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Friday, May 07, 2021

Teachers ought to renew faith in the very meaning of the vocation of teaching

They are not loyal soldiers, nor cogs in a bureaucratic machine. They must be free to be wanderers. And poets and philosophers

Written by Avijit Pathak |
Updated: September 5, 2019 10:43:05 am
Ours is a society that devalues the vocation of teaching. Illustration: CR SasiKumar

From Yajnavalkya conversing with Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to Rabindranath Tagore seeking to make a difference in a “poet’s school”, from MK Gandhi evolving with the children in Tolstoy Farm in South Africa to Paulo Freire nurturing the vision of a “dialogic” teacher: The great ideals and practices have always given a meaning to the vocation of teaching. However, ideals fall apart in the difficult times we live in.

Even though on Teachers’ Day we will repeat the usual rhetoric (“teachers are our noblest gurus”), the fact is that as teachers we have lost almost everything that is positive about the vocation. Yes, some of us are coaching centre “gurus”, or the traders of “knowledge capsules”, selling the packages of “success”. Some of us are mere “service providers”, disseminating the bundles of job-oriented technical skills, and further promoting the commodification of education that transforms young learners into mere consumers. And some of us are just “subject experts”, or routinised role-performers “covering” the syllabus, taking the exams and grading the students.

Let there be no illusion. Ours is a society that devalues the vocation of teaching; and no wonder, it also reproduces a system in which quite often wrong people join the vocation. Demotivated teachers, or teachers on election/census duty, or tired/exhausted teachers with poor salary, continually controlled by the principal or the school management — this is the harsh reality.

There could be many reasons for this sad state of affairs. However, I wish to stress on three factors. First, the dominant culture of learning in our educational institutions negates the possibility of an intellectually enriched and ethically sensitive relationship between the teacher and the student. The recurrence of rote learning in over-crowded classrooms, the ritualisation of non-imaginative examinations and “summer projects”, the sole emphasis on the quantification of performance, thereby negating the significance of all qualitative/non-measurable experiences — everything transforms the teacher into a mere mediator between the prescribed “texts” and the learners. Under this system, no flower can bloom, no Nachiketa can emerge, and the ideal of the teacher, as Sri Aurobindo would have imagined, as being a catalyst making the young mind aware of the possibilities implicit in him/her, would be considered as laughable.

Second, in an age that worships technocracy and market-driven solutions, teachers as philosophers, inspirers and life-transformative agents would not be appreciated. Techno-managers come with a discourse of education that privileges the cult of the “measurable outcome” (not the inexplicable ecstasy of the expansion of horizons), “efficiency” (not wonder, or the non-utilitarian quest for learning), and “relevance” as dictated by the market (not any deeper quest). It is, therefore, not surprising if the teacher is reduced to a supplier of “data” — the “outcome” of the courses taught, the identifiable “skills” learned by the student, and the “impact factor” of the papers he/she has published.

Imagine the absurdity. Is it possible to measure the “outcome” or “productivity” of a class in which a professor of literature invokes Saadat Hasan Manto, and recalls the traumatic memory of gendered violence implicit in the ideology of communalism? Is it possible to identify the “skills” a student learns in a history class in which the professor narrates the tales of Gandhi walking through the villages of Noakhali in 1946? It is sad that with the triumph of a techno-managerial orientation to education, teachers would lose the very meaning of their vocation.
Yes, in the coming years, like “disciplined” factory workers, they would wear special uniforms, get the structure of lectures approved by the “higher authority”, subject themselves to the ever-expanding machineries of surveillance, and obey the instructions and commands emanating from the castle of bureaucrats. This dystopia may not be altogether unreal.

Third, a political culture that seems to be inclined towards a totalitarian discourse would not be conducive to the growth of critical consciousness, creative ideas, dissenting voices and self-reflexive journeys. There is an inherent anti-intellectualism in such politics. With “nationalism”, “patriotism” and “cultural pride”, we may be asked to be “loyal”. Hence, as the message would be conveyed, it is not a good idea if a teacher encourages what Freire would have regarded as a “problem posing education”, or if, for instance, she asks her students to write a paper on the social construction of a macho “saviour” through the 24×7 “patriotic” television news channels and instantaneity of Facebook and Twitter. Think of it. The vice-chancellor of a leading central university has already expressed his desire to install a military tank on campus to induce “patriotism” among students. Yet another vice-cancellor has argued in the Science Congress that “Kauravas were test-tube babies”. As teachers, we work under the shadow of such “educationists”. Who can stop our fall?

Yet, I believe, we have to resist, and with our rebellion as prayer, we have to strive for life-affirming education. We ought to renew faith in the very meaning of the vocation of teaching. No, we are not “loyal soldiers”; nor are we cogs in a bureaucratic machine. We are wanderers. We are explorers. We are poets, philosophers, thinkers, visionaries. And unless we begin to trust ourselves, none can save us, and heal the wound caused by an unholy alliance of techno-managers and practitioners of what Herbert Marcuse would have regarded as “one-dimensional” thought.

Can it be our pledge on Teachers’ Day?

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 5, 2019 under the title ‘Teachers must have their day’.  The writer is professor of sociology at JNU

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