By Priyanka Tiwari
On a sunny afternoon in 2010, I was attending the fifth period in school, the period just after the lunch. The temperature was so high that I could see the burning sun through the windows of the classroom and feel it inside. Usually the period after the lunch was a big deal for us. It felt quite dull; we felt drowsy and tried hard to keep our eyes wide open. It was an English class. After the teacher entered the classroom, she announced that she would be teaching Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”. Everyone opened page 15 of class IX NCERT English textbook. One student was instructed to read out the poem loudly, while the teacher explained the meaning. At the end of the period, that chapter from our syllabus ended and so did our encounter with the beautiful poem. This is how I was taught poetry in my school. We were instructed to mug-up the lines, and their fixed word to word meanings and explanation. We were told which lines to highlight, what to write and how attempting questions on poems could fetch us good grades in the examinations. I assume that the case is similar in the majority of the schools in India. Poetry was and is still about its literal meaning-making inside the classroom. I recount this incident to ask: Has poetry somehow disappeared from our education? It has definitely not, but the essence of poetry has.
We live in a progressive world today. Everything seems possible today with new innovations in science and technology. Our classrooms have turned into smart classes and the Abacus classes are making children compete with the calculators. Nevertheless, the education system is failing miserably to impart the poetry of life with each passing year. Poetry is soulful. It creates a sense of feel-good about the world around, about the people, and lets us see how vulnerabilities, failures are equally beautiful and important as success. Poetry lets us see how the darkest side at one end can be full of sunshine at the other. As Virginia Woolf beautifully writes:
Yet there are
the walls of
the mind grow
thin; when nothing
and I could fancy
that we might
blow so vast
a bubble that
the sun might set
and rise in it and
we might take the
blue of midday
and the black
and be cast off
and escape from
here and now.
Despite crossing so many milestones, the education system has failed to impart the basic trait of ‘humanness’ in humans. Poetry could be one of the best weapons to teach the essence of human existence. I would like to draw on the arguments from Aristotle’s conception of a virtuous life. Aristotle has emphasized that man cannot be virtuous by nature. Virtue is the result of habits, just as excellence is the result of practice. Therefore, virtuous acts through cultivation and education are immensely important and both need to be started at a very young age. That’s how we produce better moral and ethical kings to rule the society. Similarly, we need to guide children to understand the power and reality of human birth. Pedagogy of poetry could be a powerful source to do that. Since we cannot rely on science, mathematics and social sciences to teach children the beauty of seeing the world through a different lens, we need poetry to help them explore their inner soul, to let them understand the difference between their inner and external world, and to free them to invent their own philosophies to live. It is fundamentally important to let children understand that nothing could be possible in life until they win their inner battles with soul and mind first. If poetry could be used that way, how beautiful the world would be, where every soul would be able to find their solace in the chaos.
Today’s pedagogy of poetry in the school education is a serious violence of intellect, violence of analysis and violence of fragmentation. How come we reduce the power of metaphors to mere word-meaning? It is impossible to have a poem with only one right explanation. It’s like saying that the sky is the limit, while we know this limit itself is limitless. Poetry is included just for the sake of being part of the syllabus. The curriculum – four marks for exact copying the lines, three marks for explanation with some specific words and zero marks on any creativity – is absurd. We are experiencing a slow death of naturalness. T. S Eliot rightly says:
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Through poetry, we will be able to remove the taboo of death. Why don’t we educate our children about death? We never teach children how natural it is for every human entity around us to die one day and disappear from this physical world. Death is a consistent recurrence of coming and going. Why are children of modernity so fearful about death? Why is birth celebrated and not death? Like sunrise, sunset is equally beautiful; like birth, death is equally natural. This reminds me of one of the most beautiful movies, Dead Poets Society, released in 1989. The movie is based on a boarding school where one English teacher teaches his students the art of living life true to oneself. He teaches about the beauty of human life through poems and encourages each student to write their souls and hearts out. In his very first class, he is heard saying, “Believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.” He is observed trying different ways to inspire students to find the meaning of life through poems, to push oneself beyond the limits and to follow one’s passion wholeheartedly.
Poetry has multiple meanings and can be read from varied perspectives. This can help children come out of their rigid mind-boxes. It will possibly open a space to understand the value of decision meaning. Education through poetry must lead to enlightenment; otherwise, everything would become just a matter of consumption. Enlightenment, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes, is human mind’s ability to come out of ‘self-incurred minority’, i.e. the emergence of the courage to question, to see the world through own eyes and to trust own judgments. Education must create a broader picture in the child’s mind about the philosophy of life, the madness of individuality and the music of life and death. After all, the more we come closer to death, the more we start to live.
Priyanka Tiwari (firstname.lastname@example.org) studies Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New-Delhi.
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