Connecting Education Theory to Everyday Life


One of the modules in my teacher training workshops is on Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This hierarchy of skills developed by Benjamin Bloom is usually a part of Bachelor of Education courses. My workshops help teachers reduce these theoretical categories into practical workable strategies for the classroom. As I become more and more adept at thinking in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, I find that though these learning categories were created to be used in the context of education, they apply to every aspect of our lives. These are skills which help us think systematically.

The six skills that comprise Bloom’s Taxonomy are --- Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analysing, Evaluating and Creating. First three are routine skills that our education system teaches us.  The last three help critical thinking.  The set is a hierarchy because the skills get more and more complex as we go further down the list.  Hence, the first three are called lower order skills and the last three are seen as higher order thinking skills.

This post is about taking this set of skills out of the classroom and education texts and bring them into our everyday contexts.  Hence, I will go down the list and see how we need and use each one of them in our day to day situations. This is a long post, so I beg my readers’ indulgence.

The most basic of all learning skills, which is like a foundation of other skills is remembering. Remembering requires using our memory to recognize and recall information. We use this skill all the time --- remembering names, facts, prices, dates, conversations, cooking processes ---- the list goes on.  All this information stored in our memory then becomes our personal knowledge base. Knowledge is not something we get only through our education system. We are constantly imbibing knowledge from our experiences, our conversations, from our surroundings --- it is something we take for granted in our everyday lives. A lot of times we are not even aware of the range of information we absorb from things around us. I am amazed at how much I still remember about people whom I had encountered or heard about while growing up --- names, who married whom, who is related to whom… and so on. This is a legacy of being raised in the face-to-face society of Assam, where everyone knew everyone else.  All these are a part of our memories that we remember and recall at particular times. Our memories are also one of the key sources of what we ‘know’. We also ‘know’ how to do things --- how to talk to whom, how to respond to people and situations, a lot of what is right or wrong, ----- the list goes on and on.

The next skill, that goes one step beyond mere knowledge, is understanding.  There are several mental processes by which we understand something --- comparing, exemplifying, classifying, interpreting, explaining. We usually do something with the knowledge we have ---
interpret it, classify it, explain it, exemplify it, make inferences based on it, compare it. All of these reflect how we understand and make sense of a situation. And again, a lot of it is done unconsciously.

“Why can’t you be like your sister? She does everything right”.  “Their house looks so much better than ours’. “He is a much better actor than his father”.  Most of us have grown up with being compared, and have consciously or unconsciously, made comparisons ourselves. Comparison is one way of understanding a person or a situation --- in terms of something or someone else.  Very closely linked to comparing is exemplifying. “Look at so-and so. He studies all the time, gets good grades and makes his parents proud”.

Years ago, when I was still in college, I was getting ready to go to a wedding.  I had on a very bright zari sari and to match with that I put on a very bright lipstick. My mother hit the roof. “You look like a cheap woman”, she said. In a rare show of defiance, I went to the other extreme that day, and went lipstick-less to the wedding. But the point I am making here is about the term ‘cheap woman’. Though there is no consensus of what it connotes, we use terms such as these all the time to classify people. Classification is a way of understanding, by slotting people and things into categories.  A whole bunch of things or people are grouped together so as to get a better sense of what they are. These groupings are sometimes our own personal categories and sometimes societal.  “Maharashtrians are very nice people’ (I have heard this myself 😊)”.  “His behaviour is typical of the millennium generation”. “Young people today are very shallow”. “This case is just like the one in ……”. “A parsnip is just like a carrot, except that it is white and does not have the sense of sweetness that carrot has”. In all of these statements, things, people, qualities, situations, have been classified and slotted together to create a particular understanding of something.

We understand a situation by first interpreting information about it. I see two of my colleagues in deep conversation. They both look at me as I pass by. I have just had an altercation with one of them. My interpretation of the situation is that they are talking about me --- my way of understanding the situation based on my prior experience with the person concerned.  This interpretation is based on an inference --- two things have happened; therefore, a third thing must be happening too.  I had an altercation with A, A is talking to B, both look at me as I pass by; therefore, they must be talking about me.  And more often than not, we jump to such conclusions without even entertaining the possibility that they could be talking of something else entirely.

Another way of understanding situations as we go through life is by explaining them to ourselves and to others. “My son got very ill during the exams, hence his grades went down”. “All these bad things happened to our family because our stars were bad’. “His father was a great musician. No wonder the son has an ear for music”.

Explaining, exemplifying, comparing, classifying, interpreting and inferring are cognitive processes associated with understanding. I am using an anthropological rather that an educational conceptualization of the term understanding here --- it is about how we perceive and hence ‘understand’ the world around us.

