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In classrooms, we need to rediscover meanings of ‘disobedience’, ‘nationalism’

As teachers, many of us become overly cautious so that every word we utter in our classrooms becomes "technically perfect", "legally sanctified", and is in tune with the dominant ideology of nationhood.

Written by Avijit Pathak |
Updated: February 27, 2021 8:53:14 am
Society decays if our classrooms are dead (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Amid the tsunami of FIRs and sedition charges, it is not easy to cherish the spirit of critical enquiry and transform our classrooms into truly dialogic spaces that encourage young minds to think and feel intensely, raise new questions, experiment with truth, and even interrogate the dominant common sense of the age. Instead, the all-pervading fear — that of being castigated as a “conspirator” with “anti-national” motives — tends to paralyse us.

As teachers, many of us become overly cautious so that every word we utter in our classrooms becomes “technically perfect”, “legally sanctified”, and is in tune with the dominant ideology of nationhood. As even a tweet by a climate activist unsettles the mighty government, and the ever-expanding technologies of surveillance surround our existence, the idea of a living/vibrant classroom with the spirit of learning and unlearning, or creatively nuanced critical pedagogy might look like a distant dream. Yes, the message that is conveyed to us through the coercive as well as the ideological apparatus of the state is clear: Be safe, keep consuming the heavy dose of hyper-nationalism, don’t forget that conformity is the ultimate virtue, and a mind that questions is dangerous!

To begin with, as a teacher, let me explore what it means to be “safe”. Possibly, it implies three things. First, don’t demand anything higher/nobler from your vocation; see yourself primarily as a “paid professional” — not fundamentally different from a bank accountant or a factory worker, complete the official syllabus, report to the higher authorities, and be “loyal”. Second, don’t bring the fire of sensitivity, reflexivity or inner churning in your classroom; instead, reduce education into a form of bookish knowledge, see it as just a job-oriented “skill”, or at best equate one’s merit with detached intellectual gymnastics. And third, depoliticise education; don’t relate the classroom to the world out there. Well, you may refer to Marx, Gandhi and Ambedkar as a “course material”; but do not utter a single word about, say, the farmers’ protest, rising authoritarianism, militarism, narcissism and growing communalisation of our society. In other words, be a “good performer”; keep pretending that everything around you is normal, and hence, don’t encourage the likes of Disha Ravi or Safoora Zargar in your classroom. Instead, cooperate with the cops, and send them to prisons!

Yet, in the age of darkness, it is also important to strive for the light that illumines our consciousness. And at the finest moment of inspiration, a teacher who is not yet spiritually dead, I assume, would like to believe that education is essentially about awakened intelligence (not instrumental reasoning), sensitivity to life and the world, and emancipatory consciousness. This is possible only when we cultivate the art of listening, the urge to question, the ethics of care and the unity of theory and practice.

It is in this context that in our classrooms we need to continually rediscover the meanings of “disobedience”, “nationalism” and “studentship”. Blind obedience, as Gandhi demonstrated through his politico-ethical practice, is not a virtue; instead, non-cooperation with evil forces, or satyagraha as an art of resistance reveals our real courage. Hence, if a young student interrogates the rapid use of CCTV cameras in hostels and classrooms, she is not doing anything morally wrong; instead, she is questioning the culture of surveillance, and articulating the need for evolving a socio-cultural milieu based on trust, freedom and inner discipline. Well, in the eyes of an authoritarian vice-chancellor or a college principal, she is “disobedient” or someone to be punished; but then, in the eyes of a sensitive teacher, she is a possibility — a dreamer whose time has come.

Likewise, think of a student who sees hyper-nationalism as some sort of menace, argues that a toxic culture filled with the over-production of conspiracy theories cannot be justified in the name of majoritarian nationalism, and after all, there is something higher to strive for as the spirit of love and compassion transcends all borders and boundaries. A teacher must assure her that she is not a criminal. She should not be ridiculed as what the prime minister regarded as “andolan jeevi”. Instead, unlike those who have reduced nationalism into some sort of war against fellow citizens, she is our lost conscience. Possibly, she is the one who has truly taken Tagore’s essays on nationalism seriously.

A good student is not the one who writes “technically perfect” answers, gets good grades and pleases the corporate employers. Is it possible for a teacher to reaffirm that a good student is one who is not afraid of her creative rebelliousness because to love is to say “no” to what is ugly and violent — be it communal hatred, corporate loot and environmentally destructive “development” mantra? See the irony of our times. While coaching centres assure instant success, fancy schools manufacture the brigade of “toppers”. And with increasing commodification of education, a student becomes a consumer, and a teacher is just a “service provider”.

Furthermore, our public universities have been destroyed systematically. It is almost impossible to find even the slightest trace of Tagore’s poetic universalism in Shantiniketan; and in recent times, the Jawaharlal Nehru University has been severely wounded. Yes, it is really sad if ideals collapse, utopias disappear, spineless celebrities are our role models, and noisy/”nationalist” television anchors become our ultimate educators. This must change.

For this qualitative transformation, it is important to try our best to renew the spirit of libertarian education. Society decays if our classrooms are dead; democracy degenerates into authoritarianism if our universities cease to nurture young minds that question the pathology of power; and we would lose the very meaning of living if the psychology of fear is allowed to rob us of our ultimate treasure — our conscience.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 27, 2021 under the title ‘Where the student is without fear’. The writer is Professor of Sociology at JNU.

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