The Annoying Headmaster and the Nation of Schoolchildren

If nationalism, the way its sternest adherents argue, is a deep and overwhelming sentiment, then why do we need a disciplining machine to enforce that sentiment in us?

Uniform and disciplined. Credit: Paul/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Uniform and disciplined. Credit: Paul/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the school captain shouts, “Attention!” the assembly of schoolchildren keeps straight, ready to sing the national anthem. They are weary and bored of repeating the same lines every morning. But it is part of the rule. Being in a school is all about commands and rules. Stand at ease, attention, maintain pin drop silence. It is, of course, never so perfect. There are whispers, conversations on the sly, poking fun at the principal speaking of discipline from the podium. There will be naughty improvisations of the school prayer and the national anthem. Students listen and don’t listen, they follow rules and don’t follow them. All the rules we learn in school simultaneously spring in us the desire to break each of them, at least in those spirits who are more rebellious than others. The more disciplined spirits are made prefects and captains. They bask in the love and trust they receive from the teachers. The rebellious ones despise the disciplined pets, mock them and often get into squabbles that get duly reported. Punishments are part of school life, particularly for those who constantly break the rules, who simply don’t seem to learn the ‘right’ values. Sometimes they are scolded for bad upbringing. Even as the students are constantly reminded of what they lack, many teachers don’t seem to care about their lack of patience and sympathy over students who are not parrots or pets by nature.

In a lecture titled ‘My School’ delivered in the US in 1920, Rabindranath Tagore said,

“But we find that this education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed. From our very childhood habits are formed and knowledge is imparted in such a manner that our life is weaned away from nature and our mind and the world are set in opposition from the beginning of our days… Child-nature protests against such calamity with all its power of suffering, subdued at last into silence by punishment.”

Tagore highlights the simple distinction between a child’s “nature” and the pedagogical demands of “habits” and “knowledge”. The idea of “nature” here may be read as something under constraint, something “severely repressed”, something that is disallowed from flowering in children by fixing the meaning (the “nature”) of their habits and knowledge. ‘Child-nature’ is an idea that has to be risked, for nature demands freedom, and only freedom can conversely provide that sense of risk-taking.

Without straying into the risky pleasures of freedom, the idea of ‘personality’ in the Tagorean sense remains severely incomplete. Instead of freedom, modern (colonial) education enforces the limits of discipline in the form of   punishment. In the same lecture, Tagore gives a concrete illustration of how he conceives of a child’s relationship with “nature”:

“I well remember the surprise and annoyance of an experienced headmaster, reputed to be a successful disciplinarian, when he saw one of the boys of my school climbing a tree and choosing a fork of the branches for settling down to his studies. I had to say to him in explanation that ‘childhood is the only period of life when a civilised man can exercise his choice between the branches of a tree and his drawing-room chair, and should I deprive this boy of that privilege because I, as a grown-up man, am barred from it?’”

Tagore suggests a distinction between the headmaster who understands discipline and the teacher who understands the necessities of childhood. The annoying schoolmaster, the disciplinarian, Tagore maintains, does not understand the child. The idea of discipline snatches away the open possibilities of a student’s life. The point being made is that it is not enough to make rules for the student if the teacher is not capable of understanding the student’s childhood.

Tagore’s observation can be taken as an important critique of the western model of schooling, where the idea of the student is based on strict discipline at the cost of his intense links with nature. To study sitting on the branch of a tree offers a radically un-civilised, spatial angle of vision and experience that a classroom cannot offer. Tagore was serious about this point, for he ensured that students in Santiniketan will not suffer the one-dimensional constraints of studying inside closed walls. He made it clear that knowledge cannot simply come from books but the environment you breathe in and that includes nature. Let us one last time listen to what Tagore says about the fundamental deficiency of school life:

“What tortured me in my school-days was the fact that the school had not the completeness of the world. It was a special arrangement for giving lessons. It could only be suitable for grown-up people who were conscious of the special need of such places and therefore ready to accept their teaching at the cost of dissociation from life. But children are in love with life, and it is their first love.”

Here Tagore extends the idea of nature to the idea of life. Schools in their anxiety to discipline students, take them away from nature. By doing so, the disciplinarians take children at school away from life itself. The life nourished by and nourished in nature. Teaching dissociated from life is also against nature, against love. In other words, modern education fails to understand the child once it replaces love with discipline. The lack of “completeness” Tagore complaints about is a part of that modern education we received through colonialism, where the method and structure of imparting knowledge is not only brutally one-dimensional and stupid, it is fiercely alienating.