One step beyond understanding is application. We use our skills of application every day.  Following procedures for driving a car, repairing a broken item, helping our children with their homework, following a recipe, all of these require executing and implementing, the cognitive processes associated with application. And again, we use these processes without realizing we are doing so.

Knowledge, understanding and application do not necessarily need critical thought. As Richard Paul and Linda Elder, internationally recognized authority on critical thinking, say in their Critical Thinking: Tools For Taking Charge Of Your Professional And Personal Life, our regular thinking is full of biases, prejudices, misconceptions, ideological rigidities, mixed with rational thought, insights, facts. Our perceptions and interpretations are filtered through these biases, prejudices, etc. This is first order thinking: spontaneous and non-reflective.  It contains insight, prejudice, truth and error, good and bad reasoning, indiscriminately combined. Second order thinking is first order thinking raised to the level of conscious realization (i.e., analyzed, assessed and reconstructed).

The first three rungs of Bloom’s Taxonomy --- remembering, understanding, applying --- correspond very closely with Paul and Elder’s first order thinking. The last three rungs, analyzing, evaluating and creating, get into the realm of second order thinking.  This is the stage where critical thinking really happens. The skills of analysis, evaluation and creation helps bring about the transition from first order to second order thought.

The first step in moving from first to second order thinking is developing our ability to analyze.  A lot of our thoughts are not based on analysis.  We depend on emotion, hearsay, limited prior experience, to form our conclusions.  For example, I heard someone argue very vociferously at a party that arranged marriages have disappeared in Indian society. When asked how she could be so sure, she said “just look at my family; no one in my family has had an arranged marriage this generation”.  This particular person’s knowledge and understanding of current marriage practices in India is based on a rather limited experience of one family.  However, we just need to look at the matrimonial pages of The Times of India, or The Hindu or sites such as Shaadi.com, to see that arranged marriages are very much alive and well.  It has in fact gone on to a different level.  There are marriage portals now catering to specific communities, regions, languages. Hence, this lady’s perspective was flawed, as it was not informed enough. She however believed it, and because she said it very categorically, may have been able to convince other people in that conversation too.  We believe such statements because most of the time, we do not bother to analyze things ourselves --- we take opinions at face value, especially if they are spoken authoritatively.

We need our analytical thinking skills all the time ---- sifting through gossip, stridently made arguments,  through all the ‘informative’ and ‘public service’ posts that come through our Facebook and WhatsApp feeds, as well as in everyday situations such as should I send my daughter to this trip; what are the stresses that that my colleague/child/friend, spouse, is going through because of which she/he lashed out at me; is there another side to this story that I have overlooked or have not been told, ---  and so on.  Analysis is not emphasized in our rote-learning based education system, hence this is a skill we do not have much practice with.

The skill of analysis helps us sort through information --- identifying which information is important and relevant to a situation or issue and which is not. It also helps us organize information --- find out what is common and different between information and grouping similar ideas, concepts, points, evidences together. Lastly, and to me, most importantly, analysis helps us identify alternative perspectives, points of view, underlying motives or biases in things we see and hear around us.

Evaluation is one step beyond analysis. Suppose my child has got admission into four very good colleges, and the dilemma is which one to accept. How would we go about making the right decision? Firstly, we would analyze the pros and cons of each college based on our needs, listing out what the college has to offer, the faculty, my child’s interests and future plans, costs, ease of transportation, who else is going there, the city that the college is in, is there a good local guardian available, and so on. Once we have listed all these out, we will move from analysis to evaluation --- which of these four will we decide on. Listing the pros and cons is analyzing, assessing these lists and coming up with a conclusion is evaluation. Evaluation involves weighing all the pros and cons and then coming up with an informed decision.

Evaluation is also the skill that enables us to form an informed opinion, make an unbiased judgement, and take a position on an issue.  It involves identifying biases not only in others (which we do at the level of analysis), but also in our own biases by assessing our own thinking on that issue.
For example, suppose there is a conflict situation between me and someone else. Evaluation involves objectively analysing the situation and then evaluating my own role in it. Most of the time, in such situations, we immediately blame the other person. Evaluation is a skill that helps us go beyond our immediate anger and ask objective questions such as, ‘could I have in any way have triggered this situation’, ‘was I being defensive and therefore made that negative retort’, and so on. The combination of analysis and evaluation helps us reflect on our own actions and the possible consequences of those actions.

Last in this list of skills is the ability to synthesize all the previous skills to create innovative plans and solutions, think out of the box, critically examine various perspectives and come up with unique solutions to problems. This is the kind of thinking that leads to new insights, a whole new way of understanding and approaching a problem, bringing in fresh perspectives.  Hence, this requires the highest level of critical thought.


