Avijit Pathak’s article on JNU (‘Healing a campus’, IE, February 18) challenged my assumptions, forced me to do some soul-searching and reflect on my own positioning as a university teacher and researcher. Three reasons compelled me to respond to it. One, the author has been a teacher and a scholar at the university that he talks about — Jawaharlal Nehru University — for 31 years. Two, Pathak should be saluted for boldly presenting his views on multiple issues across different spaces, without taking sides in a politically-volatile environment. The third reason has to do with exploring the realms of possibilities in a world full of cynicism. This is a challenging proposition because it involves taking positions on social issues that are often framed in mutually exclusive binaries.
In recent years, JNU has received much flak. The university has been accused of nurturing the “tukde tukde gang” and promoting anti-national ideas. Pathak humanises the institution and describes it as being wounded. The university requires healing, he says. The article has been written in the context of the appointment of the new vice-chancellor of the university, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, who, because of her ideological leanings, has become the object of ridicule and contempt. Pathak bestows faith in her leadership and urges her to start the process of healing JNU.
This appeal might seem naïve, even preposterous, to some. But it is also true that life bereft of hope, optimism and faith is hardly worth living. This reminds me of the work of Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Once a woman regarded as illiterate in accordance with the conventional standards of literacy responded to a question posed by the educator: “If all human beings were to die but all other beings like animals, plants, mountains, rivers were to remain alive, then the world would cease to exist because there will be no one to say that this is the world”. In other words, the world does not have an independent existence but defines our social reality depending on the way we look at it.
I am a sociologist of education by training and consider my primary job as that of examining educational problems in their context rather than trying to find solutions. Interestingly, however, most of my students are enthusiastic practitioners who are disillusioned with the existing education system and want to contribute towards improving it. In contrast to the attitude of these students, many of us – perhaps smug with our intellectual prowess — take much pride in presenting multilayered and nuanced analyses. In the process, we probably dampen the spirits and thwart the hopes of our youth, and prevent them from dreaming.
By and large, our school education system with its emphasis on rote learning and year-end examinations also leads to the scuttling of hope. It perhaps trains students to be realistic, rather than become optimistic. In most schools, in the name of discipline, the culture of “pin-drop silence, finger on your lips” is cherished. An overwhelming number of such students tread the conservative path. Only a few universities like JNU allow students to appreciate diversity without fear. But the best of universities typically prioritise the skill of critiquing over appreciating. It is also true that the gap between academics and practitioners seems to be growing wider. While academics are accused of mystifying reality and being too theoretical and abstract, practitioners are accused of ignoring the principles of equity and social justice. Freire worked for most of his life with oppressed societies where the dispossessed did not even have access to basic rights such as land, water and housing. Yet, he was hopeful and proposed a problem-posing pedagogy that he counterposed to the traditional concept of education — he described such education as a banking model. The Brazilian educationist believed that eventually, boundaries between oppressor and oppressed will be dissolved and the new pedagogy will help both of them in becoming human, realising their true nature.
While it’s important to critique, take positions in life, call spade a spade, it is probably more important to not lose faith in humanity. Violence, whether verbal or physical, should be shunned and efforts made to resolve differences. Equally important is to dialogue with people who have different points of view, bring back hope in our lives, revive our dreams, reinstate faith in ourselves, make Freirian praxis (reflective action) a part of our lives and continue to have unwavering faith in humanity — like Pathak.
This column first appeared in the print edition on February 28, 2022 under the title ‘Pedagogy of empathy’. The writer teaches in the School of Education, TISS Mumbai and is a former student of JNU