Even though I belong to the realm of higher education, I am becoming increasingly skeptical about the way the academic culture operates in the country. Yes, at one level, there is no meaningful teaching and research. With empty classrooms, disinterested students, demotivated teachers, badly written guide books, non-imaginative/routinized examinations and mass distribution of BA/MA degrees, most of our colleges and universities have lost their relevance. Recently, a college teacher from Rajasthan told me,’ Sir, I wish to teach. But where is the possibility? Even though almost 600 students have been enrolled in the BA program, not more than 20/25 students come to the class, and that too there is no consistency. Everyday I see new faces. And there are teachers who even discourage these students to come to the class.’ Yes, this is the harsh reality; students do not study; and teachers do not teach.
However, in a society that is grossly hierarchical in every sense of the term, there are select colleges, universities and ‘centres of excellence’ where, as we are told, there is an environment of teaching, learning and research. But then, the question remains: are these centres of ’eminence’ nurturing young minds, activating their creativity, and helping them to evolve as self-reflexive, democratic, peaceful and sensitive beings? Or is it that with the cult of ‘measurement’, ‘productivity’, ‘efficiency’, ‘ranking’, reckless competition and resultant performance anxiety, even these ‘good’ places are destroying young minds, and demolishing creativity? The other day in a leading university in the national capital a student asked me: ‘Sir, how is it possible to celebrate education, and learn deeply, meaningfully, experiencially and creatively, when professors bombard us with a heavy baggage of the reading material, and ask us to write our assgnments in a standardized ‘academic’ format, and when, because of a series of exams and mid-term assignments in a semester, there is no breathing space, no possibility to reflect and contemplate, and relate theory to practice?’ I could not provide an immediate answer to this question.
Yet, I keep thinking. And this article emanates from this process of inner churning.
Killing the soul of the young learner
As I feel, there are two ways we can relate to books. To beging with, let me reflect on a life-affirming mode of engagement with thoughts, ideas and books. Imagine that as a student of social science, you are reading Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Yes, as a wanderer, you are conversing with Marx, and trying to understand how Marx saw capitalism, its despiritualizing and dehumanizing elements, or the way it cripples the process of self-actualization, causes alienation, or the way the power of money transforms everything into its opposite–vice into virtue, or ugliness into beauty, or the way Marx engaged with Hegel. As you converse with Marx, you also begin to look at your own times; you ask whether Marx is helping you to make sense of the social milieu you are living in; and you also look at yourself–your self-affirmation or alienated existence. In other words, this life-affirming reading is a conversation. Possibly, after reading Marx, you feel like sharing it with your friends, and having a discussion on it. In fact, when you read any text – be it Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj or Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora or Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality–with the spirit of being a seeker of truth, and with a mood of nuanced conversation and dialogue– books become your intimate companions.
The irony is that the ‘professionalism’ of higher education has destroyed this life-affirming engagement with books. Yes, universities have transformed us into smart consumers of facts, concepts, ideas and theories; and as a result, our relationship with books is becoming strategic and instrumental. Marx is just a reading material for the assignment one is writing; Foucault is a brand name, or a footnote, or a jargon for enhancing the ‘cultural capital’; and Durkheim or Weber is merely a mantra or a ritual, if you are doing sociology. And in a fast world , as the learning machine demands, you have to consume more. And hence, keep consuming–almost with a mood of instantaneity – Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, Lyotard and Derrida, and Partha Chatterjee and Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak! Yes, professors want you to consume these ‘products’; the reading list they provide must demonstrate their ‘scholarship’; and slowly and slowly you too are trained to believe that it is a race; academics has got nothing to do with relaxed/joyful/life-affirming learning; it is essentially about the accumulation of ‘knowledge’; it is not about the poetry of life or the quest of the inner self. The tragedy is that they ask you to consume so much in a short period of time that academic ‘products’ bombard your minds, and cause stress and psychic restlessness. Books become torturous.