As I had promised, this has been a long post, 😊 and so far I have only talked of the ‘what’ --- what the skills making up Bloom’s Taxonomy are. Subsequent posts will talk of the ‘how’ --- how can we use these skills in teaching and in everyday life, and how to teach these skills to others --- both in the classroom as well as perhaps in our own homes and workplaces.  

Do write in with questions and clarifications. Tell me what you think about the connections I have made and keep this conversation going.  

The Elderly in Our Midst.



A few weeks ago, I had to have some dental work done. The procedure was simple enough; it involved putting a bridge across a few teeth.  The process included removing the remnants of an old tooth, putting a temporary crown over the gap, and after about two weeks, put in a permanent crown in that space.  The temporary crown was not gummed in too fast, as it will need to be removed soon, and a couple of days after it was inserted it became loose. No big deal, really, as long as it did not fall off. But the experience was quite a revelation!  It was a long crown --- covered about 4 or 5 teeth, and every time I spoke, or ate something, I could feel it shake. It was so disconcerting, that eating became a worrisome activity.  I also tried to avoid speaking too much, and those of my readers who know me will probably appreciate what an ordeal curtailing speaking was for me. During those few days, the last few months of my father’s life kept coming back to me. He was in his 89th year, with gradually failing health. One of the outcomes of ageing was that his dentures started becoming loose --- a very common phenomenon with the elderly as the jaw bone mass gradually shrinks.  Sometimes it would happen while he was in the middle of a conversation with someone, sometimes while eating.  We, the family members took it in our stride.  We sympathized with him. It was only now, with my crown becoming loose, that I realize what he was going through! Only now am I being able to empathize with him!

This is what this post is about --- the elderly in our midst. As the elders who have been the pillars of my world are ageing, as some have left us forever, this is a thought that is very much on my mind. As I watch the seniors in my family gradually change with age, a lot of what I had studied in my gerontology classes take new meaning.  Especially during the last two years of my father’s life, I spent a lot of time reading about and analysing the ageing body with him, as both of us tried to make sense of these changes. I am piecing together some of my own understandings that came out of those readings and discussions.

A book that we discussed during that time was ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande. In his book Gawande, himself a practicing surgeon, explores the processes of aging and its ultimate outcome, dying. The book is an interesting read.  The style is anecdotal, but based on research and stories from his patients, family and a range of experts in the field. A key premise of the book is that medical training teaches doctors to prolong life. It is ill equipped to handle end of life situations. He says that most medical professionals are “good at addressing specific, individual problems: colon cancer, high blood pressure, arthritic knees. Give us a disease, and we can do something about it. But give us an elderly woman with high blood pressure, arthritic knees, and various other elements besides --- an elderly woman at risk of losing the life she enjoys ---- and we hardly know what to do and often only make matters worse”.

One of the experts he talked to was Dr Felix Silverstone, a leading specialist in Geriatrics in America for five decades. When Gawande met him, Dr Silverstone was himself 87, still practicing, and adding his own personal age-related experience to his research.  “He was trying to note the changes he experienced objectively, like the geriatrician that he is. He noticed that his skin had dried out. His sense of smell was diminished. His night vision had become poor, and he tired easily. He had begun to lose teeth.”

As a person ages, several things he or she took for granted starts to diminish.  The most important are sight and hearing.  Of the two, sight is easier to fix. Wearing the right lenses makes the world a lot clearer.  Hearing, on the other hand, is a much more difficult ball game.  A lot of the hearing aids are merely amplifiers.  They amplify everything --- including the sound of the fan, the crowing of the crows, the honking of a car. For most regular people, filtering out these extraneous sounds become second nature. But with a senior person, re-learning to filter out these outside, amplified, cacophonic noises is not very easy. Hence, many tend to avoid wearing the hearing aid.  Being the intellectual that he was, my father analysed his hearing situation. He said that even after he got used to the machine in his ears, another problem prevailed.  He saw that people tend to shout at the elderly to make them hear better.  However, though he heard less, and wore a state-of-the-art hearing aid, he said his real problem was not the lack of volume. He felt that the connections that a person makes between words, which enable them to make sense of a sentence, and which is like second nature for a younger person, had slowed down for him with age. Therefore, when someone said something to him, while he was struggling to connect the first word to the second, the speaker had finished entire sentence. Hence, it was difficult for him to instantaneously piece together what the speaker was saying.  Even a two second time lag made a difference in comprehending the sentence in its entirety. The speaker, however thinks it is because of lack of hearing and says the same thing, perhaps with different words in a louder voice. Whenever someone spoke slowly and distinctly to him, he said he had no problem.  This was a great insight, something that people with non-ageing brains do not experience and hence cannot understand. And because we do not understand, we get very impatient when trying to communicate with the elderly.

