In new India, can’t ask students to enquire, relate theory to socio-historical reality

Rise of ‘bulldozer academics’

Learning Outcome: Academic bureaucrats seem to be on a mission to transform students into consumers, and teachers into service providers. Tribune photo

Avijit Pathak

Sociologist

Bulldozer politics’ is a new idiom we are getting used to in the age of decadence that normalises brute instincts, arrogance of power, insensitivity to the plight of the poor, and denial of democratic/humanistic sensibilities. This violence is infectious; and even the academic world — a realm that is supposed to celebrate the spirit of free enquiry — is finding it difficult to free itself from the logic of ‘bulldozer politics’, or its aggressive, non-dialogic and totalitarian practice. It would not be wrong to say that some of our Vice-Chancellors (VCs), Rectors and Registrars are always ready with their ‘bulldozers’ to annihilate the creative space that the learners endowed with the spirit of critical pedagogy seek to inhabit.

Are we teachers convinced of the beauty of our calling? Or are we just paid employees without any voice and reflexivity?

Recently, a private university in UP suspended a faculty of political science. In the first-year BA political science paper, he asked his students to share their observations on parallels between ‘Fascism/Nazism and Hindutva’. In new India, you cannot ask your students to enquire, relate theory to concrete socio-historical reality, and problematise the world they see and experience every day, as the non-reflexive bureaucrats who run the UGC think a question of this kind goes against ‘the spirit and ethos of our country which is known for its inclusivity and homogeneity’. And the university concerned did not hesitate to constitute a three-member committee to look into the ‘possibility of bias in the question’.

What sort of ‘inclusivity’ is the UGC talking about, and that too at a time when the might of majoritarianism, the aggression of the terribly demonstrative religious nationalism and the all-pervading toxic propaganda machinery are destroying the art of democratic living characterised by heightened sensitivity to heterogeneity, plurality, fusion of horizons and shared humanism? At a time when ‘apolitical’ and ‘fact-centric’ MCQs tend to kill the interpretative and hermeneutic art of understanding the complex social reality, any sensitive academic or pedagogue would appreciate the professor for raising this controversial or ‘out of the box’ question, and encouraging his students to think, interrogate and problematise what the UGC-dictated ‘official truth’ seeks to hide. It is quite possible for the UGC Chairperson, or the academic bureaucrats of the university to disagree with the professor’s worldview. However, they are not supposed to interfere in his pedagogic practice because it is not homogeneity, but the diversity of thoughts and worldviews that enhances the ethos of epistemological pluralism in a university. The harsh reality is that we have entered the age of bulldozer academics, and our academic bureaucrats have begun to suspect even the slightest trace of critical consciousness.

Why is it so? First, as the neoliberal assault on education goes on, these academic bureaucrats behave like techno-managers with the mission to reduce education into a marketable skill, and transform students into consumers, or teachers into service providers. This instrumental and market-driven approach to education robs the culture of learning of what all great educators have always striven for — education as awakening and critical consciousness. Why should students and teachers bother to think about communalism, rising authoritarianism and everyday violence in the name of caste, gender and religion when there is nothing beyond the mythology of placement and salary package?

Second, with the steady rise of militant nationalism in the country, we see a visibly naked political appointment of many of our VCs in leading public universities. They are already compromised; it is almost impossible for them to approve of the culture of learning that encourages students and researchers to question the prevalent discourse of power, or see the violence implicit in militant nationalism. I wonder how these VCs would react if they find a professor of political sociology encouraging her students to study Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism or Erich Fromm’s The Escape From Freedom, and enquire whether these classic texts have some relevance in contemporary India. When these academic bureaucrats demand absolute loyalty to the official discourse of nationalism, they kill the spirit of critical pedagogy and free enquiry. I would not be surprised if they issue a circular, and compel students and teachers to listen to the PM’s Mann Ki Baat!

Amid this despair, I would still plead for the pedagogy of hope. As a teacher, how can I forget the likes of Paulo Freire and bell hooks? They wanted us to realise the healing power of a dialogic classroom — a living/vibrant space that encourages the articulation of lived experiences, conversations, art of listening and imagination of a new world free from structural/psychic/cultural violence. However, even to imagine this possibility in this dystopian age, we as teachers have to unite, and realise that we are thinkers, communicators and healers; and we are not docile servants to be monitored through biometric devices and CCTV cameras, and bombardment of circulars that ask us to measure the utility of the courses, or the mathematics of publications for enhancing the ranking of the university.

However, the moot question is: Are we convinced of the beauty of our calling? Or, are we just paid employees without any voice and reflexivity? What has happened to the faculty of the private university, it should not be forgotten, can happen to anybody who has not yet lost his/her creatively nuanced critical thinking. Hence, it is important for all those who love the vocation of teaching to unite, raise their voice, stand with the victim, and resist the growing violence of ‘bulldozer academics’.