The Danger That Lies in Academic Bureaucrats Taking Over Our Universities

Academic bureaucrats seek to reduce creative/critical learning to the typical UPSC Prelim pattern of mass examination, creating a rigid mind conducive to the totalitarian ethos that abhors plurality, subjectivity and ambiguity.

A spirit of idealism guided me when I joined the vocation of teaching. I thought I would be free from what a highly controlled bureaucratic system demands from its employees – conformity to rigid structures, acceptance of impersonal rules rather than faith in living experiences and fear of subjectivity and creative experimentation. A university, I felt, should not be seen as a ‘factory’ manufacturing ‘products’; students and teachers, I thought, should be seen as blooming flowers rather than docile role-performers under perpetual surveillance. In a way, I was lucky. The university that nurtured me gave me this sense of freedom. It gave me the confidence to believe that I am a creative subject rather than a cog in the bureaucratic machine. I saw myself beyond the nine-to-five work schedule. I felt that there was no fixed/measured time for a teacher to work, that every moment generated its own possibility of learning and engaging with students. And I also felt that students could give their best only when they were trusted and encouraged to work with a mix of authentic freedom and engaged responsibility.

However, today, I am not very sure whether I can retain that idealism. At a time when we normalise surveillance, measure ‘efficiency’, value only the techno-managerial solution and suspect freedom, or see it as an escape from work, it is not easy to feel the university as a creative/experimental space, a site of alternative possibilities. Things, I fear, are changing fast. As academic bureaucrats become overwhelmingly powerful, critical pedagogues become marginalised. Idealism dies as fear or forced labour is normalised. Even though my anguish cannot be separated from the changes my own university is undertaking, I would like to see beyond the much talked about JNU and argue that as teachers/students, we all, irrespective of our institutional locations, ought to feel the gravity of the crisis and do something meaningful for our collective redemption.

No to technologies of surveillance: learning without fear

To begin with, let me ask a simple question: Can the introduction of biometrics for assuring the mandatory attendance of teachers make them truly great pedagogues? Before I evolve my critique of this sort of bureaucratic measure guided by the technology of surveillance, I need to understand three arguments which are often made in its defence.

First, there is an argument of uniformity. It is argued by many that as far as service rule is concerned, everyone – a bank accountant, a section officer in the Secretariat, a technical expert in a factory – has to undergo this process and there is no reason why, as teachers, we should object to it. Second, there is an argument concerning human nature. As it is argued, there is nothing innate in us that can make us responsible to the sphere of work; given a chance, we would all love to indulge with selfish pursuits and escape from work; and hence meticulous surveillance is necessary for making us accountable. Third, there is a techno-managerial argument that every fragment of time has to be measured, monitored and documented and only with this utilitarian or disciplinary use of time can we enhance our productivity. And this alone can assure some sort of ‘smartness’ amongst otherwise ‘lazy’/‘non-professional’ teachers!

True, these arguments emerge out of concrete socio-historical experiences: dishonesty, irresponsibility and some sort of tendency on our part to work only when we are pressurised. It is also true that as teachers some of us have done terrible damage to the vocation. Seeing the job as just a source of secure income and then doing something else, be it investment in the share market or participation in the private tuition racket; missing classes frequently  and using the university as a platform for doing everything (say, frequent foreign trips and social networking) except regular classroom teaching. Yet, I would argue that surveillance or bureaucratic control is no answer.

The university recovers its soul only through the spirited work of critical pedagogues; and the therapeutic function of critical pedagogy is to learn to redefine the meaning of work and freedom – work as creative play, freedom as engaged responsibility and concern for others and time as enabling, not constraining. If even in a foggy winter morning I come to the class at 9 am, it is not because of the fear of the tyranny of the biometrics but because I enjoy the domain of ideas and its process of dissemination among young minds. If for health reason or an emergency, I miss a class, I do not hesitate to take three extra classes with absolute joy and enthusiasm. Or for that matter, my work does not end at 5 pm. When I read a book with a cup of coffee at my residence, walk with a student in late afternoon or read a dissertation when the world has gone to sleep, it is work that I am doing. Surveillance machineries are ill-equipped to recognise such activities as work. And this is not merely my ‘subjective’ narrative. Ask any teacher who loves her vocation and you’ll find the same story.

