Updated: March 10, 2021 8:49:19 pm
Written by Indra Munshi
Avijit Pathak, Professor of Sociology at JNU, in a recent article (‘Where the student is without fear’, IE, February 27) laments the suppression of the spirit of critical thinking, questioning and disagreeing, in our classrooms at all levels, especially in institutions of higher learning.
Conformity, caution, and above all, fear, hang heavy like dark clouds over these centres of learning, which should ideally train young minds to think, understand, and actively work towards building a better society. This is the vision that inspired many great thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and J C Bose, the poet and the scientist, to create institutions of higher learning where nationalism and nation-building rested on the foundations of creative ideas and experiments, in the service of all humanity, where the mind was without fear. The raison d’être of education is to enrich and inspire young minds towards higher goals, encompassing all knowledge, whether traditional or modern, or beyond regional and national boundaries.
In this context, it is opportune to recall the enlightened views on education held by Patrick Geddes, the founder of the first Department of Sociology in India, (the second such in Asia), at the University of Bombay in 1919. He was invited by the then Vice-Chancellor, Chimanlal Setalvad, to start a Department of Sociology, which Geddes agreed to do, but added the subject of Civics to Sociology for reasons that will be apparent soon.
Geddes had a definite idea of what an ideal university should be, shaped by his experience at the University of Paris where he spent some time as a student in the the 1880s. He often gratefully acknowledged his debt to his teachers, but it was really the mental stimulation that Paris provided that left a lasting impression on him. He observed that in the creative period of renewal that Paris was undergoing, the university spirit was at its best. The university was the site of numerous meetings, heated debates and controversies, publication of manifestoes, where the fundamentals of social existence were questioned, and reforms discussed, where critique and reconstruction acquired an intense urgency. Geddes learnt to appreciate that great cities and great universities supported and nurtured one another, as he had seen in Paris, London, Edinburgh.
In Paris, however, unlike London, the university played a leading role both in educating students as well as advising the government, where “culture and city life had reached new levels of integration and achievement”. London University was still largely an examining body, but Paris was different. Here, the established centres of higher education, and cultural institutions like the library, museum, theatre, art gallery, opera, studio, all interacted closely to create an atmosphere of great social and intellectual stimulation.
Geddes had come to believe that universities were to be a battleground for contesting ideas. He liked the term, “University Militant” — the title of a book published in 1912; and used it to highlight the responsibility of sociologists in producing a generation of so-called “university militants” who would carry out the task of civic betterment. They were also expected to work “towards reuniting the shattered unity of a civilisation and world-peace; since its principles lead not only to tolerance, but to an appreciation of the best qualities of all peoples, and their co-operative interchanges accordingly”.
He rejected any attempt by any authority to dictate and control education, firmly believing that, “education, like religion, can only be truly vital in the measure of its freedom from external authority, since truth, like goodness, cannot be imposed from without, but can only grow with mind and soul within”. The head of the university, the Chancellor, he felt, had to be one with the energy and ability to enthuse the oldest or the most disinterested of teachers, as well as to encourage the youngest, and to inspire the students. Above all, he should be able to arouse, educate and articulate the concern of citizens, until they felt that the university belonged to them, just as they belonged to the university.
In fact, Geddes had a love-hate relationship with the university of his days. He was disappointed with the narrow range of their purported activities and the methods adopted to impart education.
During his stay in India, he witnessed that the state control of the universities and their dominant use for state recruitment to services had resulted in routinisation and intellectual indifference, which created discontent among the more creative minds. He found teaching in India, like most European official teaching, “blind, handless and — even worse — heartless in its methods”. For education to be interesting and purposeful, the organisation of studies had ideally to be synthetic rather than compartmentalised, and to include a large number of disciplines and perspectives, to deepen and broaden knowledge, understanding, and involvement. After all, the purpose of education was to produce citizens who were educated in their rights and responsibilities and who in turn would educate the common people around them. In this sense, university reform and civic reconstruction were closely linked, for which an atmosphere of freedom to think critically and creatively was essential. Geddes, it must be noted, was attempting to bring diverse perspectives to produce better cities and regions, to evoke active citizenship, and this important task was to be achieved by Sociology and Civics, combining theory and practice. He was guided by this belief throughout his working life, as a sociologist, ecologist, and town planner. Sadly, the system that existed in India encouraged rote-learning, through a written examination, which Geddes believed, at best produced clerks, not thinking and “doing” citizens.
As is obvious by now, Geddes’ understanding of the term “education” itself was very broad, and he was highly critical of the boring straightjacket of Victorian ideas that dominated the schools, colleges and universities of the day. Conventional methods of study in educational institutions, he was convinced, destroyed the creative abilities of the young. The only way to sustain students’ interest was to go beyond book learning, to combine different disciplinary perspectives, to challenge well-established views, and develop new ways of thinking, which made it necessary to include field studies, current issues, and laboratory work, in other words, to actively engage with the reality around. Geddes’ own teaching programmes, at the university or at summer meetings/extension courses, demonstrated the breadth of his knowledge and his enthusiasm to impart it to those who were interested. His own education had been a highly unconventional one, combining training in such diverse subjects as geology, botany, geography and others. Education, he felt, was not just “preparation for life but life itself”. Ideally, teachers were needed to guide the young to move beyond their simple everyday acts, beyond mere information, into the world of unconventional, nuanced thinking followed by even greater strides towards human advancement.
It was this shared concern that brought Tagore, Bose and Geddes together in developing a very different vision of education from the one held by the state. They drew their inspiration from literature and art, philosophy, the natural and social sciences, and collaborated with one another to develop an educational system that would produce minds capable of rejecting the dead-wood of tradition, and combine the best of conventional and modern thinking from the East and West. In their own way, each one of them was experimenting with new methods to develop purposeful formal education.
Today, universities and colleges in India are, unfortunately, far removed from this vision of what educational institutions should be. This is in spite of the fact that freedom of expression, dissent and protest have long been a part of university life, grounded in the true democratic spirit of India. Till recent times, non-conformity did not elicit state repression, nor were teachers and students forced into formulaic teaching and learning; where administrator and politician did not control and dictate the substance and method of education; where, in fact, every effort was made to provide a congenial environment, unconstrained by narrow political or economic interests of the educator and the educated alike. It would do the authorities good to remember, as Geddes said, that education can only grow through freedom from external authority.
The writer is former head of the Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai, and executive editor of the Indian Journal of Secularism
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