is considered to be first philosopher because he questioned the mythical explanation of origins of life. His questioning the traditional answer made him a philosopher.

But much before him the scared Rig Veda composed / revealed in the Punjab lays the foundation of our intellectual tradition by saying something unimaginably unusual in its hymn of creation: “Not even nothing existed then /No air yet, nor a heaven / Who encased it and kept it where? /Was water in the darkness there? /Neither deathlessness or decay / No, nor the rhythm of night and day /The self-existent, with breath sans air: That, and That alone was there / …When and how did creation start? / Did He do it? Or did He not? /Only He, up there knows, maybe; or perhaps, not even He”. (Translated by V. V. Raman, University of Rochester).

‘Not even He’ knows it raised the question, allowed one the freedom to find their answer. It encouraged one to doubt what is given; sacred and profane. And this happened almost 3500 years ago. Sadly, with the passage of time,we have reached a point where it’s forbidden to raise question and doubt the prevalent.

In government schools, colleges and universities students are not only discouraged to question the given but are also punished in various ways if they dare to do so. Corporal punishment at lower level and unfair marking or grading at higher level is a malady that has seriously marred our process of learning. Students of tender age and also young live in dread of their teachers who love to lord over their future. Till recent times, at places even now, school particularly in the countryside have been hardly less than a torture chamber. Parents’ eagerness for growth and social uplift of their offspring added grist to the mill of teacher’s ferocity. While handing over the student to the teacher they would say: “Chummri tuhadi, huddian Saadian /skin is all yours, bones are ours”. Thus they willingly give teacher carte blanche to treat the student the way he/she deems fit. A good student is an obedient student, docile and malleable. Rote learning is based on the assumption that (a), teacher knows all, (b), what is transmitted is absolute truth, unchallenged and unchallengable.This is an outcome of a socio-cultural development based on our class, caste and religious hierarchies which put premium on authority and inviolability of received truth. Our Guru Shish (Guru and disciple) or Ustad shagird (Muslim teacher and disciple) tradition encapsulates this approach to leaning.

In it the highest virtue is submission and unquestioned acceptance of what teacher imparts. Questioning on the part of student is taken as irreverence. The teacher is the giver and student the taker. The teacher is the depositor and the student the bank account that receives the deposits. There will be no value addition because you take of out of a receptacle only what it’s filled with. This is called by Palo Freire ‘Banking’ concept of education where students have freedom only to receive. “No oppressive order would permit the oppressed to question; why?”, he says. It’s so because traditional pedagogy which is still with us in its modern version isn’t based on dialogue between the teacher and the taught. “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”, he emphasizes.

Dialogue creates a space for give and take. Giving and taking in the conditions of freedom enable the persons involved to doubt the given as gospel. The process makes all the concerned conscious participants and puts an end to their defined active and passive roles. Teachers’ passive activeness and students’ active passiveness lead to intellectual inertia at both ends. The act of learning thus is reduced to something like stagnant water or still lake emitting miasma while what is needed for intellectual growth is river-like conditions. And in the words of Heraclitus one can’t step into the same river twice. So fluid is the process of knowing and such is the ever changing nature of knowledge.

Doubt stops one accepting the things as they appear or made to appear through the lens of tradition. One can’t say there is no difference between appearance and reality. To borrow words from Karl Marx, “If there is no difference between essence and appearance, there would be no need of science”. The very difference between essence and appearance creates doubt. He highly valued doubt as a tool to go behind the façade and would say: “Everything should be called into doubt”. Doubt leads one to question things.

Questioning is precisely what is totally discouraged in our educational intuitions, bottom to top. Questioning is problematic for the established order as it leads to re-evaluating what is valued. It can pave the way for students to reject what is accepted. So it’s a dangerous tool that can upset the status quo. Thus questioning is discouraged in the name of patriotism, nation-building, national integrity socio-political cohesion and faith. So students are coerced from the tender age to acquiesce to the dictates of state imperatives and statist policies designed to safeguard the interests and privileges of the dominant. Such an approach is not only flawed but self-defeating; it prevents the state achieving what it proclaims as its objectives. All societies which encourage questioning develop while those curbing it lag behind. We lag behind not because of any congenital deficiency but because of overemphasis on the ill-conceived national narrative which fetishizes authority and advocates sacredness of repressive societal values. The end result is conformity which is rewarded. But it adds nothing to our rational and scientific knowledge which is the defining feature of modern society. Choice is very clear: whether to walk into the future or live in the past. Anyway foolishness of being happily imprisoned in the past won’t stop us living to see the next century. —

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2021


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