The students in my class do not usually discuss current affairs unless we bring it up. The group of 11-12 year olds I work with have other things on their mind – movies, songs, and sports feature higher in their list of discussions. But as I entered my class on that day I was pleasantly surprised to hear my students talk about prisoners of wars, MIG-21s and F-16s. It was the day – when the announcement of release of Indian air-force pilot Abhinandan was made. My happiness was short lived, though, when I heard them a little longer. The most enthusiastic of the lot was almost shouting when he said, “If I had a gun, I would go and kill all the Pakistanis.” Another one adds, “Arrey, what is the army for – when I grow up, I will join them and go inside Pakistan to kill them all”.
Teachers tend to immediately intervene when students give a wrong answer or do anything that doesn’t fit in with the behaviour expectations laid down by the school/teacher. It is with a lot of practice, mistakes and repeated reminders, that I have began to control this urge and let students be. To trust that students themselves can handle such situations. To trust that there are others who might bring forth alternative viewpoints or solutions. To be patient.
But then I kept hearing other students join in the discussion, adding ways in which they would like to be air-dropped into foreign territories to execute covert missions involving target killing and mass murders. Then one student pips in, “But all Pakistanis haven’t done this, only a few people hate India – just like some people here hate Pakistanis”. Redeemed, I turn to the student and the one next to him lightens the mood by asking the one who wanted to go on the killing spree, “How will you go to Pakistan, your parents don’t even let you come to school by yourself?”
I see an opening and ask the students what they know of the incident. Immediately it becomes clear that the students have a lot of misinformation. I wonder what is their source of news because most don’t read the newspaper! I know their parents hold strong views and must be watching primetime news and discussing politics with friends and family. Students pick up on whatever they hear in their immediate environment. Thankfully, most of the misinformation is cleared by other students themselves. For example, one student who thought that a Pakistani had attacked the army convoy at Pulwama was corrected that the perpetrator was actually a young Kashmiri boy. When one claims 500 terrorists have been killed by India’s surgical strike, and another immediately corrects him to 300, the third (the same one who had given me hope with his statement that all Pakistanis don’t hate India) corrects them both by pointing out that no official figures have been released by the government. So instead of having a prime-time style shouting match, a reasoned exchange has immediately restored sanity to the discussion.
I then begin with some questions to the kids. “Why do you think a Kashmiri boy would attack his own army?” Answers range from him being forced to do it by Pakistan to him being a terrorist trained by Pakistan. When I question how Pakistan released Abhinandan so soon while there were other Indians being held captive for years, almost everyone said it was because of international pressure on Pakistan to release the pilot. One thought that Donald Trump and personally threatened to drop bombs on Pakistan if Abhinandan was not released! I asked the students if they knew that Abhinandan was beaten up by local Kashmiris when he crash landed. This was a new information for them so they got interested. I asked them to find out why Kashmiris would do that to an Indian pilot. More than any history lesson or a lecture into citizenship, I am interested in the students learning to distinguish fact from opinion, to understand what is a good reliable source of information versus what cannot be trusted. I ask more questions. Do all news channels support the same political parties? Do you see the same news shown as positive on one source and as negative in another source? What determines these allegiances?
At the age of 11-12, often children end up blindly following the views of their parents. In a couple of years, they will reach a stage when they are blindly opposing the views of their parents – but that’s a different story. The concern for us is blind allegiance to any viewpoint or perspective. A good education should help students inquire into all existing belief systems around them, to examine them till they satisfy their personal moral compass, and not bind themselves too strongly to any one school of thought till they have sufficient exposure to different perspectives and debates. As parents, it is then our responsibility to give our children the freedom to create their own belief system, while being open to the idea that our children might choose something we don’t believe in / agree with. We should engage in informed debates, offer inquiry and alternative perspectives to our children so that they don’t get swayed by opinions, and seek justification for their beliefs. But, we remember to trust our children through their personal journey, be patient, let them be!
By trusting the wisdom of my student group I have realized that, I have stopped dismissing ‘unviable’ solutions/ideas, and my children too are, eventually, settling down with their own unique belief system which they have examined thoroughly and can defend. It has not been a very easy and pleasant journey and at times it gets painful, if we have differing viewpoints. But it has only added to my understanding of myself and my children.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Nikhil Bangera [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Nikhil is an Advisor with Next School, Mumbai. He cannot live without his motorbike and is often spotted near a hill or the sea.