The students are teaching us

The students are teaching us

We must listen

Teaching, I have always believed, is essentially a process of learning. And hence, when on January 5 the goons with rods, stones and weapons entered the JNU campus, demonstrated their brute power — possibly sanctified by the ruling regime and its sponsored ‘competent authority’ who runs the university -- and attacked innocent girls and boys, and even teachers, doing academics and pursuing knowledge acquired a new meaning. In fact, this assault — a logical consequence of the growing anti-intellectualism that characterizes a potentially authoritarian regime — has to be related to a series of events: the cops violating the sacred space of the Jamia Millia Islamia library and firing teargas shells; the organized attack on the students of Aligarh Muslim University; and above all, the pathological urge to categorize the youth who are protesting against the discriminatory nature of the CAA/NRC as ‘urban Naxals’.

In these turbulent times, we are required to give a new meaning to the vocation of teaching-learning, and issues relating to education as a politico-ethical and socio-cultural practice. Yes, at this crucial moment in our collective life, when the ruling regime prefers to remain intoxicated with power, the theoretical knowledge we pursue in our colleges and universities can no longer remain confined to sanitized AC classrooms and insulated science labs. Instead, the validity of the ‘texts’ has to be examined through the practice of everyday life. As teachers/students, we need to move towards liberating education: the education which, to invoke the likes of Gandhi and Paulo Freire, activates our conscience and dialogic sensibilities. It is also like reflecting on Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feurbeach: ‘The philosophers have interpreted the world in many ways; the point, however, is to change it’.  

Sometimes, I ask myself: After what I saw at my own university — the cops as silent observers allowing the goons to give a tough lesson to the JNU ‘Leftists’ and ‘anti-national’ elements, and students/teachers being sent to the AIIMS trauma centre, is it possible to come back to the class, pretend that nothing has happened, and just cover the syllabus, take the exams, and grade the students?

An answer to this question is not possible without some honest introspection. I have no hesitation in saying that many of us have become mere employees. Teaching, it is thought, is yet another routinized job. Quite often, in our colleges and universities, we see this monotony, or the dullness of this bureaucratic ritual; there is no ecstasy, no creative life-energy.

Likewise, some of us, particularly in leading universities, have begun to see ourselves as just 'subject experts', or 'researchers' dissociated from the storm outside our labs and libraries. In the name of 'professionalism' or 'value-neutrality', we love to remain 'apolitical'.

Finally, the ethos of neoliberalism has severely affected the aspirations of the new middle class; and college/university teachers are no exception. When the lure of 'success', 'comfort' and 'pragmatic' pursuits envelops our existence, we have to pay a price. Yes, the psychology of fear paralyzes us; we do not wish to involve ourselves with any act that might make the ‘Establishment’ unhappy. Possibly, in the age of surveillance and potential authoritarianism, this urge to remain 'safe' has become irresistible for many of us.

See the way some of our youngsters have transcended their purely egotistic selfish interests (believe it, JNU students are fighting for a higher cause — restoring the ideal of good quality/affordable higher education which ought to characterize a spirited public university), taken what the comfort-loving middle class regards as 'risks', and together with the students of Jamia and AMU experienced police brutality; and through their protest reminded us of the need to restore what the doctrine of triumphant Hindutva seems determined to destroy -- secularism based on cultural/religious pluralism and egalitarianism. This honest and spontaneous upsurge of young minds for restoring the soul of India is a refreshing departure. It is a possibility. As teachers, how can we remain indifferent to it?

It is in this context that I wish to make two points. First, as teachers, we have to redefine the act of teaching or the meaning of the pursuit of knowledge. I call it reflexive pedagogy. Books have to be related to life; and theories have to come out from the frozen printed words; and life itself has to be seen as the most important 'text' to decipher.

To give a simple illustration, a professor of history should not remain contented by merely giving a lecture on Gandhi's non-cooperation movement; it is important for her to arouse the spark of critical enquiry among her students: whether at this juncture of Indian history, we need to initiate yet another non-cooperation movement against the rising authoritarianism. Or for that matter, after that frightening night at JNU, should not a lecture by a political science professor on Louis Althusser's theorization of the 'coercive apparatus of the state' acquire a new meaning?

Second, as teachers, we must redefine the meaning of 'specialization' because there are limits to the fragmentation of knowledge. To be a 'specialist' does not mean to be dissociated from the real world -- its politico-cultural churning. And hence, even a professor specialized in, say, nuclear physics ought to enter the public debate, come to the streets, and walk with students as they arouse yet another imagination of the nation.

We find ourselves in terribly difficult times. With the triumphant majoritarianism and resultant militarization of the mind; or with neoliberal seduction of 'good living' and associated consumerism, we witness a new form of social control. Furthermore, in the era of 'post truth', the propaganda machinery transforms everything into its opposite: vice into virtue, hatred into religion, and authoritarianism into democracy. Under these circumstances, it is not easy to be a student who sees things clearly, refuses to be fooled, and retains the critical spirit and the dream of a better world. The good thing is that some of our students have aroused this hope amid the dystopian world we live in. It is also refreshing to see, particularly in the context of the Jamia and JNU protest, teachers and students walking together with banners and posters. It is an extraordinary moment of communion, or what Paulo Freire would have regarded as 'dialogue'. Indeed, as teachers, we cannot betray our students who are arousing the conscience of the nation.

(The writer is Professor of Sociology at JNU)  

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