Another sense that goes with age is taste. We often disregard this as it is not as visible to us. The idea of not being able to taste well does not usually occur to us, because it is so beyond our experience.  Most of us cannot even imagine a situation of tastelessness. Many older people complain about their food being insipid --- we interpret that as fussiness and wanting to get attention, rather than an age-related physical debility. My father had analysed this debility very early on. Towards the last three-four years of his life, the only taste he could get was sweet. Hence, everything he ate during those year had to have Sugarfree on it to make it appetising. He was a diabetic for more than 50 years, and had managed his diabetes in an exemplary manner --- he was very adept at avoiding any bit of sugar in anything that he ate for half a century! If there was sugar even in something savoury, like a curry, he could detect it immediately!  He felt that perhaps his taste for sweetness survived other tastes because those taste buds had hardly been used for more than half his life.  Thankfully, it was this previously unused taste that made his food palatable now.

One of the conversations Dr Gawande had with Dr Felix Silverstone was while they were eating dinner at the restaurant-like formal dining room at the retirement community that Felix and his wife lived in.  Felix’s wife had lost her vision with age; her husband had to first cut up her food into bite size pieces, then guide her hand, explaining where each item was, so that she could eat. While they were eating, she choked on her food, and Felix told her to go slow, chewing each bite well. Felix told Gawande that as a person gets older, lordosis of the spine tips the person’s head forward.  This makes swallowing difficult and choking on one’s food very common.  During the course of the dinner, Gawande could hear someone choking on their meal every minute or so. Soon after, Dr Felix Silverstone himself choked. He started coughing, and turned red. Finally, he was able to cough up the bite. It took a minute for him to catch his breath. “Didn’t follow my own advice,” he said.  Again, being able to swallow each bite is something we take for granted, while for the elderly, this mundane task may even become life threatening.

When food becomes unpalatable and the process of eating becomes prone to choking, many elderly cut down on its intake. Added to this are factors like a sluggish stomach, gastrointestinal issues and other diminished functions which lead to problems of incontinence, constipation, abdominal discomfort and other things. For most of us, just one of these problems would be enough to make us distressed, embarrassed, anxious and uneasy. And in the elderly, a whole lot of these problems come together, along with things like weak knees, aching bones, and so on!

As I studied the aged in my family and in my acquaintances’ families, what I realized was that though medical science has made leaps in prolonging life and well-being of the physical body, it has not been able to do much about the ageing mind. Perhaps because medical science does not see it as a priority. In his book, Gawande says that Dr Felix Silverstone was able to manage the physical disabilities fairly well. He switched to an electronic stethoscope to counteract his hearing loss, he took measures to keep himself healthy and fit. He was however,
most concerned about the changes in his brain. “I can’t think as clearly as I used to”, he said. “I used to be able to read the New York Times in half an hour. Now it takes me an hour and a half”.  Even then, he wasn’t sure that he understood as much as he did before, and his memory gave him trouble.  “if I go back and look at what I have read, I recognize that I went through it, but sometimes, I don’t really remember it,” he said. “It is a matter of short term registration. It’s hard to get the signal in and have it stay put.” (Atul Gawande, in Being Mortal).

My father could relate very well to this. He was a voracious reader. He was a person who always had a book by his side. He too felt his concentration decreasing with age. During the last few years, he re-organized his reading --- he did most of his heavy philosophical reading and writing in the morning, when his concentration was the highest.  Later in the day, he read lighter material, as well as watched television.  Watching television too, however was not easy.  Hearing and a loss in instant registration made comprehension a little sluggish.  But I heard him, and several other seniors say that while watching the news, the news ticker, where the headlines are repeatedly scrolled across the bottom of the screen is a useful tool to make sense of what is going on in the world.

I am only touching the tip of the iceberg here as to what happens when a person ages.  A point that Gawande makes has stayed in my mind.  He said that several very old people have told him that it is not death they fear. It is what happens before death --- losing their memory, their best friends, their way of life. Felix Silverstone put it to him as “Old age is a continuous series of losses”.

This post was predominantly about this --- how do we reach out to those among us who may at this point be losing some of their shine and lustre; who may be feeling an immense sense of loss. Perhaps it is this sense of loss that is there behind their silences, their crankiness or their apathy towards things around them.  How do we help them cope with this final stage in their lives, when they need us the most? Most of the time, we are unable to even comprehend what is going on in their minds, as it is so alien to us who are much younger.  A lot of times, we have the image of the person in their prime, and do not realize the changes that age has perhaps brought about on their minds and bodies. 

