Teacher abuse

Historically, it has been acceptable, indeed desirable, for the teacher to abuse students. Our epics are full of stories where the teacher plays elusive, challenging students to “prove themselves worthy” before being imparted learnings.

The most famous example, of course, comes from the Hindu myth story of Ekalavya who gave a finger to his non-teaching Guru Dronacharya. Elsewhere in the Mahabharata, we had Parashurama cursing his student Karna after discovering that the latter was not a Brahmin.

It is not just Hindu mythology that has such stories (just that I’m most familiar with this). In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, for example, Pai Mei abuses his pupils, making them carry water up the hill and serve him otherwise until he teaches them the five point exploding heart technique. He drives his students to such a rage that one of them (Elle Driver) ends up killing him.

And this privileged attitude of the teacher (“acharya devo bhava“) extends to modern universities as well. It is common for advisors to endlessly push graduate students before they permit them to graduate, or to take credit for graduate students’ work (check out PhD comics.). In IIT Madras, where I did my undergrad, it is reportedly common for professors to endlessly flunk students who have pissed them off (I played it safe, so no first hand experience in this). Schoolteachers hand out corporal punishment, which is only recently making its exit from the classroom.

As part of my portfolio life over the last seven years, I’ve done several teaching jobs. I’ve taught at IIM Bangalore as an Adjunct Professor. I’ve conducted Data Journalism workshops for journalists and PR executives. I’ve done corporate training workshops.

In the initial days, I would sometimes act like a “typical teacher”, getting annoyed with students with this or that, or abusing my position of privilege in the classroom. Over time, though, I’ve come to see my students as clients – after all, they’re paying me (directly or indirectly) to teach them. And I’ve come to understand that they need to be treated like I treat my other clients – with respect.

If the fact that students are teachers’ clients is this intuitive, why is it that teachers everywhere (both in history and contemporarily) have found it acceptable to abuse students? Is it because teachers are sometimes able to hide behind the brands of sought-after schools and universities? Is it due to the concept of tenure, where professors are recruited for research prowess, and student feedback doesn’t really matter?

Or is it just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Once upon a time, teachers were scarce, and could hence put up their price, and chose to extract it not in cash but in other means. And so the image of “teacher is god” got formed, and perpetuated since most students decided to adhere to it (at least when the teacher is around). To add to this, over time we’ve created institutions such as university rankings which continue to push up artificial scarcity of teachers.

Do you have any idea on why teachers abuse their clients?