By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
The role of the teacher is, needless to say, central to the entire pedagogical process. In the ‘modern’ ‘mainstream’ educational system, the teacher’s role is essentially to pass on a body of knowledge to the students, who are expected to uncritically accept, memorize and then mechanically reproduce it in their periodic examinations. True, in theory the teacher is also meant to help students think for themselves as well as to develop certain positive attributes. In fact, however, this rarely happens, at least not on a noticeable scale.
‘Classical’ civilizations based on religion envisaged a very different role for teachers, one that is almost completely lost today. Like in the ‘modern’ system, the teacher was considered to be the repository of knowledge, but that was not all. His role was not limited only to teaching students particular texts, as is the case today. Nor was the teaching and learning of texts the principal aim of the educational system. In addition to textual instruction, the teacher was also considered to be a spiritual guide, an exemplar of morals, and a living example of the ethical life, and, in all this, a role model for his students to personally emulate. He taught not simply through books but, and more importantly, through his personal example.
This meant that the teacher was expected not just to be knowledgeable but also to embody in himself particular positive qualities, such as piety, generosity, compassion, a spirit of service, bravery and so on. These qualities were to be reflected in his thought, speech and behavior, and students were expected to learn and imbibe these, too, in addition to the textual knowledge that they received from the teacher. Because of the moral and spiritual virtues that he was supposed to possess in addition to his knowledge, the teacher occupied an exalted role in society and in the eyes of his students. Besides learning certain texts from him, students were expected, through living in close proximity to him (often in his own home or hermitage) and lovingly serving him, to become like him in every respect—not just in terms of their knowledge of certain subjects or books but also in terms of moral and spiritual development.
In this way, the teacher was looked upon as someone indispensible for not only one’s intellectual development but also for one’s moral and spiritual growth. That is why one’s teachers were treated with great reverence and love and why the bonds between teachers and students were often much more intense and close than between the latter and their parents and other members of their families.
None of that remains, today, at least in the ‘mainstream’, ‘modern’ educational system. And one reason for that is because ‘modern’ education doesn’t envisage or expect teachers becoming role models for students to emulate in terms of moral or spiritual progress, their role being strictly limited to passing on a body of pre-packaged information to them. They definitely aren’t expected to take an interest in the personal lives of their students (particularly in the higher classes) or to become ‘too close’ to them emotionally, unlike teachers in traditional religion-based civilizations. Nor are they expected to embody virtues—other than, of course, presumed expertise of certain texts—for their students to emulate. And, needless to say, they definitely aren’t supposed to be spiritual guides or moral exemplars for their students, unlike their predecessors. That's because schools aren't really interested primarily in the ethico-spiritual development of students. Their essential purpose, instead, is simply to train students for their future roles in the economy. Accordingly, the teachers' brief is strictly limited: to drill a certain body of knowledge into the heads of their students.
The status of the teacher is thus entirely different in the ‘modern’ education system. The ‘classical’ literature is replete with stories of students who sacrificed their lives for their teachers and of teachers who doted on their students much more than on their wives, but the modern education system has no room for such closeness between teachers and students. It is rare for students today to have intense respect or love for their teachers (childhood crushes are an entirely different matter) or to admire them as role models who embody certain virtues and whom they want to emulate. On the contrary, teachers are generally considered a ‘pain’, and some even as ‘horrors’, and are often the butt of jokes of students, who often simply have to put up with them against their will for fear that otherwise they might fail them in the examinations. It is rare for students to feel free enough with their teachers to share their emotional problems with them or to treat them as their confidantes, unlike in the ‘classical’ system. Their relationship with their teachers is one-pointed and strictly utilitarian: to access from them a body of knowledge which they have to memorize and reproduce in order to pass the examinations and be considered ‘successful’. Unlike in ‘classical’ civilizations, teachers aren’t expected to go beyond this narrow role and play a central role in the moral and spiritual enrichment of their students.
Part of the problem outlined above lies in the fact that, unlike in ‘classical’ civilizations, where teachers were supposed to be altruistically-minded, goaded by the love of knowledge and virtue to give of themselves to the next generation, teachers today (particularly at the school and college levels) are often folks who’ve failed to get ‘better’ (by which is meant more heavily-paid and ‘glamorous’) jobs and so are forced, out of circumstance, rather than choice, to take to teaching to survive. Especially at the school level, the job of a teacher is no longer considered a higher calling or vocation, unlike in ‘classical’ civilizations, but, rather, is often the last option for educated men who can’t be employed elsewhere, or for women who take to teaching not because they love it but because it gives them time to be able to double-up as ‘dutiful’ housewives while affording them some economic independence.
Unlike in the ‘classical’ civilizations, what essentially matters in being selected as a teacher today are the degrees one possesses, and not one’s moral virtues or level of spiritual evolution. Many teachers, I would suppose, definitely aren’t into teaching because that’s what they love doing or because they adore children or because they think they might like to guide students in their intellectual, moral and spiritual evolution—which was the case, at least in theory, in ‘classical’ civilizations. Rather, for such teachers teaching is just a job, like any other, essentially a means for earning and survival—which is fair enough, of course, but this is definitely at the core of the moral and ethical crisis of contemporary education.
If many teachers are into teaching simply for the money or for want of a ‘better’ job and not because it is their ‘calling’ or passion, if their role is strictly utilitarian and limited largely to the passing on of a fixed body of knowledge to their students (for which, unlike in the ‘classical’ system, they don’t need to reach a certain level or ethical or spiritual development themselves), and if students treat them essentially as folks who just have to be tolerated (often unwillingly) in order to pass their examinations, it isn’t at all surprising that students often hate their teachers and teachers often hate their jobs and fail to bond with their students, all of which makes the crisis of modern education even more intractable.