Why have I written this post on a blog on Critical Thinking? Because a key component of critical thinking is being able to change lenses and see something from someone else’s perspective. I am sure many of my readers have an elderly in their midst. By looking at their realities through their eyes may make our interactions easier and enable us to make their evening years better.

Critical Thinking is also about questioning our own actions and ideas. I know it is not always possible for a younger person to empathize about what the very old are grappling with.  But most of the time, we do not even realize that age may bring in changes, and that the elderly may themselves be struggling to make sense of these changes.  This is what this post asks us to do, to question ourselves --- are we by any chance forgetting that they are no longer in their prime? Are we perhaps overlooking the changes that their minds and bodies are going through? 

Please feel free to continue this conversation and respond with your own experiences.




The Skill of Thinking

As this is a blog on being a Critical Thinker, let me start elaborating what I mean by this term. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, I am posting one of my own articles on the topic, which was first published by The Assam Tribune, May 24 2013, titled, The Skill of Thinking.

For the last fifteen years, I have been teaching the skill of Thinking.  I can just hear you, my reader, say, “Thinking? Why do you need to teach thinking”?  Why indeed?  Thinking is an activity innate in human beings, like eating.  What is there to be taught about thinking? 

A child who instinctively knows how to eat, needs to be taught the systematics of eating --- what to eat and what not to, how to eat what, protocols of eating and so on.  Similarly, our capacity to think needs systematic honing to make us effective and productive thinkers.   

Thinking is so much a part of us, that we do it automatically.  Just as we are not aware of when we first started eating, we are also not aware of when we first started to think.  Again, just like our food habits, without our knowledge, our thinking too gets influenced by our surroundings, our culture, our authority figures, our peers, our media and our experiences. We start developing our own world view by looking at the world through the lenses provided by our societies' views, without our ever realizing it.  This is a part of what is called socialization in anthropology and sociology --- the unconscious process by which we learn our own culture.  As we get socialized into a society, we also imbibe its way of thinking, which then becomes second nature to us.  It is because of this process that anything that is alien to our way of thinking seems unimaginable.  For example, in its Edible Insect Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has been endorsing eating insects as the new environmentally friendly and nutritious weapon to fight hunger.  But how easy will it be to implement it is another question. In many world views, including ours, eating insects is disgusting. For most of us,  chomping into a grasshopper or a cricket, no matter how tasty or it is supposed to be, is unthinkable.

Everything  we think and believe comes to us through the prism of our world view. Hence anything that is outside our world view seems to be wrong, and things that come within that view seems to be the right thing to do.  Our world view also determines our perspective on things. Our thoughts, opinions, on an issue come out of our perspective on the situation. Most of the time, our perspective is so taken-for-granted and ingrained in us that we are not even aware of it.  It becomes the only real way to understand a situation. We are not even aware of how we think and the basis of the decisions that we make.

Most of the time, our thinking is uncritical; we take whatever we see and hear around us at face value, interpreted through the perspective provided by our world view.  We often act on the unconscious assumption that only one view is right.  This is not generally the case --- each view comes from a particular perspective of looking at an issue.  Each of these perspectives come out of beliefs, values, agendas and interests. We just need to look at any controversial point being debated in the media to see that each issue will have multiple perspectives on it.  However, we cannot also assume each of these views are correct.  Thinking skills provides us with the tools to critically evaluate these myriad perspectives and glean our our own balanced opinion from them.

The word critical often has a negative connotation.  In the context of thinking skills, this is not necessarily so.   A critical thinker is someone who is able to use his or her own thinking process to clarify ideas, solve problems, make informed decisions and communicate ideas.  Though we are born with the power to think, our innate thinking capability needs to be channelized into thinking reasonably, logically and systematically.  Critical Thinking, which constitute a key dimension of thinking skills, provide the techniques by which we can heighten our innate capacity to think, and sharpen the skills that we already have.  The first step in doing this is to question our own thinking, identify our world view and dig into the roots of how we know what we know.  This is a skill that is very easily taught. It enable us to identify the biases, prejudices, assumptions that any world view, including our own, can have. 

These skills are needed in whatever we do, no matter what stage of life we are at.  These skills help students study better and more efficiently, connect textbook material to the professional world, and communicate effectively.  These are skills tested in many college entrance tests. For professionals and others, these skills enable deeper analysis and understanding of facts and information as well as convey one's ideas convincingly.  This in turn brings in better  problem solving, decision making and inter-personal well being, among other things. 

Systematically organizing one's thinking is the first and most crucial step in thinking better.  This is something that can be easily taught and learned. 

Breaking the Mould

I want to start my second post with a caveat.  This is not a blog on feminism or gender equality. It is a blog on critically looking at things around us --- things that we often take for granted. I just happened to use masculinity as the topic of my first post, hence, in this post I want to continue and finish that conversation, at least for now. So please don’t switch off, thinking “there she goes talking about men and women again”. I promise you, future posts will have a range of other things.

