There are moments when a sense of despair haunts me; I tend to feel that it would no longer be possible for me to speak of and celebrate the idea of life-affirming education—the kind of education that opens our eyes, sensitizes us, inspires us to cultivate aesthetic sensibilities, critical thinking and passion for creative work, and above all, brings joy and wonder in the domain of learning. In fact, we have lost our dreams; and we have thrown all noble principles of education into dustbin. Instead, these days our children are only preparing for all sorts of examinations—weekly and monthly tests, mock tests, board exams and all sorts of entrance tests; their anxiety-ridden parents find it exceedingly difficult to imagine their children’s future outside the market-driven notion of ‘success’ and ‘good career’ options; and yes, the world is full of coaching centres, technologically sleek ‘academies’ (a gift of the online era), and all sorts of success mantras.
The irony is that our academic bureaucrats and policy makers refuse to see anything beyond centralized/standardized tests; the agency of creative teachers and pedagogues is not needed anymore; it seems everything can be done by the soulless bureaucratic machine called the ‘National Testing Agency’. In the age of MCQs, the machine is continually manufacturing questions, and reducing everything—be it physics or literature—into a set of exam-riddles and ‘objective facts’. There seems to be only one meaning of education—to master all sorts of ‘techniques’ and ‘strategies’ to crack these tests and exams. In a scenario of this kind, a coaching centre ‘guru’ is more valuable than, say, Rabindranath Tagore or Jiddu Krishnamurti; and physics or mathematics remains limited to special ‘packages’ through which Aakash, Brilliant and Fitjeee—the fancy factories that promise instant ‘success’—lure young minds and their puzzled parents. When there are ‘smart’ and ‘presentable’ tutors available on You Tube or in much-hyped BIJU’S or other fancy companies, who bothers about even the slightest curiosity to learn from the knowledge and wisdom of a great scientist, a poet, a philosopher, a historian, or a social activist?
We have normalized this rot. However, many of us love to call it ‘practical’ and ‘desirable’; we think that there is no higher truth than the market; we seem to be comfortable with the idea that our children are essentially ‘resources’ to be modulated, trained and refined so that they can fit well into the structure of techno-capitalism; they must serve the machine with their techno-managerial skills, work ceaselessly and silently, consider everything else secondary or irrelevant, earn money, buy and consume, and project themselves as ‘happy’ and ‘successful’. Any other vision of life, they argue, is pure nonsense—a poetic fantasy!
Death of wonder: education as a compulsive performance
See its consequences. As parents, we have begun to impose our anxieties on our children. Seldom do we bother to listen to them carefully, understand or appreciate their unique traits and aptitudes, and assume that there is nothing beyond ‘safe’ careers. Possibly, they love poetry and literature; we remain indifferent; instead, we force them to join a coaching centre, and learn how to crack the IIT entrance test. Possibly, your child loves music; it makes you anxiety-ridden because you assume that your child—like your colleague’s child—ought to do well in mathematics. And you begin to discourage her; or you feel that music can be meaningful only if she joins a television reality show, and becomes an instant celebrity. In other words, there is no appreciation of inherent joy and creativity in doing a thing or pursuing a passion. Everything must give concrete/tangible/measurable ‘results’. If you love physics, you ought to be in the IIT and become a techno-manager; if you like history, you must think of the UPSC Civil Services Examination. Our children lose their wonder so early in life; there is no joy in learning anymore; it is a burden, a compulsive performance—merely a means to achieve a hypothetical notion of ‘being settled’. We destroy them. We transform them into overstressed competitors continually fearing the stigma of ‘failure’, and running after a goal that has been imposed on them by their parents, neighbours, peer group and above all, the all-powerful market.
Killing the art of teaching
Think of it. This rot is likely to destroy the culture of emancipatory pedagogy, the art of joyful learning and engaged teaching. It would demoralize those great teachers who believe that physics and mathematics, history and literature, or geography and political philosophy have their own beauties that cause wonder, activate imagination and thinking, and encourage the curiosity to make sense of the world. In the age of coaching centres, exam strategies, guide books and ‘success manuals’ with attractively packaged knowledge capsules, neither the young learners nor their parents would be ready to see the worth of great teachers and libertarian education. In fact, the system has already destroyed our schools. As children grow up, they feel that school is just a formal agency that conducts board exams; otherwise, as they feel, the ‘real substance’ can only be offered by coaching centres. No matter, whether your child is enrolled in a government school or a fancy ‘international’ school, there seems to be no escape from the tyranny of coaching centres. Forget the joy of learning physics and literature; forget the extraordinarily illuminating pedagogic principles that the likes of Paulo Freire evolved; forget the creativity of good teachers who seek to take youngsters to the world of fascinating books; and forget those who believe that the joy of reading a poem by Pablo Neruda cannot be replaced by mastering the strategy to get 100% in the MCQ-dominated standardized test. Education would be transformed into pure business. And the political class as well as the corporate elite would prefer to remain silent because these days running a coaching centre or a private university is almost like running a hotel, and this lucrative business is in tune with the instrumental interest of the politician-corporate nexus.
Hollowness and cultural decadence
Finally, the loss of meaningful, reflexive and emancipatory education would damage the soul of our society. Well, our children might emerge as saleable ‘products’ with an attractive salary package; with our middle class aspirations, we might feel proud of all these MBA graduates, techno-managers and successful careerists; and we might come to the street to pressurize the government to start and fund coaching centres for delivering the success packages for medical/engineering/management/ fashion designing/UPSC courses. We would hardly bother about good public universities, good quality government schools, honest and transparent process of the recruitment of teachers, good public libraries and innumerable book clubs in villages, towns and cities. Our homes would hardly find enough space for keeping the works of Tagore and Whitman, Dostoyevsky and Sartre, Gandhi and Ambedkar, or Albert Einstein and S. N. Bose. Instead, our children’s rooms would be filled with Aakash/Brilliant/Fitjee papers, BIJU’S notes, guide books and all sorts of gadgets.
Imagine its consequences. We would eventually create a disenchanted/ hollow generation. And the glitz of the corporate employer, or the fat bank balance would not be able to hide the poverty of the inner world. With this emptiness, they would buy, consume, drink, and expect instant ‘enlightenment’ from celebrity babas. They would equate culture with loud music, reality shows and twitter war; the YouTube bloggers would emerge as new heroes; and the language of communication would be reduced to a set of catchy words that fit well into the instantaneity of social media. This would be the death of creative agency, emancipatory voice, critical thinking and meditative calmness.
What else do authoritarian rulers and their techno-corporate allies need?
Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU.