January 10, 2020: it was a beautiful morning. I began my day with an intensely meaningful and life-affirming interaction with the teachers of the Bluebells School International—a leading progressive school in the capital. Yes, we live in the age of violence. When a bunch of narcissistic/authoritarian personalities begin to shape the fate of the nation, and the idea of liberating education is attacked, it is not easy to rediscover ourselves as dialogic teachers undertaking a journey with our students in search of a better world. Yet, even when the pragmatism of instrumental reasoning seeks to kill all utopias, my interaction with these teachers filled my consciousness with positive vibrations. It helped me to heal my wounded psyche. And I feel an urge to communicate with the readers who are eager to save education, and reflect on the flow of ideas that characterized the interaction.
Children should not be warriors
No discussion on education is possible unless we understand the socio-historical and politico-economic context we live in; yes, it affects the parental aspirations, and the psychic/cultural traits with which children come to schools. Think of it. What is the meaning of the unholy mix of neoliberal/market-driven discourse of ceaseless consumption and the aggression of militant religious nationalism? Yes, the utilitarianism of the age wants us to be hyper-competitive warriors seeking to find the meaning of existence in what we possess—bodily comforts, material wealth, outer glitz and external power. Likewise, the discourse of hyper-masculine cultural nationalism wants us to engage in an act of othering the ‘enemies’—Muslims, minorities, Pakistan and ‘urban Naxals’. Possibly, in many of our middle class families, children are growing up in a toxic milieu of this kind. Possibly, this seems to have become the mantra of education that the anxiety-ridden/career-conscious middle class parents want their children to internalize: “Be a ‘topper’ at any cost; follow the unilinear ‘ IIT-IIM-America’ road to ‘success’; and think of education as merely a ‘skill’ for getting a lucrative job with an attractive salary package.” I am sure that this parental pressure affects the orientation of children as they grow up—the way they hierarchize knowledge traditions—science vs. humanities, or Mathematics vs. poetry; or the way they begin to see themselves as reckless competitors. Likewise, the aggression of militant nationalism, I am afraid, pollutes their consciousness, unless they are lucky to have sensitive parents who look at the world differently.
Under these circumstances, is it possible for a progressive school like the Bluebells International to intervene, engage with young learners and their parents, and through dialogic teaching-learning make a difference in the way children redefine themselves and the world? Yes, we reflected on this challenge—an exceedingly difficult task that history poses before us. With social Darwinism and hyper-masculine nationalism, we are becoming ‘warriors’. If liberating education is about creativity and compassion, as educators we have to intervene. And this is not possible unless as teachers we too engage in an act of self-reflection.
Mindfulness in the age of instantaneity
In a world filled with techno-miracles, dazzling spectacles and ceaseless flow of information, it is not easy to retain one’s agency, or the critical faculty needed to distinguish truth from falsehood, and the courage to remain calm and contemplative without being carried away by the instantaneity of this ‘fluid modernity’. Yes, here is a new generation. Our children are growing up with smart phones. Amid the compulsive desire for ‘Facebook likes’, the irresistible hunger for everything ‘viral’, and the endless flow of You Tube sensations, it is not easy for them to cultivate the power of mindfulness and contemplation. And it has severely affected all of us. In fact, some sort of ‘depthlessness’ has characterized our times. With the ‘surfing orientation’, it becomes difficult to concentrate, and go deeper into any phenomenon. Possibly, under these circumstances, the meaning of being a teacher has acquired a new meaning. How do we engage with these young minds, help them to reduce their dependence on these gadgets, and inspire them to, say, look at a tree with heightened sensitivity and attention? How do we make it possible for them to be free from the Internet addiction, and reclaim the real world here and now?
As the seduction of the hyper-real or virtual world hypnotizes the vulnerable minds, is it possible to restore the originality of the physically embedded classroom—its living dialogues and conversations, or its direct face-to-face interaction? At a time when the shiny media celebrities, or the You Tubers with mind boggling ‘subscribers’ invade the consciousness of the young, how is it possible for a teacher—simple, yet engaged and contemplative— to exist as a role model? These are important questions to reflect on. Yes, as teachers, we need to rethink the pedagogic practice. In the age of the Internet, there is no dearth of ‘information’. But then, let the classroom transform itself into a creative site conducive to the cultivation of awareness, awakening and reflexive thinking. It is like saying that in a history class let the teacher inspire the children to see history not as a chronicle of dates, wars, treaties and facts; but as an awareness of the dynamics of the social process. Let the classroom exist as a dialogic space that activates the uniqueness of each learner, arouses his/her creative zeal and critical faculty. And let the teacher exist as an enabling catalyst in this process of this living communication. This means the willingness on the part of the teacher to rethink the mode of teaching, or the assignments she evolves to activate the creative imagination and critical faculty of the students. This means the celebration of originality—not the reproduction of typical bookish questions, or standardized summer projects. Let there be no substitute of the classroom; let there be no You Tube replacement of what happens in an interactive classroom.
Yes, I admit that it is an exceedingly difficult task. In the age of MCQ pattern of exams, knowledge has become mere information; and with the standardized exams and standardized questions, coaching centres and guide books have become immensely popular. Under these circumstances, to exist as a creative teacher with originality is not an easy proposition. Yet, we ought to strive for this ideal. If the classroom loses its vitality, democracy dies. And if media sensations become more real than one’s own eyes, intelligence and thinking, there is no escape from the mental dumbness leading to the politics of authoritarianism.
Discipline as inner flowering
There is yet another issue relating to discipline—and that too in the age of surveillance. Even though there is nothing new in the act of surveillance, the fact is that in contemporary times it has acquired a new meaning. With the growth of new technologies, the act of surveillance has become more nuanced and sophisticated; it is all-pervading. In a way, we live amid the presence of CCTV cameras; we have internalized the logic of surveillance—its ‘inevitability’ and its ‘desirability’ for our ‘safety’ and ‘security’. However, with the elaborated network of surveillance, we are losing the spirit of trust; instead, the gaze of surveillance objectifies, suspects, hierarchizes, classifies and ‘normalizes’. ‘Discipline’, it is thought, is the logical consequence of surveillance. Quite often, educational institutions rely heavily on the new technologies of surveillance to ‘discipline’ the child’s body, mind, gestures and consciousness.
Should we rethink this practice of discipline and surveillance? When discipline is based on fear; or when in the process of being ‘disciplined’ one is always suspected and monitored, we cause severe damage to the possibility of inner flowering. It curbs spontaneity; it diminishes the art of experimentation; it abhors creative madness. Instead, it leads to regimentation—some sort of the militarization of the consciousness.
Possibly, a truly liberating education ought to emanate from the spirit of inner discipline-the art of relating freedom with responsibility, or the creativity that allows the beautiful merger of gentle anarchy and lyrical order. Is it possible to believe in this possibility, particularly at a time when in a technologically obsessed society we have begun to trust the technologies of surveillance more than the power of love and empathy to take us to a higher realm of consciousness? As teachers and educators, we must keep this question alive. If schools become like army barracks, none can resist the eventual arrival of the Orwellian nightmare.
We raised new questions. We agreed and disagreed. But then, it was a deep engagement, and my interaction with these bright and experienced teachers of The Bluebells School gave me hope. And it enabled me to overcome what seems to have become infectious in this cynical age—the sickness of negativity.
Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU, New Delhi.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely that of the writer and are not endorsed by The New Leam.