The Dark Side of ‘Guru-Shishya Parampara’ in Flying

In the late 80s, a young naval lieutenant was trying to teach math to a class full of naval cadets. He was a training officer – a “teacher” for us; but he had no “class control”, neither could he communicate lessons any better than a piece of brick. Perhaps, he had no business being an instructor in the first place. A keen (but mischievous) cadet flummoxed him with questions he couldn’t field answers to. When the humdrum session started getting disorderly, the young trainer summoned the “upstart” cadet to the dais and issued an ultimatum: “you wanted answer, eh? Here’s the answer”.

A resounding slap to the cadet’s cheek followed, sending pigeons in Vashistha Block of INS Mandovi fluttering. The young cadet withstood the physical assault and stoically walked back to his bench, grinding his teeth, eyes welling up with tears. The rest of the class was easy — for the instructor. He had set an ‘example’.

I draw inspiration to write this blog from an exceptional article penned by Carnatic singer and musician TM Krishna where, in his usual incisive and irreverent manner, he questions the “guru-shishya parampara” (teacher-student tradition — a sacred relationship). He pulls the veil on a “patriarchal and medieval mindset” that besets this system of learning in Hindustani and Carnatic music. I found many areas of overlap between Krishna’s case about music and my personal experiences as a student, pilot, instructor, and spouse to a passionate teacher.

Central to Krishna’s argument is a system rooted in “power imbalance” between teacher and student that lends itself to abuse. “A system cannot be evaluated based on personal experiences. What must be determined is whether the system — its core structure — is safe, respectful, and non-abusive of students”, Krishna writes. For me to then argue my case based on personal experience may seem a travesty. But then arises another set of questions: Who made this system? What are the safeguards? Is the system aligned in favour of instructor or student? How has it evolved over the years? Are we better or worse off than yesteryears?

In answering these questions, I restrict myself to wisdom gained from two domains — one through which i have passed, and another borrowed from a person with whom I have shared the better part of my life. My wife teaches English literature at a 154-year old convent straddling a difficult space between “old school” and “modernism”.

When we started our lives together, a junior-school teacher in the neighbourhood famously boasted to us her teaching technique: “roko; toko; thokho” (Hindi for ‘correct, scold, hit’ — an escalatory ‘method’ of teaching she honed over the years). I found it amusing but never delved into the full import of that phrase until I came across TM Krishna’s latest article.

Now, flying is both art and science. Teaching flying is definitely an “art” that borrows richly from science. When a student (called ‘pupil’ in flying training) turns up at the gates of a military flying academy, he or she is, in most cases, a teenager. The passport to a career in flying lies in the hands of a person designated as “instructor“. There are many kinds of instructors, just as there are many type of pupils. Some have their hearts in the job; some see this merely as a job; some see teaching as the best form of learning; some see it as “career progression”; some get high on the “power” this qualification bestows upon them; some never deserved to hold that qualification in the first place. In the journey from ab-initio to “fully-ops captain”, an aviator may likely deal with the full spectrum.

Flying is both art and science. Teaching flying is an “art” that borrows richly from science

I am happy to have passed through the hands of some of the most gifted teachers. I have seen some exceptions too. I was also (reportedly) a good “pupil”. That metric is what Krishna seeks to exclude from the debate — and rightfully so. There are no “good students” or “bad students”; only bad teachers. Passing off a lack of instructional acumen on teacher’s part as a failing of the student is one of the worst forms of abuse. It is also the most common. An acute symptom of this malaise is the inability to deal with a questioning mind — what the services famously label as “doubtful character” or “attitudinal deficiency”.

There are no “good students” or “bad students”; only bad teachers

Thankfully, I never got “abused” in flying training. I know many who did. Hard as it must sound, there was the odd instructor who would insult, intimidate, use verbal or physical assault, even descend to personal attacks. Though such ‘teachers’ were a minority, it was enough to strike terror in the minds of fledgling aviators. Such power could then be used to intimidate, or, in the extreme, violate the dignity of a pupil. It’s a fine line between getting your “wings” or getting a return ticket home. Replace “wings” with an educational ‘degree’ in the civvy street and nothing changes. Who will call out people against such daunting odds?

Few years after I graduated from Air Force Academy (AFA) as a young lieutenant, I was deputed as liaison officer to a visiting IAF Commander-in-Chief (who had commanded AFA earlier). The senior air warrior’s daunting persona and “Abhinandan moustache” hid between his broad shoulders a heart set in the right place. As we travelled from airport to his VIP quarters in the flag car he asked me some pointed questions: “what do you think about training at AFA? Do instructors hit pupils? Is this abominal practice still prevalent? Have you ever experienced it?” It was 1997.

