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A case for open academic spaces

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As students are penalised for independent thinking, universities and colleges are losing their spirit

The task of a modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.

– C.S. Lewis

Chronicles of Narnia



Let this prescription resonate loud and clear in all the educational institutions of the country. Colleges and universities must regain the spirit they lost ever since they turned into degree-production units.

With the proliferation of professional educational institutions, the concept of colleges underwent a radical change from a sarvakalashala to an extended school system with closed academic spaces, where students are often penalised for independent thinking: forget about thinking aloud.

The severest exposition of this syndrome was the banning of student politics from some colleges and universities based on the naive argument that universities and colleges are spaces for learning. Of course, they are. But learning is much more than what lies within the lines of textbooks and what is learnt in enclosed classrooms. Higher educational institutions today have become more important in shaping one’s career and much less in shaping one’s character.

Mandatory attendance to the tune of 25 per cent to 50 per cent or more is a norm in most of the universities today. The attendance norm is tied to eligibility to write examinations. Attendance is also a major criterion that determines a student’s internal evaluation marks or grades.

Attendance issues

But where is this concept of mandatory attendance coming from? It is one way of ensuring the presence of students on the campus, irrespective of how productive those time periods actually are. Taking attendance towards the fag end of a free hour is not uncommon in many colleges — just to make sure that students cannot move far.

The so-called benevolent objective of preventing students from straying by restraining their movement in effect means curtailing the space that students have in order to be creative, innovative and productive in their own youthful ways. The more pronounced but unspoken objective of this policy is to fill the classes handled by less effective teachers.

In this era of the Internet, where every item of information you need, and more, is virtually at your fingertips, students are unwilling to settle for the ordinary. When the teacher is not passionate enough and is shallow in terms of knowledge, and confines himself/herself to the standard textbooks or guides, it is highly likely that classrooms will be half-empty unless mandatory attendance is enforced. The recent pronouncement by the Patna High Court in All India Students Federation vs State of Bihar is laudable against this backdrop, for holding that lack of attendance alone cannot be a ground to debar a student from appearing in examinations.

This is often a tool, or rather a weapon, used by teachers and the administration to exercise control over students. With high weightage given for internal marks in the total, pleasing your teacher becomes more of an academic exercise than a token of courtesy or respect. This is a mechanism that makes sure that all those who failed to be in the good books of those who matter suffer, by getting a back paper in the final examinations, losing a chance to appear for placement interviews, or to join a job that they secured.

Attitudes change

These practices also directly curtail the scope of academic discourse and diversity of opinions, which should ideally enrich our classrooms. Thus, the mechanism only serves to make a bunch of compliant and conformist beings who would think twice before seeking to stand for themselves, and forget about others. Those times when the pain was felt by everyone when one of us is hurt, is fast disappearing. The prevalent attitude of students in universities today is safe play — if something does not directly affect us, why bother? Why should we unnecessarily get into trouble?

That is the lost spirit of the universities: the spirit of togetherness, humaneness and righteousness.

(Telma Raju is an alumnus of IELPO, University of Barcelona; Noor Ameena is reading M.A. Development Studies at TISS, Mumbai)

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2017 4:03:03 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-case-for-open-academic-spaces/article8548565.ece