While rebelliousness is inherent to youth, it must be used in constructive ways to challenge authoritative structures.

One of the big music moments of my generation was the release of the album and film of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (1979), the signature track of which carried the refrain, “You don’t need no education, you don’t need no thought control”. A couple of weeks ago I watched, on television, the lead guitarist and singer Roger Waters perform again at the 12/12/12 concert. He added a line to the song: “nothing has changed… we remain, just bricks in the wall.”

Rebelliousness

The song captures the spirit of rebelliousness that characterises youth. It is a criticism of the mass education system that tends to erase difference and create qualified “products” who can then meet the demands of industry and the job market. It rejects the conformity that is demanded by the education system. Rebellion is an important, natural and perhaps necessary part of growing up. It’s about pushing against visible and invisible walls to create one’s own space. It is about setting one’s own terms for life — however unrealistic those terms turn out to be. And it’s about demanding the right to make one’s own mistakes.

Sometimes, there is a temptation to rebel against a structure or a system simply because it is there; just because you feel stifled inside something you had no role in creating. But other times the urge to rebel is stimulated by logic, when you see that there is something that doesn’t make sense and you are convinced there is a better way. You don’t want to do things the way they’ve always been done — either because you find it inefficient or illogical, or because you simply want to do it in your own way.

In our school years, we’re forced to keep our rebellions small — playing pranks in class or occasional rudeness and mischief in class. The structure of school (the “walls”) doesn’t allow much space for real rebellion. But when we move from school to college, we find a higher degree of independence. Whether it is in terms of travel, making choices about small things as when and where to have lunch, or how to handle our classes and assignments, students find that space to make their own decisions. And this is where the rebellious spirit often finds expression. You begin to exercise control over some of the small spaces in your life — sometimes flouting rules, expressing anger and dissatisfaction with the way things are, breaking boundaries and redefining relationships.

Some of these have greater impact on our lives — and our systems — than others. Some end up disrupting things in small ways, while others can be quite devastating. For instance, deciding to bunk classes or refusing to turn in assignments could lead to a fall in grades, while participating in violent demonstrations could have more serious consequences.

Questioning authority

But rebellion doesn’t always have to be against such things as classroom spaces or course structures, or administrative authorities. It doesn’t only have to do with attacking or resisting what we see as unfair or unjust social or political practices. In an academic setting, rebellion can be used in a more constructive way, by being turned into a spirit of intelligent questioning. Too often, we limit our protests and resistances against the obvious, the material, and the generational (older, adult). While there’s no denying that this has its place, why not also look at rebelling against — or questioning — the intellectual structures that are imposed on us in so many ways?

What does this mean, really? Clearly, it takes much more work to break down, or even make a dent in walls you cannot see. It means you have to study the material closely and carefully before you can begin to rebel against it. Like some wise individual noted, you have to know your enemy well. And there are many enemies we need to do battle with if we are to really learn, if we are to become intellectual rebels.

To list just a few: rote learning, text-as-supreme, disciplinary boundaries, standardised tests, answers taking precedence over questions, devaluing or undervaluing experience and observation… you get the picture?

The “walls” that modern bards like Roger Waters refer to are higher and thicker than the walls of our schools and colleges. They take a lot more work to break down. But, if instead of resisting classroom lectures by bunking, we spend our time understanding and questioning them, we could begin to break them down. Instead of making our point by throwing paper arrows at teachers, we could challenge them with intelligence. We could not only learn, but teach the system a thing or two.

Happy New Year!

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus magazine. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com