Vijay Nagaswami

The Shrinking Universe: Kolaveri of the black swan

Tough Passage: Changing childhood. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh  

In his extraordinary bestsellers Fooled by Randomness (2011) and The Black Swan first published in 2007 and updated in 2010, Nassim Nicholas Taleb elegantly described how human beings deal with seemingly random events or those that fall outside of the apparent norm (what are referred to as ‘outliers'). When something rare or improbable (the sighting of a black swan would fall in this category, since we know that swans are usually white) happens, we tend to undervalue its relevance and concentrate on whatever our knowledge and understanding considers more probable or likely. He describes how this approach can cost us dear. The fact that these two books have sold millions of copies is perhaps an indicator that, as a race, we are beginning to accord more importance to the occurrence of seemingly improbable events.

That the recent shocking murder of a school teacher in Chennai by her 15-year-old student, ostensibly because she made multiple adverse comments about his performance in one subject in school, is an ‘outlier' is unquestionable. Not every school child who dislikes a teacher, however intensely, takes a knife into the classroom. While I, like almost every one else in the country who has heard about this tragedy, am shocked and upset, and feel the need to express heartfelt condolences to the family of the poor school teacher, I am loath to come up with the knee-jerk reaction that is in evidence not only in the media, but in social conversations, expert columns and in cyberspace as well.

Understanding the causes

Nor would I like to dismiss this unhappy event as an ‘outlier' and get on with my life. I'd like to spend some time trying to understand if it is a Black Swan and whether anything can be done about it. There was a time when the phenomenon of school children who tragically committed suicide as a result of severe academic pressures was considered as an ‘outlier', for, such extreme behaviours were few and far between and therefore outside of the norm. However, given that such suicides have now become significantly more frequent, educationists, mental health professionals and policy makers are scrambling to find suitable reparative measures to buck the trend. I wouldn't like to wait for adolescent homicides to reach levels of statistical significance before figuring out how to prevent them.

While I wouldn't like to speculate on the causes of this particular gruesome tragedy since I don't have all the facts, I've noticed that many of the responses to it have veered towards one of two ends of a spectrum. Some have blamed indulgent parenting that has created spoiled brats who want to have their way in everything they do and are therefore unable to control their violent impulses when they are thwarted; television, cinema and video games are held responsible for seeding violence in their minds. At the other end of the spectrum are those who propagate being more understanding of and sympathetic to children's needs and providing them appropriate support in the form of school counsellors who are expected to identify early signs of potentially disturbed behaviour thereby preventing their occurrence. At both ends of the spectrum there is a general lament about the breakdown of the joint family, attributing this as the major contributor to the present scenario of poor frustration tolerance.

I think it would be irrational to look for one smoking gun in such a situation; obviously the reasons are several. We live in troubled times and our lifestyles certainly mirror this. We have a general overload of information but haven't been able to find the right kind of filters to process it with. We want the best, but often don't know how to recognise it. Every generation is smarter than the previous one as a result of which the gap between parent and child is becoming progressively wider. Our worlds have changed dramatically, but we don't want to accept this and look backwards for solutions than forward. We love our children immeasurably but don't know how to express this other than by buying them things or feeding them their favourite food. And most of all, we're always looking for others to pin the blame on and find solutions to our problems, and are surprised when our children do the same.

Time to introspect

So, rather than react angrily to what has happened and visualise worst-case-scenarios, now would perhaps be a good time for parents, educators and policy makers to take a good, hard look within themselves to see how we can, individually and collectively, initiate organic changes in the way we approach parenting and education. We need to be more mindful and predictable when it comes to parenting and balanced and equitable when it comes to education. I'm not saying that this can be guaranteed to prevent such catastrophes. But, it could certainly make school more enjoyable than being seen as a space where children run the risk of being humiliated trying to achieve a standard prescribed by someone who doesn't always understand their needs. I would imagine that happier kids from happier homes going to schools that emphasise overall development of body and mind would be less likely to experience kolaveri.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 7:53:55 PM |

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