Paranoia and the national anthem

The modern education Tagore critiqued appears a lot similar to the kind of nationalism that is being propagated today with ironies galore, in the name of Tagore’s national anthem. The Supreme Court order making the national anthem mandatory before the screening of a film in theatres, and making it obligatory for people to stand up, reads like a disciplining discourse of nationalism. The order, of course, comes with the full approval of the government: “We have so directed”, the judges said, “as Mr. Mukul Rohtagi, learned Attorney General for India submits with all humility at his command and recommend (sic) that National Anthem has to be respected. The directions are issued, for love and respect for the motherland is reflected when one shows respect to the National Anthem as well as to the National Flag. That apart, it would instil the feeling within one, a sense committed patriotism and nationalism.”

All of this evokes a series of questions: If nationalism, the way its sternest adherents argue, is a deep and overwhelming sentiment, if it is in the blood that runs in our veins, then why do we need a disciplining machine reminding us of our schooldays, to enforce that sentiment in us? If the new regime and its lawmakers believe nationalism is a precious sentiment people value, what is the logic behind making them stand up for it all the time? If nationalism, on the other hand, is not a natural sentiment, will enforced discipline solve the problem of the artifice behind that sentiment? Or will it further ruin even the small mercies of that artifice? Is nationalism then trying to invent a disciplined society of adults forced to display certain norms of sentiments that are not necessarily their own? Or is this nationalism trying to tell us we are still indisciplined children who need to be further schooled into a more disciplined, nationalist adulthood? Is nationalism a kind of new schooling that would introduce artificial habits into adult citizens the way modern education imparts them in school children? Is nationalism in need of a new pedagogy of sentiments? Is nationalism then not trying to practice the same ritualistic education that prevents the breathing of freedom in a child? Isn’t the disciplining and punishing of citizens for showing the slightest deviation from prescribed expressions of nationalist sentiment furthering alienation? Why is the idea of the nation sounding more and more like being in a classroom, lectured by the annoying schoolmaster on what it means to be an ideal student (this time, of nationalism)?

The national schoolmasters seem to be paranoid about students they failed to discipline. So they have decided to re-discipline them again, by turning film theatres into school assemblies for a few minutes. They will remind adults that their old schoolmasters haven’t disappeared from their lives. The rule-abiding school student, like a law-abiding citizen, has to prove his loyalty to the nation by standing up in attention for the national anthem. Discipline is the new mother of nationalism. If you thought the terrors of disciplinary education ended in school, you were wrong. The new nationalist school of thought will force you to attend classes in places you hadn’t imagined before. Any place you go looking for your “first love”, your freedom, your love for cinema, will now be haunted by an enforcement-machinery that shall order your entry by checking your nationalist credentials. Hyper-nationalist regimes, like schoolmasters, only love and trust the parrots and the pets. The indisciplined ones, whose rebellious spirits don’t languish in the joyless world of rules and orders (the world Tagore called the “dreary desert sand of dead habit”), who love to disobey, poke fun and distort the holy scripts of power, are under the scanner. Nationalism has no place for naughtiness, for rebelliousness. But it has place for trolls abusing others in the name of the nation.

Recolonising the citizen

The cinema hall is a place of dreams; a dark space where the “severely repressed” child Tagore spoke of waits to find intensification and release. It is that part of nature which modern education distorts. What Tagore called the repressed part of our nature is precisely what Freud described as the pathology that creates (modern) culture. If the school is the place where the disciplining forms of repression are imparted, the theatre is a place where the culture of repression gets its space to breathe. To colonise this space with a project to impart nationalist sentiments would mean taking away the space to breathe. Instead of helping the Indian mind find for itself the place that Tagore said is “without fear”, the current brand of nationalism has decided to re-colonise its citizens by inventing new modes of disciplining and punishment.

It will be worse for those physically challenged citizens who, whether disciplined or otherwise, cannot stand up. There will be fear running in the dark room once the lights are out. The further ruling that doors will be shut till the anthem is played out, leaving no space for people to enter or exit, is a form of induced claustrophobia where the only way to get out of the suffocation is to breathe out the anthem. The annoying schoolmaster has returned with new commandments. Before you sit and relax to watch ‘Lights, Camera, Action”, you will have to go through a small trip down memory lane: You will hear the school captain shout, “Attention!”, and you will respond to the command as in a dream, a dream that will not be a dream, but may turn into a real, dark nightmare, until you join the chorus and sing for your safety, your life, your freedom, your pleasure, until you join the theatre of the absurd for the sake of your love for cinema.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. He has recently contributed to Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin, 2016). He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.