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Philosophy Begins In Wonder

Philosophy begins in wonder, they say. But they also say that curiosity, as a mirror image of wonder, is an intellectual pursuit. I had read this in a bite-sized philosophy book some years ago. This had convinced me that human enquiry was neither silly nor irrelevant. It was either a preliminary quest or mature enquiry but this is not how every one thought; something I learned with experience.

My teaching experience unfolded many questions. One such question was: Hey ma’am, I have a silly question to ask: what is a devolved legislature?”

Silly how I asked myself? It was pretty much relevant for a lecturer in the British Constitution. And perhaps an informed question for non-academics. So let me ask you: How silly do you think this question is? If you are a layperson, you may not even have a tad bit clue of what this is. Then, is it not a point of wonder to ask why the person felt it was a silly question? Probably the person felt this way because he/she thought they were asking an expert a basic question. Or they felt it was inappropriate to ask a basic question when others understood its meaning.

As a teacher, it is my duty to answer any question that will foster an understanding of the student

As someone with teaching experience of four years, I think it is the latter fear that led the student to feel that he/she had asked a silly question. As a teacher, it is my duty, above the narrow duties laid down in Punjab Free and Compulsory Education Act 2014, to answer any question that will foster the understanding of the student. Any answer is silly if it does not make sense to the student or fails to clear the understanding of a student. It is this disturbing division between silly and smart questions, which has hurdled the learning of the students of our nation. With immense regret, it is noted, let alone a few exemplary teachers, that the vast majority of teachers tend to block students from exercising their dialectics by categorising their wonder and curiosity into silly and smart questions. From my teaching experience, a silly question is a repeat question that begs an answer from a professional. Yet, it is far from clear what a smart question is. The common perception is a smart question is one that nobody else in the classroom had thought about. Or one that had made the teacher think before they could answer. Regrettably in our educational institutions, the instructor utilises the silly/smart card either when they are unsure about the answer or when they have not listened to the question properly. Remorsefully, this way of assessing the smartness of a question has made only a few students take part in a class. And it has also made them feel bad about their thinking process. Students categorised as asking silly questions lose confidence in their thinking patterns and feel ashamed about their curiosity. It is exactly this feeling of shame that Plato was possibly guarding against when he called philosophy a wonder. He wanted his students to enquire without discriminating between silly and smart questions.

It is, therefore, urged, that it should be made one of the positive duties of teachers to listen to their students with full attention and handle their questions which they think are irrelevant with care so that their confidence in asking questions is not lost. Taking just a crude example here, if a student put up his/her hand in class for contribution and said that the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 is pathetic. As an instructor, if you felt uncomfortable with this statement and wanted to put forward your disagreement, a good way would be to give a logical rejoinder rather than using harsh responses such as how much did you study the Constitution to be saying that!

An effective response would be to say that like everything in the world, the Constitution of Pakistan has pros and cons. And one of its greatest demerits is its unenforceability of Article 6, which prescribes execution as the penalty for its abrogation of Constitution. But if the enforceability gap is bridged, there are 24 fundamental rights from which citizens can take benefit.

As we all know, it takes two to tango. Likewise, it takes teachers and students alike to make education interesting, interactive and learning-oriented. Just like teachers, students also have positive duties. It is one of their positive duties to come having read to classes and ask informed questions in a way that they are not misunderstood as someone who is derailing the teacher. They need to accept that teachers, too, are human beings with limitations and they overcome their limitations through teaching. To give you an example from a renowned UK-based Queen Mary University Professor, Wayne Morrison, it is the mark of an intellectual mind to accept shortage of information on a point rather than indulge in replying in idiosyncrasy. In a class full of students, Professor Morrison had once been asked how did Kelsen’s pure theory of law handle those officials who had failed to punish citizens for their delicts. He took a minute-long pause and responded, “I am afraid I had not given it consideration from this dimension and I will address you once I have worked out the answer.”

It is precisely this type of honest response, required of our teachers. But it needs to be remembered that this is only possible if students do not make their wonder an attack on the credentials of teachers. So, the adage “philosophy begins in wonder” teaches teachers honesty while being dutiful and curious and teaches students patience while being respectful and curious.

The writer is a permanent teaching faculty at ‘Pakistan College of law’


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