Written by Jyothi S
When his students came forward to celebrate Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday after he became the president of India, he politely declined and said, ‘If you want to celebrate, please do it as Teachers’ Day”. Although Radhakrishnan held the highest post in the state, teaching remained his first priority.
Radhakrishnan began his teaching career at the Madras Presidency College, where he developed his ideas in philosophy through interaction with his students. What is not well-known is that he played an important role in informing non-Bengali readers about the works and worldview of Rabindranath Tagore. His 1918 work, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore was a seminal contribution in this respect. After the Madras Presidency College, Radhakrishnan taught at the Mysore University, University of Calcutta, Oxford University and University of Chicago.
His appointment as the president of India was hailed by the renowned British philosopher Bertrand Russell who said that this was Plato’s dream come true. The Greek thinker had said that, “Until philosophers are kings or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy and political greatness met in one, cities will never have rest from their evils”.
One of Radhakrishnan’s prominent interventions in public life, before he became the vice-president, was to suggest improvements in the country’s university system. The Radhakrishnan Commission Report was independent India’s first evaluation of the university system.
Re-inventing the role of the teacher, in the spirit of the educator-stateman’s vision, has been a constant imperative — though not always appreciated. On Teachers’ Day, it is time to review the current state and public perception of the teacher’s perception. It has deviated badly from Radhakrishnan’s vision The corruption in this sector, role of money in teacher recruitment, promotion, transfer and research supervisors accepting favours from scholars would have shocked the educator statesman.
In a rapidly-changing world, a teacher must keep updating her knowledge. In these times of information glut, students often enter classrooms with more information on a topic than teachers. With Google becoming an easily available “guru”, should the teacher be just a disseminator of information? As French essayist Joseph Joubert puts it, “To teach is to learn twice over.” So, the teaching process is an opportunity for the teacher to re-learn with her students. Thus, a good teacher will remain a life-long student.
But there is another facet of modern-day life that demands the teacher’s intervention. In a world of excessive unprocessed information, there is very often a thin line between truth and fake news. That can muddle impressionable minds. Here lies the responsibility of the teacher. The poet Robert Frost had once said, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has added to the teacher’s challenges. The online mode of instruction asks questions of both the teachers and students. India’s digital deficit has exacerbated educational equalities on the one hand and on the other hand, there is talk of online instruction becoming a part of the educational milieu in times to come. The teacher has to grapple with such contradictions and also guide students as they navigate these trying times. Bill Gates’ statement about technology replacing the traditional classroom is reassuring: “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids to work together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important factor.” Radhakrishnan had put it aptly, “True teachers are those who help us think for ourselves”.
For that to happen, teachers have to constantly update their skills and knowledge base.
The writer is assistant professor of English, Tumkur University