The English Teacher


Major Themes


Teaching & The Power of Children:


As the title suggests, teaching is one of the main themes in this book and there is a clear contrast from the outset between the kind of artificial, mechanical, formulaic, rote-based teaching that Krishna practises at school (emphasised by his disengaged lack of preparation) and the more healthy forms of natural teaching that happen in the home: Susila learns housewifery, Krishna learns to love. The most obvious contrast, however, is between Krishna’s school and the school that Leela attends run by the Headmaster. Clearly the engagement and joy of the children here as they learn through play is meant to shame the dullness of Krishna’s Western style education system. Although Narayan stops short of fully denouncing the English education system as he does appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare and does not allow Krishna to voice argument during his resignation this is not so much because Narayan believes that the English system has merit; it probably has some, but the criticism that it is a ‘fraud’, which produced ‘a nation of morons’ is clearly harsh criticism. Instead it may be because Krishna and Narayan have realised something more profound – that the English / Indian debate is an old one and that the answer is never going to be black and white. It is more important, therefore, for a man to find his own way to ‘harmonise’ with the world and people around him.


It is also important to realise that although Krishna is technically the teacher, he is, in fact, the one who ends up learning the most throughout the novel. As such the novel provides us with a series of teaching figures that Krishna learns ranging from the obvious Headmaster, Mystic and Doctor to his family (Susila and Leela) and then on to a host of other minor characters, from each of whom Krishna learns something. Tellingly, each of these teaching figures is limited, incomplete or untrustworthy in some way as if to warn us against holding one person or one model up as ideal, implying perhaps that it is up to us to borrow what we can from the people we encounter as we find our own way through life.



Page No




Teaching literature at school involves the teacher’s ‘doubly desperate effort to wrest a meaning out of a poet and annotator’. This is not the way it should be




‘I could dawdle over the attendance for a quarter of an hour.’ ‘Four periods of continuous work and I haven’t even prepared a page of lecture.’




Krishnan’s English lesson about poetry is just about ‘split infinitives’ and not the meaning and he admits he ‘reduced’ the question ‘Man is the master of his own destiny’ to a ‘working formula for these tender creatures to handle’




Krishnan’s mother taught Susila after the marriage ‘My mother [was] ready to teach the obedient pupil her business’ and she ‘kept her in the village and honed her up in house keeping’




The study of Pride & Prejudice was a ‘non-detailed study, which meant just reading it to the boys.’




‘It was a small class and I could easily have established law and order, but I was too weary to exert myself.’ and when the cover lesson finished ‘I felt like a school boy, genuinely happy that I could go home now.’




However, Leela’s school is ‘filled with glittering alphabets’ and ‘in that narrow space he had crammed every conceivable plaything’. As such students there are ‘bundles of joy and play’, in contrast to Krishna’s students.




The Headmaster declares that children are ‘Wonderful creatures! It is wonderful how much they can see and do! I tell you, sir, live in their midst and you will want for nothing else.’ He goes on to say ‘This is the meaning of the word joy in its purest senses.’ ‘When we are qualified we can enter their life … When I watch them I get a glimpse of some purpose in creation and life’. His classrooms are also ‘For us elders to learn’ instead of the kids.’




Krishna asks ‘If they are playing when do they study?’ but the Headmaster responds that he practises ‘the game-way’ and that they learn ‘just as they play’




The students’ pieces of work are ‘the trophies of the school’ The Headmaster claim that ‘They [the children] are the real gods on Earth’




‘We are a poor country and we can do without luxuries. Why do we want anything more than a sheet and a few mats and open air?’ There is no need to ‘sell your soul to the government for the grant’




‘It is all a curse, copying, copying, copying. We could as well have been born monkeys to justify our powers of imitation.




When summoned for a story ‘The children who had been playing about, stopped, looked at him and came running in uttering shrieks of joy.’ The modern interactive lesson we observe here is revolutionary for India (and indeed England) in 1945




Children are more intense than adults. Childhood is ‘a time at which the colours of things are different, their depths greater, the magnitude greater.’ and then schooling ‘puts blinkers onto us [and] ruins this vision’. As such the Headmaster wants to ‘work off the curse of adulthood.’




Back in Krishna’s school his best student asks a question but not for the love of literature, simply ‘for the examination.’

Brown is worried that ‘The boys will ruin themselves in the public exam’ and so invents a ‘bogus’ History of Literature class that Krishna must teach. However Krishna feels that the boys ‘are being fed on literary garbage.’ He says that literature is ‘trash but we are obliged to go through nd pretend we like it.’




‘When I sat there at the threshold of his hut and watched the children, all sense of loneliness ceased to oppress.




‘I was going to attack a whole century of false education. I could no longer stuff Shakespeare and Elizabethan metre and Romantic poetry for the hundredth time into young minds and feed them on the dead mutton of literary analysis while what they need was lessons in the fullest use of the mind.’


‘This education had reduced us to a nation of morons. We were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture feeding on leavings and garbage.’


However only ‘a fool could be insensible to Shakespeare’s sonnets’




‘Education makes us cultural morons but effective clerks.’ During his resignation meeting he also dismisses Brown and ‘his Western mind, classifying, labeling, departmentalizing.’ when Brown assumes you need primary school training to work with young children




Education is ‘a fraud’