I hope this letter finds you well. I have been meaning to write to you for long but for the want of an opportune medium and forum, postponed it no end. Not too long ago, it dawned upon me that this search for an opportune medium and forum was perhaps only a cover for my lack of preparedness to take this task up my sleeve. Isn’t it an irony of sorts that education, instead of becoming a means towards a worthy end, is becoming an end in itself, turning two of its biggest pillars—students and teachers—into incommunicable islands? There cannot be anything more paradoxical than this disconnect in times when connectivity is the buzzword. If these initial thoughts have succeeded in conveying something of gravity here, I think your education has met with success in some measure.
You may ask, why a letter—an archaic mode—instead of infinitely many options of easy connectivity via live chats or even a physical meeting?
I did not choose social media precisely because it is an easy medium. Not that I have any masochistic desire to complicate things, but I believe it makes a serious communication easier than it ought to be. We must choose horses for courses. A letter is hard and demanding on me, on my thoughts, my understanding and, above all, on my patience. A letter has a beginning, a body and an end. It has a sense of purpose. It isn’t an idle chat, you see. It slows me down and compels me to organise my thoughts. So here I go.
This letter was brewing in the form of an imaginary conversation ever since I observed you during your first year in the college. I saw your dreamy eyes, brimming with curiosity, lofty goals and loads of confidence. You had the best of the talents. But confidence is a tricky animal. It needs constant fodder of just the right challenges to keep it grounded. I had the highest admiration for your talents, but alongside I had my concerns, lest your confidence outsize your talent, and grow into arrogance. Unfortunately, my fears came true. Your questions in classrooms began their journey as innocuous curiosities, but degenerated into an abysmal race for outsmarting everyone in the class, including your teachers. As your attitude was redefining the meaning of education for you, your arrogance shut your ears to anything that did not match your “answers” and expectations; expectations, which recognised only two states—all or none. With your attitude of all or none, you failed in your pursuit of finding a perfect system and a perfect teacher. Little were you aware that despite your talent, you yourself fell miserably short of being a perfect student. There are imperfections galore in the system, but equally there is no dearth of quality, neither in teachers, who are willing to walk the extra mile to make up for the system’s shortfall, nor in students, who aren’t too smart to ask for help. There can be only two outcomes to your binary (all or none) dissection of reality: either one becomes overconfident, thinking one is too good for this highly imperfect real world, or one suffers a total loss of confidence, feeling miserable and a complete misfit in this competitive world. I am afraid you would admit that you belong to the former category, where your overconfidence and indifference came in the way of your education. You became sceptical, and slowly decoupled from the classes. What an irony that your smartness became your biggest enemy. It amplified everything bad about education, it also rationalised your sceptical outlook as well as your severed ties from the classroom. It did not even spare a few good teachers, who did not measure up to your lofty expectations. It did earn you more than a few ardent followers, and you donned the persona of a failed hero who the system failed to do justice to. Your academic graph plummeted but your rising popularity in your walled parallel universe shut you out from the terrifying reality, mostly of your own making. I did make a daring attempt once to break into your walled universe to offer a reality check, but you knew too much to find my advice of any value. I do feel that though my intentions were pristine, my approach may have been mistaken.
Honestly, I find myself guilty of having lost you somewhere down the line, in your pursuit of questions. I thought, what really went wrong about you? What share of blame belonged to me as a teacher? I too failed, in some measure, to mentor you. I failed to sufficiently challenge the “answers” you gave to yourself and to all of us, before your overconfidence outsized your understanding. I failed to come across as a friend, philosopher and guide, who could have mentored you as an equal.
But can we let the bygones be bygones and start afresh? I may not meet your expectations of a perfect teacher, but I can promise you stimulating discussions. I have never promised answers to anyone, but I have a sac full of experience that can sure offer you some understanding and insight about life. I have a sac full of a variety of mistakes, including the ones you have made, and that can teach you a thing or two. I can tell you why you shouldn’t be judgemental—about yourself or anyone else—for it shall terribly limit how much you can learn. I can tell you no matter how bad our system might be, if you have the right axe to grind, you can still walk away with a fortune of learning. I can tell you that no teacher can be bad enough to have no qualities, only if you are open-minded in your pursuit. I can tell you that you looked in vain for education in your grades; that your education was all about that which you attempted with all your might, without regard to your eventual success. I can tell you that there is a world of difference between information and insight; that when your teachers failed to answer your questions on some occasions, it did not make them bad teachers. I can tell you that your pursuit of final understanding was simply a mirage, and that it is an irony that understanding is the least understood word. I can tell you that understanding is that destination whose only purpose is to fool you into a journey that is beautiful in its own right; that understanding is that tension between satisfaction and thirst that grows on you in your beautiful journey. Finally, I can tell you that you always asked the right questions, or that there are no wrong questions, but you lacked the correct method and diligence. On my part, I probably had some understanding but I lacked discretion to correct things on time. We may blame it all on the system, but come to think of it, what is this system? Aren’t you and I the biggest pillars of this system? Come, let’s talk. It is never too late to start afresh.
With best wishes,
Penned by Prof Rishikesh Vaidya, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, on the disconnect between teachers and students in educational institutions