I ended my last post with the need to break the mould, especially for boys. Thanks to feminism and feminist theories, the position of girls is very gradually getting better worldwide. It has become politically correct in many circles to advocate gender equality. The social media too is quick to pounce on anyone or anything that pulls women down. But the way gender equality is perceived is one sided. It is about enabling women to do whatever they want --- girls are encouraged to do everything boys do. However, for true equality to happen, the reverse should be happening too. This is a massive cultural change, requiring shifting of mindsets in the context of two genders.  Therefore, to be successful and fair, it will need changing socially constructed perceptions of both the genders.  This is not a one-way street.  Today, a woman is encouraged to go out and work, do what was traditionally seen as a man’s role. However, a man is not really encouraged to venture into roles conventionally occupied by women --- stay at home and look after the house if he wants to, do embroidery if he wants to, cry in front of others if he is sad.  A growing body of academics and non-academics are now beginning to strongly feel that a discourse on redefining how a woman is perceived will be incomplete without redefining masculinity and how a man is perceived. A case in point is this 2014 speech by Emma Watson at the United Nations, which went viral. 

Just this afternoon, as I was walking around a mall, I saw a couple who were openly flirting with each other. The girl was in a salwar kameez while the boy was in a pathan suit. Men and boys wearing pathan suits is not uncommon in these parts, and I hardly noticed the boy’s attire till I looked at this face.  He was young, with a small tuft of beard, and had kajal lining his eyes! For a moment, I just stared at him; then, I pulled my eyes away.  I realized I was doing exactly what I was questioning and critiquing in this post! So why can a man not wear make-up if he wants to? We are very comfortable with girls wearing pants and a shirt, a typically male attire. But if a man or a boy decides to wear a skirt, or make-up, it becomes drag, often with a derogatory connotation. My most basic explanation is that wearing trousers for a girl or a woman has the implication of going up the gender ladder --- approaching men. Wearing a skirt does the opposite for a man or a boy --- pulls him down that ladder, making him more like a woman.

I recently came upon a new term that is doing the rounds --- toxic masculinity. This is a set of ideas that says that societal expectations of adhering to traditional attributes of male behaviour --- being strong, fearless, not-showing emotion, except anger --- end up being harmful to boys as they start learning the ropes of living in society.  Especially those boys whose temperaments are against these attributes. These expectations are manifested, especially in their teenage years, through sports, aggressive behaviour with each other, doing daring acts to prove themselves, and so on. Boys who do not show these attributes often get side-lined and looked at as not quite fitting the mould. And consciously or unconsciously, we as teachers and parents help push them into these moulds whether they fit into it or not.

Stanford professor Judy Chu, in this article addresses just that. Titled Boyhood Is a Battlefield: The Dangerous Expectations of Early Masculinity, she tells the story of her own son Xander, who though above his class in many academic areas, was seen by his teacher as lacking.  He was shy and preferred to sit and watch while other boys chased each other; when asked why, he said that the boys’ games were too rough.  Since Xander’s mild manner did not match his teacher’s expectations for boys, it made her uncomfortable. Rather than question her own assumptions about what boys could and should be like, this teacher decided there was something wrong with Xander. Besides talking to his parents about his perceived inadequacies, the teacher also showed her discomfort in her interactions with Xander himself, which the sensitive boy noticed.

In my own interactions with teachers, I have seen similar concerns and ‘corrective’ efforts by teachers.  At parent teacher meetings, it is not uncommon for a teacher to show concern about a boy’s shyness while taking a girl’s shyness as nothing unusual, unless it is extreme or debilitating. Similarly, a girl’s aggressiveness could be of concern, while a boy’s aggressiveness will be seen as normal, unless it becomes disruptive. I have also interacted with parents who proudly talk about their daughters pushing the envelope, breaking boundaries.  But the same does not apply to their sons. A boy wanting to do Home Economics, for example, is often frowned upon, despite the fact that the boy may be very interested in the culinary skills or may want to go into hotel management later on, where these skills will be needed. Talking to students in the art and design institute that I teach in, it is obvious that boys have a much harder time convincing parents about their decision to do Art and Design than girls. All these parents and teachers are very sincere --- they only have the child’s welfare at heart.  In the process, however, they could be taking their son or their student away from what he really wants to do or what he is really good at.

