In the contemporary world, a huge premium is placed on one’s marketing skills. Even an otherwise unqualified individual gains fame by his/her communication and presentation skills. Owing to the sparkling stories of success of TRP-hungry media, there is no critical evaluation of one’s professional effectiveness or actual contribution to society. It is in this context that the teachers need to encourage ethical standards in their students which again leads us back to the question of facilitating critical thinking.
A retired Professor once said that teaching is the only profession where true learning begins on the job; it teaches the teacher the humility to learn and unlearn as a lifelong practice. This, he said, is in stark contrast to those professions where the beginning of a powerful career simultaneously leads to spiralling ignorance and swelling arrogance. As professors of Political Science, we have had the opportunity to teach students from varied backgrounds across three states (Delhi, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh) in the past four years and we could not agree more with his wise words. Teaching has helped us to go back to the basics in our discipline and refresh and revise our earlier perceptions; to critically engage with the present and to facilitate the inculcation of human values for the future. There are a few suggestions that we have for the new and future teachers. Foremost is to teach the students to think critically; to encourage them to question their long-held beliefs and assumptions against the parameters of reason and evidence; to facilitate periodic dialogues and discussions in classrooms; to enable them to analyze an issue from multiple dimensions or frames of reference (social/political/economic or caste/class/gender/religion). As teachers, either of the basic, applied, or social sciences, it is important for us to always include a discussion on the human dimensions of our respective disciplines for science is neutral but real life is value-based. To this end, it is imperative for us to question ourselves to become aware of our own biases and prejudices which can act as barriers to practicing and teaching critical thinking. Secondly, as teachers, we may be inclined to show our students the easy ways to score marks or higher grades. However, this method of spoon-feeding or rote learning is neither suitable for real life nor does it encourage critical thinking. As the title of this short piece suggests the emphasis should be on not making it easy for the students. We learnt this through our own experience at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU, Delhi) as students of MA, MPhil and PhD. The MA courses were intensive with advanced readings that the process of trying to understand was itself a rigorous training in thinking critically. It is the practice followed in premier higher education institutions globally and there is no evidence that other students lack the capability to be put through similar training. A hard-learned lesson or concept is scientifically proven to last in our long-term memory ready to aid in the most unexpected situations. Academics and extra-curricular activities in colleges and universities are to be designed to enable students to engage and adapt to challenging situations of real life with their humanity intact. In the contemporary world, a huge premium is placed on one’s marketing skills. Even an otherwise unqualified individual gains fame by his/her communication and presentation skills. Owing to the sparkling stories of success of TRP-hungry media, there is no critical evaluation of one’s professional effectiveness or actual contribution to society. It is in this context that the teachers need to encourage ethical standards in their students which again leads us back to the question of facilitating critical thinking. A teacher needs to be flexible enough to provide space for discussions on both alternative and subaltern discourses. As a teacher, one needs to be aware that both the self and the students alike are constantly influenced by social constructs and needs to consistently teach oneself and the students to unlearn them to progress towards an egalitarian and just society. However, it is easier said than done. Discussing topics from prescribed syllabus like ‘majority-minority’ or ‘caste-based reservation’ debates, even using standard texts needs to be done sensitively and ethically to enable critical thinking rather than aggravate existing social tensions within classrooms. In recent times, this has become an exercise in walking a tight rope and it is very difficult for a teacher to sensibly moderate where open classroom discussions could polarize students on socio-politically constructed fault lines. In the past decade, there has been an increasing trend of graduates (both from technical and humanities backgrounds) aspiring to become civil servants. It is undoubtedly appreciable to dedicate one’s career to public service, but it is also important to note that there has been a steady decline in the number of vacancies. Consequently, lakhs of aspirants compete for around six hundred posts at the level of the union government. The arithmetic indicates that even some of the most dedicated aspirants may fail to secure a position despite years of preparation ending up being disillusioned with life. It is important for teachers to impart the message from the beginning that failures are a part and not the end of life. We need to encourage students to research the different avenues of career available for graduates to realize their creative potential without compromising foundational human values of compassion, kindness and humility. In a recent lecture that we had the privilege to attend, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mr. Kailash Satyarthi shared with us the three ‘D’s: ‘Dream, Discover and Do’ that he learned from his life struggles as a child rights activist. It behoves us to share it with our teaching fraternity to further pass on to their students: “There are no restrictions for a human being to dream big. The history of the betterment of humankind is created only by those who dream big for the betterment of society and not by those who dream big only for themselves. Discover your inner power to fulfil your dreams by discovering the opportunities available around you. And finally, there is no substitute to action (doing).” Last but not the least, to err is human. There is no perfect teacher. We do not have the answers to all the complex questions of science and society. It is important to acknowledge this fact to ourselves and even to our students when the situation calls for it; teaching students that there is no perfect answer in life but rather a long spectrum between the binaries and that it is okay to fail and explore oneself in the life-long process of learning and unlearning.