At this juncture, academic bureaucrats would argue that the university cannot function on the basis of the ‘romanticism’ of a select few and without ‘control’, ‘standardisation’ and ‘monitoring’, an institution cannot retain its order. This is precisely the point I wish to challenge. Because if education is a life-transformative experience, it ought to give us the strength and wisdom to work and learn without fear; it ought to redefine the purpose of work as a creative exploration and not reduce it into a ‘measurable’ product. Above all, it ought to see discipline as an inevitable outcome of freedom. To think otherwise or to suspect the credibility of the teacher continually is to degrade the spirit of the vocation. Mediocrity rules when creative freedom is replaced by the clock-dictated dull routine.

Sadly, we have accepted the logic of surveillance so much that we no longer trust our own ability to work with freedom. It is little wonder then that we have given so much power to academic bureaucrats. Is it really possible to see ourselves as creative pedagogues and fight the battle for freedom?

No to constrained thinking: protecting the fountain of ideas

How do you evaluate students and select them for postgraduate/research programmes? Yes, academic bureaucrats have a readymade/standardised answer: start online entrance test filled with ‘objective’ questions of the MCQ type, hire an external agency and do it quickly and smoothly. Even though this approach is foolish, they legitimise it through two reasons: first, they speak of technological efficiency – it saves time and money, eliminates human error and not using it is backwardness; and second, they speak of ‘objectivity’ with inherent scepticism towards essays and argumentative answers, alluding that as teachers, our ‘subjective’ biases would reduce the possibility of an objective/standardised scale for evaluation.

However, as critical pedagogues, when you dare to see beyond the fetish of technology and objectivity, you realise the emptiness of these arguments. I wish to make my point clear with a set of living examples every teacher can identify with. First, there are limits to standardisation. Literature cannot be equated with mathematics, nor can sociology be equated with physics. While it may be feasible to rely on ‘objective’ questions in mathematics, physics and even economics, one understands its limitations in humanities and social sciences.

“To me every inch of space,” wrote Walt Whitman, “is a miracle.” Is it possible to know about a student’s engagement with Whitman’s poetry by asking ‘objective’ questions relating to the poet’s date of birth, the list of books and their years of publication? Or, for that matter, even if a student remembers that Karl Marx wrote about alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, it does by no means assure that she really understands Marx’s nuanced arguments and succeeds in relating the concept of ‘alienation’ to ‘commodity fetishism’ that a more ‘mature’ Marx elaborated.

Moreover, unlike the precision of mathematical sciences, literature or philosophy or sociology is filled with subjectivities and multiple interpretations. As there are many Shakespeares, it is equally fascinating to keep wondering (without arriving at the ‘objective’ answer) whether Jurgen Habermas is more nearer to the understanding of late capitalism than Zygmunt Bauman. These disciplines, because of their very nature, demand the cultivation of analytical/argumentative/interpretative/reflexive thinking. An online objective test – even if it saves time and money – can never evaluate these skills. However, academic bureaucrats, because of the poverty of imagination, seek to standardise everything and reduce creative/critical learning to the lowest denominator – the typical UPSC prelim pattern of mass examination. What this ends up creating is a rigid mind conducive to the totalitarian ethos that abhors plurality, subjectivity and ambiguity.

Yes, these days at JNU, I see this danger – the steady replacement of critical pedagogues by technocratic academic bureaucrats. However, as I have already indicated, it is important to see beyond JNU and realise it as the larger crisis confronting university education in India. “Save JNU. We are JNU” – this slogan reeks of elitism, a tendency to isolate the ‘privileged’ JNU from the rest. It alienates others. No wonder while it attracts the likes of Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, it fails to involve an unknown professor from Gorakhpur, a historian from Shillong or a scientist from Coimbatore. The fact is that JNU cannot be saved in isolation. We have to save all universities from the onslaught of academic bureaucrats and reassert the role of critical pedagogues as spirited emancipators.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.