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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Why it is important for classrooms to learn to transgress

Education cannot —and must not – be delinked from politics and its contestations

Written by Usha Subramanian |
Updated: March 4, 2021 8:51:33 am
Students at DPS Ruby Park in Kasba (Express photo by Partha Paul)

This is not a riposte but a sequel to the timely plea by Avijit Pathak, professor of sociology at JNU, for Indian classrooms “to rediscover meanings of ‘disobedience’ and ‘nationalism’” in the classroom (‘Where the student is without fear’, February 27, IE). In 1995, a friend had gifted me Bell Hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. My response then, as a lecturer in a leading Bombay college, was that teachers have to “learn to transgress” before they can teach their students to do so. And this was a time when a colleague of mine told me, “We may not draw fat salaries like in the corporate world, but I would not trade for anything the total freedom we have within the four walls of our classroom.” Not many of us exercised this freedom, though, or encouraged our students to question, dispute, disagree.

Is it surprising, then, that today’s classrooms are in dire need of a “qualitative transformation” that will bring them to life and regenerate democracy? At least, earlier, teachers could, if they wished, ensure such a classroom ambience. Today, both student and teacher risk being marched off for seditious activities. Dissent and protest have become four-letter words.

The “safe” pedagogy being encouraged includes, as Pathak points out, “depoliticising” education and not “relating the classroom to the world out there.” As a professor of English literature, I wondered how on earth such delinking would be possible in a subject that reflects, expounds, comments on — and even distorts for artistic purposes — “the world out there”?

Just three examples should suffice to reveal the contemporaneity of old texts and expose the unreasonableness — indeed, the impossibility — of such depoliticisation.

Here’s a critical comparison of Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar as depicted in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.The one is a flawed statesman loved by his men, unafraid to accept his own weaknesses, while the other is unscrupulous, ruthless, cold, calculating, highly political. Was the victor Caesar an ideal prince or a tyrant who fuelled the fires of civil war to further his own ambitions? And what about the easily (mis-)led, fickle Roman mob? How can anyone teach this play without seeking to place it in the present global/national contexts? Would that be punishable criticism of The Leader?

The play is also about the othering of anyone who is “different”, “not like us”, even if the other sets out being benevolent and seeks acceptance. The enormous cost of non-conformity and the demonisation of the other is stressed in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, a novel that rings more true to our times than to the author’s own. One question that came up constantly while discussing the book was: Who is the real monster here? The scientist or his much-vilified creation? The class came alive when students heatedly debated this issue and the injustice of othering whole communities. The sympathy for the monster was striking.

If “the most patriotic thing a creative artist can do is challenge people to see their country as it is”, the most libertarian thing a teacher can do is to permit her students to challenge her and the artist, and express their own views. The view cited here is novelist Aravind Adiga’s, whose work often portrays the intersection of caste, class and religion in India.

One of his characters raises a question and answers it too: “You know what the biggest difference is between being rich and being like us? The rich can make mistakes again and again. We make only one mistake, and that’s it for us” (Between the Assassinations). There’s no dearth of illustrations in today’s unequal world to bear out this comment.

How “safely” can one discuss such works? How effectively can one make them anodyne? Why should we even attempt to do so?

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 4, 2021 under the title ‘Teach them to transgress’. The writer is a Mumbai-based academic

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