Whatever happened to the wide-eyed wonder with which we entered kindergarten?
The butter melting on the popcorn smells like heaven as you carry the large tub into the darkened cinema hall. You find your seat and settle in, as the curtain goes up and the chattering audience quiets down in anticipation. It’s time for the movie to begin. You leave the world behind and enter a space where, for the duration of the show, you’re completely willing to be taken for a ride.
Suspension of disbelief is a term attributed to poet and writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge (remember your struggles with the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ?) who referred to drama as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith…” For the two hours that you spend in the theatre, you are happy to believe — in the existence of fire-breathing dragons, vampires, true and immortal love, Platform 9 ¾ and much else. In fact we pay to be transported out of our world of disbelief into this one, inside a darkened, crowded and (sometimes) smelly space, and told impossible stories that don’t have much to do with our everyday lives.
Why is it that we enjoy the most “unrealistic” of movies so much? In fact, the more removed it is from our immediate experience, the more we allow ourselves to get into the story and have a good time. It’s precisely because we set aside the expectation of reality and logic.
There’s another space that most of us pay to enter. Often equally crowded and poorly lit. Our expectations of this space are substantially different from those in the earlier context. Depending on our experience, we expect classrooms and schools to (let’s face it) have little to do with our everyday life. We expect them to be boring, irrelevant, and at best a little useful in taking us to the next level.
We expect teachers to be bossy and inflexible. These expectations over time turn into beliefs, and we enter each classroom caught in the vice-like grip of these beliefs.
Touching the dolphin
I’ll never forget the time my five-year-old daughter came home from school all excited about a field trip where they had seen (and touched) fish and other water animals, including (incredibly) a dolphin. She described in minute detail the experience of sitting by the water, the smell of the salty sea air, the spray of the water as the dolphins leapt up, and the feel of the rough skin on their back as they swam close to the edge of the water where the children could touch them. When I asked her teacher about the field trip, a little concerned because I had not heard anything about it or been asked for permission, she told me that there had been no field trip! All they’d done is sit around a tub of water and play with plastic and rubber animals, but the teacher’s talk had taken the children into an imagined realm where my attentive and believing daughter had actually experienced a visit to a marine park. For her, it was every bit as real as anything else in her day. And what she learned that day about how dolphins move has stayed with her.
In contrast, by the time we get to college or even high school, we are unwilling to believe that classes can be interesting, fun or (god forbid) useful. Whatever happened to the wide-eyed wonder with which we entered kindergarten?
Somewhere along the way, we lost the popcorn and gave up on the idea.
An open mind — one of the requirements of “learnability” — is about suspending judgment, about allowing oneself to experience the moment completely, without either belief or disbelief coming in the way of our ability to see things without the layers of preconception.
The belief that education is boring is reinforced by the converse: the disbelief that classes can be engaging. Agreed, not all classes are interesting, or engaging. Some can be beyond boring. But you never know what might happen if we gave up the presumption of boredom and instead, went into a classroom believing that something interesting will be discussed. Or better still, just not believing, for the moment, that nothing interesting will happen. We just might be surprised.
The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus , www.teacherplus.org