I smiled graciously and replied, “Sir, we were officers when we trained at AFA. I don’t recollect any such incident. Perhaps the flight cadets would know better”. The air marshal went on to explain numerous steps air force had taken to nip the malaise and how QFIs who resort to such methods should find no place in flying training.

It is 2020. I am sure teaching and training today is far more streamlined, technical and free of verbal/physical abuse. If not, it is upon us to call it out. I failed in my duty to report to the air marshal blatant instances where flight cadets returned with blood clots on their upper arms or black eyes; I failed in my duty when I did not report a slap I took in the Navac classroom; I failed in my duty when I did not report another incident in the academy where an insecure ‘trainer’ threw me off my study table with a totally unprovoked physical assault for reasons I can only attribute to his lack of “fitness for purpose”; maybe even lack of character.

Every walk of life has teacher and student

Every walk of life has teacher and student. It’s not restricted to the domain TM Krishna highlighted. That makes it even more important to identify, report, and cull instances of abuse in this sacred relationship. If it happened in hallowed institutions like Naval Academy, NDA and AFA, what are the chances it won’t be rampant in academia, study of music or pursuit of art?

The services have, over the years, dealt with this malaise with an iron fist. The educational system has also seen reforms. Today, most students and trainees know their rights before they own up their responsibilities. Corporal punishment is proscribed. For good or bad, that’s how the system has evolved in fits and starts. Whether this will produce warriors, scholars or wimps is a debate for another day. But when we romanticise abuse in instructor-pupil relationship — either through sepia-tinted “in my time” glasses, or by playing silent spectator — we unwittingly set up more victims for the trap.

In the end, only a person who endured physical, mental or sexual abuse under the “guru-shishya parampara” can really judge what this does to build character, make better musicians, pilots, researchers, or whatever. It is certainly not above question.

I totally echo TM Krishna’s attempt to take this bull by the horns. We all should. Patriarchy, condescension, arrogance — indeed any form of intimidation in the name of teaching — has no place in “guru-shishya parampara“.

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views are personal.

8 thoughts on “The Dark Side of ‘Guru-Shishya Parampara’ in Flying

  1. Hornets Nest KP. A very balanced approach to the murkiest of topics in aviation in general and Military Aviation in particular.

  2. Sir,
    I hope contemporary environment is aligned with “Corporal punishment is proscribed” statement. Nevertheless, in personal cross section, it is still infrequent to find attitude for knowledge transfer and wisdom sharing.

    But for a few who keep it alive, it would be a dead, boring world. 🙂

  3. Optimistically training relationship has no more manhandling or verbal abuse. The rules are strictly enforced with harsh punishment. Has this improved the trainer and trainee relationship and the general standard of training. Hope the answer is yes in Armed Forces. KPS very well articulated.

  4. Humbled with you honesty in accepting your failure to inform a senior officer. But it is the same trait needs to be avoided while in Service.
    Honesty of purpose and better means of communication and articulation need to be learned by future leaders.

  5. The opening paragraph is something i totally relate to, having been at the receiving end many a time at NavAc. Many a time it was uncalled for. But at the same time, the cane/ hand was used with good intentions which ensured a wavering youngster got his bearings straightened. Whether this is still good or bad, i think the jury will remain out on this one, especially for the military, where we need men and not boys who claim their democratic rights at every step. “ We re here to preserve democracy not follow it” – Crimson Tide.

  6. The moment you abuse someone verbally or physically you’ve closed off all possibilities for teaching and learning for the rest of that lesson. …may be even for the rest of the month or longer.

  7. You nailed it, Sanjeev. And I’m talking from first hand experience. And extremely bitter experience at that. This certain “gentleman” battered my confidence permanantly to the extent that I went home one afternoon with blood clots on my upper arm, torn lips and swollen knuckles. The last of these from incessant rapping of my R hand on the centre throttle of the Kiran. “After Landing Checks” were focused on trying to straighten that skewed throttle lever. ABSOLUTELY AND UTTERLY disgusting demeanour for an “instructor”.

  8. I have an observation due to . Aviation training being a retired ‘ Naviator ‘ classical music due some interaction with semi famous musicians . Most service instructors will be happy when their students surpass them . In the art field they would rather keep the student down.

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