Liberal thought integral to higher education

SEEING RATIONALLY

Liberal thought integral to higher education

Today, the radical aspects of religion that threaten democratic ideals in society highlight the absence of free speech and expression in democracy. However, the need to be sensitive to religious sentiments is necessary for civil society to coexist harmoniously.

This brings us to the debate between religious fundamentalism and secularism in the country which plays out in newspaper editorials, political speeches, social media and religious and other social fora. Apart from such platforms, universities need to sensitise their students to debates of such nature in their classrooms.

Recently, the controversial French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in September 2015 published the caricature of Jesus walking on water while “leaving the Muslims” to drown. This caricature attempted to satirically suggest ‘Christian’ Europe’s ‘apathetic’ attitude towards the pre-dominantly Muslim refugee crisis which emanates from West Asia and North Africa. This would be an ideal example to explain the distinction between secularism and religious fundamentalism in emergent socio-political developments across the globe.

Creative writings that represent aspects of religion and belief systems in an allegedly sacrilegious manner in the spirit of secularism are not to be reduced to merely a question of who is right and who is wrong. One side of the argument is that creative expression of secularism and religious tolerance are integral to freedom of speech and expression. However, when does political satire begin to take on colours of intolerance and lack of respect for the other? In order to deliver the curriculum effectively, such instances have to be discussed in university class rooms.

Shielded attacks?

In February 2014, the government banned the Wendy Doniger’s well-researched work The Hindus: An Alternative History. The publishing house Penguin Books had to withdraw copies from the market. This suggests strong intolerance of the ‘other’ way to look at a traditional paradigm. Such writings provide an alternate world view that informs us of the need to respect and tolerate others’ religious beliefs. While protests against such alternate views is regressive, to consistently attack religious beliefs and symbols in the garb of satire is also sometimes equally dangerous to a pluralistic understanding and a tolerant society.

In 2011, Right wing student organisations in Delhi University protested against the inclusion of A K Ramanujan’s prolific essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations” from the BA History (Honours) course. The essay emphasises multiple versions of the Ramayana that permeate our cultural ethos and draws attention to such narratives being present in other belief systems like Buddhism and Jainism. After deliberations, despite recommendations to the contrary by many historians, the academic council of the University decided to drop the text from the syllabus. Historians protested against this move.

Earlier, in 2008, Right wing groups had barged into a History classroom that taught this text and vandalised the place as a reaction to its inclusion in the syllabus. Ramanujan’s essay is rich in its research to assert the diverse versions and variants of a valuable tradition of Ramayana than a homogenous text as the legitimate one which asserts values and belief systems. The academic nature of such texts provides scope for teachers and students to share multiple perspectives into the classroom. However, the problem arises when a creative work constructs the ‘sacred’ and in the process sometimes ridicules and criticises it ‘in a secular vein’. The latter often invokes the freedom of speech and expression argument to justify such creative work. This manner of rationalisation need not be looked at purely in its secular spirit.

Higher education should not therefore exist in a vacuum, but should constantly dialogue with society in terms of emergent political, social and economic developments from time to time. Contemporary political and social developments around the world continue to emphasise the significance of debates over secularism and its related democratic ideals. Today, the global order is troubled by a growing intolerance towards those who are perceived as the ‘other’. Therefore the importance to bring these debates into the classroom space assumes relevance.

So how exactly does an academician in the higher education space negotiate debates around secularism in the classroom? Invariably, an academic’s disciplinary perspectives would shape their modalities of critical thinking. Thus, disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences should ponder over what is satirical or disrespectful. Therefore, the syllabi must introduce pluralistic notions of what is otherwise regarded as the only ‘pure’, ‘sacred’ scripture in a classroom. Students must be oriented to the pitfalls of simplified interpretations that adopt a binary approach. It is necessary to be cautious not to take sides either with the religious perspectives alone or the secular discourses that propagate freedom of speech and expression.

Democracy is associated with liberal thought and tolerance of alternate ideas otherwise it is no different from an authoritarian form of governance. Therefore it is the job of universities and other institutions of higher education to ensure the promotion of liberal thought. The only way that these temples of learning could accomplish this objective is to consciously structure their curricula in a manner that emphasises plurality. The aim of higher education is to create responsible individuals who learn to respect and tolerate each other. Thus students should be able to identify dominant narratives that are in circulation which tend to marginalise others that propose alternate views.

(The writer is assistant professor of English Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru)

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