The point I have tried to make in this post is that without our being aware of it, we all, to some extent or the other, look at the world through gendered lenses.  And though we are beginning to see girls differently, our lenses are still fixed in the context of boys. Why else did I stop in my tracks when I saw that boy in the mall wearing kajal? This, then, is the message of this post --- to be aware of these lenses that we unquestioningly use to view others, especially men or boys.  Have we as parents, grandparents, teachers, unconsciously imposed our own stereotypical perceptions on the boys who have looked up to us?  Please feel free to critique your own thinking on this and post your thoughts.


The first post .... On being a man.....

This is my first post, and I had lofty ideas of kick starting this blog with an amazing offering --- like a brilliant opening chapter of a book. Well, as I waited for the perfect idea to come by, I realized that time, and with it, motivation, was also going by.  Inspiration is at no one’s command.  Starting something is not easy. I always tell my students --- do not to worry about that first sentence and just plunge into your thoughts; just grasp thoughts in your hands while they are still babies, or else they may slip away, and quickly put them into words.  So that is what I am doing --- plunging into my blog, putting words to a range of thoughts that have jumped into my mind from listening to an author, whose novel, Americanah, I am reading at this point of time. 

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favourite writers as well as one of my favourite speakers. I use her Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, in my classes and workshops. Her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is remarkable! While I read a book, I have this habit of looking up things that I get curious about, or want further information on. For example, as I read about Nigerian food in Half of a Yellow Sun, I had to look up the recipe for jollof rice, a classic West African dish.  As I am reading about hair braiding in Americanah, I had to look up pictures of cornrows verses regular braids. That’s just me, and of course, the internet makes it so easy to satisfy my curiosity! Anyway, true to form, I had to look up talks by Adichie as I read her book, just in case there are any new ones.  In the process, I ended up re-listening to her Ted Talk We Should All Be Feminists. Mind you, though I teach feminism in my sociology classes, and do get annoyed when women are put down by men, I am not a 'militant' feminist.  My ideas of male-female relations are more complementary rather than confrontational. That is what I like about Adichie’s talk --- she urges us to also look at the other side of the story, to what boys and men go through in maintaining gender expectations. In her words, “we define masculinity in a very narrow way, masculinity becomes this hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves ….”.

I am going to bring in a bit of sociology here, and please, dear reader, do not switch off. The purpose behind this blog is to bring out connections between ideas emerging from anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, political theory, or even a combination of these into everyday conversation. As a social scientist, I have always felt very strongly that though our work comes out of studying lay people, once our writings get into the realms of academia, they become too complex. They become inaccessible to those very people who helped formulate our ideas and theories. One purpose of this blog is to bring these ideas into mainstream thinking --- to help link things that we social scientists teach, study and research about, with everyday life and behaviour.  That is what being a critical thinker is all about --- appreciating and making associations between diverse perspectives.  So please feel free to make connections with your own experiences and articulate them through your comments.

Okay, so back to masculinity. Ideals of male behaviour are so ingrained in society that we start taking them for granted; they are also almost universal. Sociologist Raewyn Connell suggests that there is not one, but many masculinities that men can be categorized into. The first in this hierarchy is what she calls hegemonic masculinity --- the dominant form of masculinity in society as a whole. Leading capitalists, macho film stars, prominent sportsmen--- anyone who gets looked up to as an ideal man would fall into this theoretical category.  Barak Obama would fit into this very well as would Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  In the Indian context, mythological heroes like Yudhisthir, Arjun, Ram, Krishna, could fall into this category. Amitabh Bachchan, Rahul Dravid, Narayan Murthy, the list goes on.

At the other end of the spectrum is what Connell calls subordinated masculinity --- those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Homosexual men, men seen as ‘mama’s boys’, men called sissys --- these are men seen to be closest to women and hence often also discriminated against and laughed at.

Most men however fall somewhere between these two categories. Connell calls this complicit masculinity --- most men do not reach the ideal status of hegemonic masculinity, but are complicit because they gain from the structures, customs and practices of male dominance existing in society. Just being male gives them advantages, so they accept these as social norms without questioning. Society sees the wife as being responsible to put meals on the family table.  Therefore, immediately after reaching home, a working mother has to see to the cooking, supervising the household help, attend to the children’s’ needs and so on, while the man can come home, put up his feet and watch television. It does not occur to most men to question why they get to sit and relax after a long day at work while their wife, who has had an equally long day, is getting the household organized, supervising the children’s homework, and so on. It is to their advantage to maintain the societal status quo, in maintaining this as the normal way to be.  Men don’t go about consciously conspiring against women. It is just that they do not see the need to question these societal norms, which makes them kings within their own worlds.

