Dunbar’s magic number and my sense of guilt!
Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist and psychologist, whose research found that the maximum number of people a person can have in a very well knit network of friends and acquaintances does not exceed 150. He claims that this is universally true. He must be legitimate in his enunciation since it is based on scientific conclusions.
However, politicians may not take his postulates seriously and may stake a claim that they have known thousands of people. Be it as it may, because politicians are a different breed. They can afford to go back on their claims any number of times. As soon as they spot a person looking towards them with flattering eyes, they have a reason to believe that here is a fan, an admirer. So he is admitted to the list of friends regardless of the ability to recognise him at the next encounter.
Mine is a different predicament as is faced by my whole clan of teachers. In a span of thirty-five odd years of professional career, a teacher comes across at least ten thousand pupils. These can be graded into annual batches. There can be another classification on the basis of their academic brilliance, their performance in sports or cultural events, their disciplined temperament or their mischievous behavior. Those who excel in something good or bad do standout are remembered for years.
However, that is only from the perspective of the teacher. If we talk of the other side of the fence, there are reasons to believe that you touch the lives of many who keep you unforgettably in their minds. A teacher may have forgotten a face so well known and repeatedly seen everyday twenty years ago, but the pupil makes no such mistake of identity. A pupil remembers every minute detail of his teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. He carries an indelible imprint of the teacher’s personality, sometimes without the teacher knowing anything about it.
Now, my sense of guilt comes to the fore when someone in an unexpected place or situation comes up to bow and pay his regards. I am in a tight spot when I have to reciprocate the warmth, but have to hide my ignorance about the credentials of the other party.
Of course, it can be assumed that he /she must have been a student of mine at some stage. Yet, all my craft fails to do justice to the warmth emanating from the person standing opposite. In a circumlocutory manner, I try to make a beginning by asking where he/ she happens to be.
Still, that is a poor recompense for my failure to strike an intimate cord with my interlocutor and I feel sorry for myself.
I take pride in the fact that during my career, in the classroom or on the campus, I never tried to identify my students by their roll numbers. I knew and addressed them by name and I always relished this practice and derived legitimate benefit out of it. However, human memory has its limitations and when someone doesn’t meet you for a number of years there is a reason to fail in identifying a face and recalling a name. That is my moment of painful embarrassment.
I taught in colleges for thirty-seven years and retired from my job twelve years ago ,yet I can legitimately claim that I can recall and identify at least 500 of my old students at once as I face them. However, now and then, comes up a face that never got indelibly registered …and I feel defeated in my usual skill. In such situations, Robin Dunbar’s magic number of 150 comes as a solace and I try to excuse myself! Anyway, every man has his moments of embarrassment and so do I!
(The author is a Retired Principal Government College, Hoshiarpur (Punjab)