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Adults should be like children to make good theorists

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Terry Eagleton (1990:34) in his book, The Significance of Theory, said,

Children make the best theorists, since they have not yet been educated into accepting our routine social practice as “natural” and so insist on posing to those practices the most embarrassingly general and fundamental questions, regarding them with a wondering estrangement which we adults have long forgotten.

Eagleton’s words remind me of my conversation a week ago with my niece, Ghashmira, over the phone in Pakistan. Ghashmira is 5-year old and is in first grade. Due to the current pandemic, schools are closed and Ghashmira and her older sister Farifta have been staying over at my mother’s. They like it there because they are not going to school and they can get anything they demand and do whatever they wish.

They have much freedom with their grandmother and aunt, my younger sister, in watching TV, staying up late and going to the store to buy ice-cream or candies. They hate the idea of going back to their mother, who requires much discipline from them. While we were speaking, I asked Ghashmira what was she doing these days. This was the first time in months that she showed some willingness to listen to me and entertain my questions. I felt lucky, as I love her and enjoy talking to her and her sisters.

In response to my question, she said she watched TV, played with the kids and ate the things she liked. I asked if she was reading anything interesting these days. She said, “I do my school work sometimes.” Why sometimes? Are not you supposed to do schoolwork most of the time and spare free time to play and watch TV? I asked. She said, “It is COVID. School is closed. I do not know when it will open.”

And then she said something interesting which I did not expect: “Mama (maternal uncle in Pashto), why do we have to study? Can’t we just become doctors or whatever we want to be without studying?” Her question was, in Eagleton’s words, “the most embarrassingly general and fundamental,” yet so logical that I had not heard in a long time. She put me on the spot. The best thing about it was that it was so natural and so original that it could not originate anywhere but in her curious and intelligent mind.

I combed through my mind to answer her question as to “why we study” but could not find a convincing answer. It was a shame that a Ph.D. candidate was unable to answer the question of his first-grader niece. I had, of course, thoughts on the question but I was not sure if they were logical enough. The difficulty in answering such question is that it is very subjective. There is no objectivity to why we study or go to school. Different people have different motivations.

Ghashmira was also, perhaps, thinking as to what would happen if she chose to not go to school. And if there were a way to rid of the brutal early morning wake ups and boring homework every day. She is of course too young to understand the difference between the subjective and objective nature of knowledge and the intricacies of social and economic structures in which we live and which impose a certain worldview on us. However, I did tell her that it is good to study because it makes people more aware, kind and successful.

There is also a caveat here which she is, again, too little to understand: Not all education is good education. Good education itself is subjective and so is success. However, one thing that is clear almost anywhere in the world is that one can’t become a doctor or an engineer without formal education and professional training. That is just the way of the world. I don’t know if I convinced her with my vague statements, since children appreciate easy and straightforward answers.

But what the conversation did was that it reminded me of my assumptions about education. It questioned my view that education is the most essential thing in a person’s life. But Ghashmira made me second-guess my assumption and helped me wonder that it may not be that essential. Or at least not all education is essential. I know enough has been written on this subject. The most celebrated work is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher who advocated critical pedagogy, by which he meant that teachers should not treat students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, but should instead treat them as the co-creators of knowledge.

I have questioned the nature of education and the way and the environment in which it is delivered, especially since college. But it also happens that we forget to doubt and assume the familiar to be essentially good. What theory, as Alan Sears says in his book, A Good Book, In Theory, does is that it makes the familiar unfamiliar. This estrangement with the familiar amplifies our ability to ascertain a phenomenon for, as Einstein said, “what it is, but not what it should be.”

The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, in an essay, Art as Device, in 1917, had used the term “defamiliarization” to describe a similar idea. For Shklovsky and other formalists, “defamiliarization” is a technique of presenting to audiences the most common and familiar in a strange and an unfamiliar way to enhance the perception of the familiar.

There is no doubt that our worldview is shaped profoundly by the society in which we live. Our frames and identities are molded by our teachers, friends and peers and family. We may not be conscious of these societal influences but they form how we view the world and our place in it. Children see the world in the light of their experiences which are mostly natural and free of societal prejudices. As Eagleton states in the beginning of this post, adults need to be like children to be able to make good theorists.

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