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A cry against hollow public life

Students are protesting on their own, as a generation let down by the institutional and political order

The turmoil witnessed in many university campuses over the recent weeks brings into fresh relevance many fundamental issues in educational theory. Autonomy of universities as public institutions is the foremost among these issues. Substantive autonomy has been fading away for some time; now we cannot escape worrying about its summary loss.

Education and politics

Another issue is the relationship between education and politics. It is one of the oldest questions posed in social philosophy. Human beings have always been concerned about what their progeny know or what all they can find out. This concern has driven curriculum wars in all societies, and these wars are inseparable from politics.

Then comes the third issue: the role of youth in shaping the social ethos. People engaged in active politics love to imagine that the young are on their side. After all, youth represents the future, so why would not politicians claim the support of youth? And therein lies the ironical truth, namely that the young are known to be unpredictable. No matter how much you try to shape their minds and habits, they can throw a total surprise at you.

All education, no matter what its stage, is about knowledge and learning. Howsoever poorly a system of education imparts knowledge to the young, it has its own dynamic which arises from knowledge itself. When educational opportunities expand across social classes, new social processes are unleashed. Our system of education has gone through radical expansion over the last three decades. It has widely disseminated the values enshrined in Constitution. The system has also conveyed to the young a general memory of the freedom movement, especially the memory of Gandhi, his ideas and methods.

Reading the Preamble

By the end of elementary classes, many children know that there is a problem with inequality. Quite a few among them know from personal experience how it feels when you face discrimination. That the Constitution is against discrimination in any form or sense brings both solace and anguish. The solace comes from the realisation that the Constitution prohibits discrimination; the anguish is caused by the widespread acceptance of discrimination.

It is hardly surprising that during many agitations held in the recent weeks, the Preamble to the Constitution was publicly read aloud. The obvious purpose was to convey the question: ‘How is equality before law possible if a law does not mention all religions?’ Harping on the specific context or meaning of the law in question cannot address the anxiety aroused by the law in question. The agitated youth of India is drawing attention to a more general, basic point. It will be terribly unfortunate if someone doubts the integrity of the young or perceives them as pawns in a power game.

Two campuses located in the nation’s capital have witnessed extraordinary scenes of violence. The chief administrator of one of these institutions has asked the students to forget what has happened and move on. This advice sounds strange, because education is all about reflection on experience. Violence represents a breakdown, not merely an aberration. Pedagogic relations are basic to education, and these relations call for maintenance of trust and peace.

Second, no memory of violence is easy to bury. Corporally punished children remember their experience throughout life. Injuries suffered in a library or in a hostel cannot heal easily. The thought that you had gone to an institution to acquire knowledge, but you got badly thrashed as you sat reading will linger and hurt. Educational sites of violence must allow the memory of violence to be used as a resource for learning. Restoration of peace is not like registration for a new semester. Participatory introspection — in which the administration and teachers join the students — is the only way to move forward. Inquiries and investigation are fine; properly carried out, they might establish the truth, but they will not restore peace which is essential for teaching.

Many people are puzzled by the intensity of recent events. Indeed, no one had expected that the generation ostensibly engrossed in a distracting technology would prove so sensitive to a legal shift. Custodians of higher education are shocked because a vast majority of our colleges and universities are simply unaware of the knowledge that students bring from schools. Higher classes ought to introduce the young to a wider perspective, but our universities ignore the intellectual needs of students and underestimate their potential. The opportunity to go deeply into a subject should enable the young to see things from a higher perspective. This is the real meaning of the term ‘higher’.

Going deep into knowledge, irrespective of the subject or discipline, permits the mind to draw linkages between knowledge and life and between different fields of knowledge. The Chief Justice of India has recently emphasised the importance of inter-disciplinary learning for judges. His appeal is equally applicable to other professions. It is unfortunate that the institution best known for putting serious efforts to introduce inter-disciplinary teaching, namely Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has faced sustained prejudice towards it and polarisation within it. In general, the system of higher education has treated the young quite poorly. They are protesting today on their own — as a generation let down by the institutional and political order. This is not merely a matter of poor economic prospects or frustration with the conditions prevailing in the institution. It is a cry of the young against the ethical and intellectual hollow they have spotted in the nation’s public life.

Structural rift

The recent turmoil has also brought a structural fact into focus. The system of higher education in India is sharply divided between a beleaguered public sector and an insulated private sector. The latter has remained isolated from the suffering of the former. A handful of private universities flaunt their global connections and eminent faculty in social sciences and humanities. But faculty fame cannot compensate for disengaged pedagogy. Advertisements of inter-disciplinary studies and critical thinking remain hollow if an institution hides cocooned behind its security.

The silence one notices in high-fee charging campuses over what is troubling the young in public institutions offers an unexpected lesson in the real cost of privatisation. It explains why maintenance of good public universities is essential in a democracy if we define it as a system that encourages empathy across social divisions. It is not news anymore that India has neglected the state-funded higher education system and encouraged privatisation. Saving public money in the name of opening up opportunities for private spending has grave implications for the political role of education. Denying or decrying this role is bad for nation-building if democracy is its chosen path.

Recovery of institutional and systemic health is never easy, especially when it is not recognised as a policy goal. It will be a pity if the current unrest in some of our best institutions of higher learning intensifies the prejudice and disdain they have suffered over the years. If violence has vitiated the atmosphere in some of them, that is all the more reason why the role the public universities has played in building the nation is recalled and given due respect. JNU is not the first university to be hollowed out by indefensible appointments. Nor is it the only one to have lost its autonomy. But its loss is symbolic of a systemic misfortune.

Krishna Kumar is a former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:02:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-cry-against-hollow-public-life/article30588865.ece

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