Though complicit masculinity seems to be the ideal place to be, Adichi and others have pointed out that it often puts a lot of pressure on boys and men to keep up the with the masculine ideal.  For example, being a woman, I always had a choice whether I wanted to work or not. If I had decided not to work, and just be a housewife, enjoying my husband’s income, society would not have had any problems. However, if my husband had decided to stay at home and become a ‘house-husband’ while I worked, eye-brows would have been raised. I do know several men who, given the chance, would have loved to be at home, cook, organize things around the house, be a part of each moment of their babies’ lives ---. If this sounds strange, it is probably because men have learned to mask, disguise and hide these sides of themselves --- just as women have learned to hide their ‘macho’ side.

Years ago, one of my students, a boy of class 11, decided to take aerobics for Physical Education (PE), instead of football. Though there was a choice between aerobics and football, there was an unspoken acceptance among students that football was for the boys and aerobics for the girls. The school never encouraged such a division --- it was the students who just drifted into their choices based on what their peers did, which was very based on their gender. Until this brave boy decided to change this tacit division. Though he was openly taunted by both boys and girls, he was strong enough to take it in his stride, even decided to enjoy the situation. So much so that at his urging, we had an open discussion among his classmates on gender stereotypes, where he defended his choice and stood his ground.

Not all boys, however, are that valiant. I had another student, who, though very good at academics, would not devote enough time to his studies. He was into sports, music, spending hours hanging out with friends --- a typical teenage boy.  Studying too much was what girls did, and wimps; it was not ‘cool’. He was not a hegemonic male --- though he played sports, he was not the sport icon of the school; though he was good looking, he was not the class ‘hot guy’ among girls. He was a regular boy, complicity falling into and embracing all the attributes that society conferred on boys and men. I kept telling him to put in more time into studying, that it pained me to see such an intelligent mind like his going waste, especially since the board exams were around the corner.  One day, I was pleasantly surprised to see him quietly studying in a corner of the library. When I walked up to him and congratulated him on turning a new leaf, he asked me not to tell his friends where he was, if they asked me if I had seen him. “I don’t want to jeopardize my image”, he said. We laughed about it, and I sat down in a nearby table to do my own work. A little later, his friends did find him there. “What are you doing, man?! Studying?!” I was of course pretending to read, but shamelessly eavesdropping. His immediate response was that he had several assignments that he had not turned in, and hence needed to complete them. I was stumped --- I know that all his assignments had been turned in! The friends told him to hurry up and finish and not linger over them. They saw me sitting nearby and assumed that their friend had no choice --- he was not there out of his free will, but was coerced by me into finishing his assignments.  And he kept up the pretence. After they were gone, we both looked at each other and he gave me a sheepish smile.  Since he was a sociology student, and since I cannot let go of a teaching moment, we had a chat about it later.  I brought in complicit masculinity, which was a topic we were doing in class anyway. He agreed that he was complicit. He did not want to be ridiculed by others, did not want to be a 'nerd' and hence, ‘uncool’. But his thought provoking comment stayed with me.  “It is easy being complicit” he said, “and a lot more difficult going against the grain and against popular expectations people have about you, especially your peers.” Though the situation saddened me, the teacher in me, however, rejoiced. No amount of textbook reading would have given my student such an insight into life! And over the years, I did see him occasionally stand up to his peers. 

I have given two examples of two teenage boys, one who broke away from social expectations and did aerobics --- something girls do, something closer to subordinated masculinity. But this first boy was in some ways, always different --- quiet, fond of books, a philosopher. So perhaps it was easier for him to break away. The second boy, however, was a very much a typical boy, a ‘cool dude’.  He had bought into the existing societal value system, which we all unconsciously do in some form or another, and felt the need to keep it up, even to the detriment of his studies. It is in the category of this second boy that most boys fall into and unconsciously learn to keep up with expectations, whatever those expectations may be at that point of time. Over the years, they too start seeing these expectations as the normal way to be, just as my students saw playing basket ball 'normal' for boys and aerobics for girls.

In her talk, Adichie goes on to state that if we start raising children differently, then in fifty years, a hundred years, boys will no longer have the pressure of having to prove their masculinity. By making them feel they have to be strong and hard (not wimpy and emotional), we leave them with very fragile egos. And then we do a greater disservice to girls, by raising them to cater to these fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller --- they can have ambition, but not too much. Perhaps many of us can relate to what she says.

Much more than a decade has passed since the boy who chose aerobics finished school. He is a man of the world now; but whenever we meet, we still joke about his ‘deviance’, its repercussions, and what it taught all of us about how difficult it is, especially for boys to break the mould.

Girls have already broken the mould in many aspects.  But unless we encourage boys to bravely break the mould too, we will continue doing them, and society as a whole, a disservice.

This post is just a teaser, and I will end it here --- I do not want to saddle you with a very long piece of writing. But please respond. Can you relate to any of these points? When you look at the boys and men around you, do you see some basis to what Connell or Adichie say?