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On the temptations of a teacher

September 02, 2003 11:14 IST

The late UN Ghosal once said of a habitually truant teacher, "Students should be thankful that he does not take classes". In view of the serious damage bad teaching can inflict, few would disagree with Professor Ghosal's viewpoint.

However, since reasonably successful teaching, especially at the university level, is a fairly undemanding job and does not seem to require either high IQ or strenuous effort, I have often wondered why so many teachers fail in their profession.

Given the prevailing incentive structure, an economist would seek the answer more in teachers' inclinations than innate abilities: when students' regard or welfare receives low priority relative to other goals, failure to put in the minimum effort required is not unexpected.

The siren's song comes from many quarters. If somebody is thoroughly engrossed in trying to extend the frontiers of his discipline, he may have time only for his peers. This must have been the reason why Hicks, so elegant and lucid in his writings, was such a poor teacher. In most cases however it is pursuit of power, popular acclaim or money that leads academics astray.

Articulation and common people's reverence make teaching a valuable launching pad for a political career. In fact teachers form the largest single group among elected representatives and king-makers in political parties.

The reason for seeking such power is not always dishonourable. Some believe that even if they can become top-ranking teachers, as part of the powers-that-be, their contribution to society would be much greater.

A teacher-turned-politician was convinced that he had sacrificed a Nobel Prize at the altar of national interest. The problem, however, is that the well-intentioned do not often know their own limitations and the degenerating influence of power and sycophancy.

I was witness to a revered teacher becoming notorious for graft during a spell of ministership; a brilliant mind using official power to promote the unworthy; and a promising young professor taking up one vice-chancellorship after another and ruining the universities he headed.

To most teachers, seeking power and social considerations count for little. The successful ones generally cling to their teaching posts, the reason being the political capital associated therewith and the enormous power they can exercise in the academic world.

A sizeable section finds self-fulfillment in acquiring clout through teachers' organisations or hobnobbing with the authorities. Not long ago, a senior bureaucrat was transferred since he had the temerity to ask some teachers how, with so many hours spent at Writers' Buildings, they managed to take classes. With such power, who would care for students' regard?

Compared with the pursuit of power and glory outside academia, mercenary motives are perhaps less harmless. Market discipline requires teachers to be reasonably competent if they are to succeed as private tutors or consultants.

Tuition's deleterious impact is due primarily to an assessment system that favours preparation of selected answers at the expense of deeper understanding. However, whatever the system, it is difficult for private tutors to realise their potential.

Similar are the effects of frequent consultancies or newspaper columns, especially since the lure of easy money or renown poses increasing obstacles to a teacher's primary task. Since the potential of young academics straying into these pursuits is much higher than the average, the social costs in such instances are correspondingly larger.

What of those who follow the straight and narrow path? They are generally successful and well regarded; but their path is not free of hazards either. Some are not very inspiring, but are considered useful as they diligently prepare teaching material, cover the syllabus and save students considerable hard work.

However, compiling comprehensive notes can be a source of serious trouble. While spoon-feeding tends to impair students' intellectual development, few teachers, after preparing notes, can refrain from relying on them year after year. This sloth creates a vicious circle of making them back-dated; lose capacity for concentration; and reluctant to resume serious study.

For preserving self-respect they then come to believe that all new-fanged ideas are irrelevant and strongly resist revision of syllabi. The more intelligent among them find some ingenious way out. A teacher, I gather from the horse's mouth, used to set one or two questions on topics he knew little about and was eventually rewarded with answers good enough for his lecture notes!

Most renowned teachers have one or more of the following traits: histrionic ability, towering presence and supreme confidence. A legendary teacher of Bengal used to keep students spellbound with dramatic delivery interspersed with innovative punch lines.

As in the case of actors, the adulation of the audience must have been a source of enormous satisfaction to the teacher; but his impact, it appears, was not so positive: an element of drama can whet students' appetite for learning, but it can also mislead on how to go about mastering the discipline and its core issues.

To more discerning pupils, teachers acquire charisma through scholarship or lucid exposition. Very few can resist the temptation of creating a halo around them and not playing on students' susceptibility. It is common for highly popular teachers to steer clear of nuances or intricacies and make lectures comprehensible to the dullest.

Others, with highly erudite and impenetrable exposition, create the impression of an intellectual colossus whom students can only worship from afar, not hope to emulate. Some become gurus combining scholarship with high ideology and sermon-like sayings.

In all these cases both students and teachers pay a heavy price. Students' admiration can make a lucid teacher forget that getting confused while sorting out complex issues is a necessary process of learning and going deep into a subject.

For living up to their image, renowned scholars are usually chary of admitting gaps in their knowledge and engaging in open discussion with others in their profession. The price paid by the gurus is perhaps the highest.

With a devoted following, all ears for their pearls of wisdom, they dismiss out of hand all unfavourable peer views, have no regard for generally accepted norms of evidence and argument, and come to believe in their own infallibility. The relatively poor contributions of teachers in India in the advancement of learning is thus not to be wondered at.

Finally, those academics whose teaching and research make them living legends face the Herculean task of not getting distracted from their calling and pronouncing on everything under the sun. They are overwhelmed by endless invitations for giving lectures, inaugurating conferences and serving on all sorts of committees. Political parties vie for their open or tacit support.

Even if they can remain highly selective in accepting invitations, wooing by political big-wigs often proves irresistible. When powerful ministers and party bosses are all eagerness for one's guidance, it is difficult not to be swayed, suspend critical judgement and let oneself be used like a party's brand ambassador under the specious presumption that private persuasion rather than public criticism would be more effective in making the powers-that-be mend their ways.

Contrary to the popular perception, the choice of appropriate action by teachers is thus by no means simple. To the Aristotelian dictum - "Choice cannot be correct in default either of prudence or of goodness" - I would add, "The greater part of prudence consists in being aware of one's susceptibilities and weaknesses".

The writer is ex-professor, Presidency College and Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata and currently director, Monetary Research Project at ICRA

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Mihir Rakshit
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