Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. — Kahlil Gibran
Is it possible for a society obsessed with brute power, stimulant nationalism and market-driven instrumental rationality to appreciate and nurture the vocation of teaching — its deep vision and creative surplus? Or, for that matter, is it possible for a society that tends to equate education primarily with the acquisition of some sort of knowledge capsules for material success to acknowledge the fact that teachers are not supposed to sell education as a “product”? When coaching centre “gurus” occupy the mental landscape of our youngsters and their anxiety-ridden parents, and the cancerous growth of fancy education shops promotes the crude discourse of utilitarian education, is it possible to see teachers as healers, communicators and wanderers? Even though on special occasions like Teacher’s Day we say all sorts of noble words about the vocation of teaching, and some teachers are awarded by the State, the fact is that as a society we are not very serious about the role of teachers as the messengers of emancipatory education.
To begin with, let us dare to be “impractical” and imagine what the vocation of teaching ought to be. Well, we might find amid ourselves a spectrum of “knowledgeable” people — experts and specialists. But then, a teacher is not just a subject expert. She teaches not merely quantum physics or medieval history; she does something more. She walks with her students as a co-traveller; she touches their souls; and as a catalyst, she helps the young learner to understand his/her uniqueness and innate possibilities. She is not a machine that merely repeats the dictates of the official curriculum; nor is she an agent of surveillance — disciplining, punishing, hierarchising and normalising her students through the ritualisation of examinations and grading. Instead, she is creative and reflexive; and it is through the nuanced art of relatedness that she activates the learner’s faith that he is unique, he need not be like someone else, he must look at the process of his inner flowering, and the artificially constructed binary of “success” and “failure” must be abandoned.
There is another important thing a teacher ought to take care of. She must realise that there are limits to teaching and sermonising; and she is not supposed to fill the mind of the learner with a heavy baggage of bookish knowledge. Instead, her primary task is to help the learner to sharpen the power of observation, the ability to think and reflect, the aesthetic sensibility, and above all, the spiritual urge to experience the glimpses of the Infinite. In other words, once these faculties are developed, one becomes a life-long learner — beyond degrees and diplomas. In fact, teaching as an act of communion, and studentship as a project of the integral development of the physical, vital, intellectual and psychic states of being, can create the ground for emancipatory education. And emancipatory education is not a mere act of “skill learning”; nor is it pure intellectualism with academic specialisation.
As a matter of fact, emancipatory education is the willingness to live meaningfully, creatively and gracefully. It is the ability to identify and debunk diverse ideologies and practices of domination and seduction — say, the cult of narcissistic personalities that reduces democracy to a ritualistic act of “electing” one’s masters, the doctrine of militaristic nationalism that manufactures the mass psychology of fear and hatred, or the neoliberal idea that to be “smart” is to be a hyper-competitive consumer driven by the promises of instant gratification through the ceaseless consumption of all sorts of material and symbolic goods. And a teacher ought to be seen as the carrier of this sort of emancipatory education that inspires the young learner to question sexism, racism, casteism, ecologically destructive developmentalism, hollow consumerism, and the life-killing practice of “productivity” that transforms potentially creative beings into mere “resources”, or spiritually impoverished and alienated robotic performers.
Yet, the irony is that we do not desire to create an environment that promotes emancipatory education, and nurtures the true spirit of the vocation of teaching. Look at the state of an average school in the country. With rote learning, poor teacher-taught ratio, pathetic infrastructure, chaotic classrooms and demotivated teachers, it is not possible to expect even the slightest trace of intellectually stimulating and ethically churning education. It is sad that ours is a society that refuses to acknowledge the worth of good schoolteachers.
Moreover, because of nepotism, corruption and trivialisation of BEd degrees, there is massive devaluation of the vocation. Likewise, while the triumphant political class has caused severe damage to some of our leading public universities, and fancy institutes of technology and management see education primarily as a training for supplying the workforce for the techno-corporate empire, teachers are becoming mere “service providers” or docile conformists. Here is a society hypnotised by the power of bureaucracy, the assertion of techno-managers and the glitz of celebrities. Not surprisingly then, it fails to realise that a society that has lost its teachers is dead.
However, those who love the vocation of teaching and continue to see its immense possibilities should not give up. After all, ours is also a society that saw the likes of Gijubhai Badheka, Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti who inspired us, and made us believe that a teacher, far from being a cog in the bureaucratic machine, carries the lamp of truth, and walks with her students as wanderers and seekers to make sense of the world they live in, and free it from what belittles man. We must celebrate this pedagogy of hope.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 4, 2021 under the title ‘The idea of a teacher’. The writer is Professor of Sociology at JNU.