When everything becomes bookish (or, to use a fancy term, ‘text-centric’), and there is no escape from the assignments (once again terribly ‘academic’, and dissociated from even the slightest trace of the experiential domain–say, walking mindfully and sharpening the art of seeing; or meeting people of different kinds, and conversing with them; or celebrating a good piece of art, and intuitively grasping the tales of human wonder, desire, anguish, love and longing), the entire exercise becomes mechanistic and ritualistic. There is no joy, no ecstasy; there is only ‘performance anxiety’ leading to unhealthy competitiveness and breakdown of interpersonal relationships. The irony is that , because of this race, even young minds lose wonder and curiosity; they too become obsessed with the culture of ‘CV’–publications, participation in conferences, and all sorts of achievement-oriented ‘success’ stories. Under these circumstances, there is no enchantment. Talk to a ‘successful’ product of English literature; you can no longer share the joy of reading a poem or a novel; he/she would tell you more about postcolonial/postmodern/semiotic analysis rather than the psychic/spiritual churning that a piece of great literature leads to. Talk to a researcher in ‘cinema studies’; and you will lose interest in the aesthetics of cinema. Bad prose, dry words, technical idioms, and the intellect dissociated from love–education kills the soul of the young learner.
Mechanized production and end of teaching
The system is harsh; and teachers too lose the meaning of the vocation. To begin with, let us think of the young teachers who have just joined the vocation. They are told that they have to publish in the UGC approved journals; no, a publication in some other forum–even if immensely meaningful– would not be considered as a contribution. It limits and restricts the creative possibility of a teacher. As they are compelled to write only in the UGC approved journals for getting the ‘points’ necessary for the promotion, many of them lose interest , or even the ability to write something different in terms of style as well as content: the stuff that can not be fitted into the pattern of what these journals tend to regard as ‘academic writing’. And even the rapidly growing industry of ‘workshops’ on ‘academic writing’ conditions the mind, restricts the imagination, and forces a standardzed style of expression, referencing and argumentation. In fact, these standardized products with what the academic industry regards as ‘quality control’ (withdrawl of the self, controlled thinking, nothing beyond ‘documentation’ and ‘references’, technical words, codified methods of enquiry, and ‘right’ bibliography) are often devoid of aesthetic/artistic/spiritual longing. Yes, quite often, academic papers are written as a compulsive activity for surviving, or improving one’s CV – the ultimate fetish that kills the possibility of the authentic quest and self-actualization. And the constant search for the ‘citation index’ or ‘impact factor’ leads to what the corporate sector (yes, the academic culture too is becoming corporatized) regards as ‘networking’. However, nothing fundamentally alters in our lives. ‘Research papers’ are published in the approved journals; assistant professors become associate professors; associate professors become professors; and professors further inflate their egos as they measure the number of papers they have written, or the key note addresses they have delivered in ‘national’ and ‘international’ conferences. But then, there is no real impact on us–the way we live, relate to the world, and engage in the politico-civic life. Violence prevails, caste hierarchies continue, and gender stereotypes exist, even though academicians keep publishing ‘research’ papers on caste, gender and violence. The reason is that most of these papers do not touch our souls; and even the authors retain a tight boundary between ‘academics’ and ‘real life’.
There is yet another damage. What is fast disappearing from our classrooms is the spirit of what I love to regard as creatively articulated critical/reflexive pedagogy. The reason is that in the age of ‘measurement’ and ‘productivity’, the qualitative distinctiveness of intense teaching is considered ‘irrelevant’. There are many ways it happens. For instance, a fancy professor–often trained in Euro-American universities–would hardly teach; but ask the students to come to the class after reading, say, 200 pages from a trendy book, and then force them to make an ‘academic’ presentation. In the name of ‘involving’ the students, he/she is essentially escaping from the act of teaching – throwing enchanting ideas, provoking, stimulating and encouraging the young minds to learn, unlearn, read, experience, and raise new questions. And then, the undue indulgence with the PPT (Power Point Presentation) tends to trivialize the spirit of teaching-learning: face-to-face interactive dialogue, the spontaneity in a living discourse, and the beauty of arguments, or the creative flow of a nuanced talk. As everything is reduced into bullet points, and the teacher reads what is projected on the screen, we witness the death of creative agency. Moreover, the dichotomy that we have created in the name of research vs.teaching has further undermined the significance of pedagogic innovation and meaningful teaching. Teaching doesn’t count; it is secondary; what matters is your ‘research’ measured in terms of publications, or your ‘visibility’ in terms of the certificates you gather for attending seminars and conferences, or your ‘market value’ defined in terms of the ‘projects’ you undertake, and your ability to master the technique of what in this neoliberal age we regard as ‘fund raising’.
Well, we become clever; we become experts. But then, as wisdom disappears, we fail to alter the decadent civilization – its ugly politics, ugly culture and ugly religion. This is the ultimate failure of our education.