The Myth of Value-Neutral Teaching

Learning through doing, or learning through active participation in the world, as Gandhi indicated in his reflections on basic education, has tremendous significance. To forget it in the name of abstract scholarship is to miss the ethics of teaching.

Note: This article was originally published on September 5, 2018 and is being republished on September 5, 2019.

Medicine, law, business, engineering–
these are noble pursuits
and necessary to sustain life.
But poetry,
music, romance, love–
these are what we stay alive for.

∼ Dead Poets Society

Even though I love to celebrate Teacher’s Day, I am aware of the fact that not everything in our society is conducive to the cultivation of the spirit of teaching: teaching as an art, teaching as an authentic engagement with the self and the world and teaching as an inspiration for creating a better world.

This is also the time when creative/critical ideas that interrogate the status quo are silenced and suppressed, and teachers as docile role-performers are required not to be unnecessarily passionate, but only to perform their ‘professional’ duties – following the ‘official curriculum’, conducting the exam, retaining ‘order’ and equipping the students with the ‘skills’ that fetch them jobs – in a sanitised classroom: free from the turmoil and fire outside.

Hence, teach ‘fundamental rights’ as a set of constitutional principles, but don’t encourage your students to move around the world, and ask why the violation of these rights is so normal and frequent. Teach poetry as a ‘text’, but don’t tell your students to inquire why the cunning/prosaic world has always humiliated and laughed at its poets, or why, despite William Wordsworth’s reminder of the devastating consequences of the ‘meddling intellect’ that ‘mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things’, our techno-managers keep indulging with the violence of ‘instrumental rationality’.

Or, as I often crack a joke with my students, we seem to have mastered the technique of teaching Paulo Freire’s ‘dialogic’ education in a completely non-dialogic fashion, or reducing a novelist like Munshi Premchand into yet another soulless/standardised PhD thesis in Hindi literature. It is like referring to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence in a closed classroom amid the notorious presence of the CCTV camera. To think and act differently is to invite ‘punishment’ – from physical assault to ‘show cause’ notices.

As Teacher’s Day is celebrated, is it, therefore, possible to go beyond the usual rhetoric – teaching is a noble vocation, teachers are our revered gurus, and the constant flow of messages like “Thank you, teacher, for existing”? Is it possible to redefine the meaning of being a teacher?

For a scholarly teacher with creative passion

The young man who emerges from this system can in no way compete in physical endurance with an ordinary labourer. The slightest physical exertion gives him a headache; a mild exposure to the sun is to cause him giddiness….As for the faculties of the heart, they are simply allowed to run to seed or to grow anyhow in a wild undisciplined manner. The result is moral and spiritual anarchy.
∼ M.K. Gandhi

To begin with, we need to question the pretence of ‘value-neutrality’: the idea of a teacher without passion, without a position, without a worldview. This sort of ‘scientific teaching’ (I teach Physics, but I have no opinion on whether the state appropriates science, reduces it into a principle of domination, and the market prioritises research domains; I teach poetry, but everything in my life remains non-poetic; I teach democracy, but even  for a second I do not ask my students to think of the undeclared dictatorship affecting every sphere of life) distorts the meaning of professionalism. In a way, it is an attempt to escape from one’s ethical responsibility, and hide in the discourse of ‘value-neutral’ scholarship.

No learning becomes authentic and meaningful without reflexivity and passionate engagement. Well, this does by no means mean that a teacher should not encourage his/her students to see the world from multiple perspectives, not merely the one he/she prefers. The art of listening – and listening to even one’s philosophic opponents – ought to be seen as a virtue of a teacher. 

Yet, this humility does not mean that one is playing safe and refusing to commit to a position. In fact, without ‘experiments with truth’, or the constant engagement with the self and the world, you cannot bring the classroom closer to the world. This requires, to use the feminist vocabulary, the ethics of care. To know is to care. To know the world is to love it, heal its wound. To know the practice and institution of caste and patriarchy is to fight it and strive for an inclusive world. To study physics is to further relate to nature in a more meaningful way. Let a teacher not repeat what Francis Bacon said: Knowledge is power – power of domination. Let him/her convey a message to the new generation: Knowledge is love, and love is wisdom. Let a teacher not erect a wall that positivists talk about – a wall separating fact from value, science from poetry, objectivity from reflexivity. Let him/her talk about wonder and enchantment, debunking of falsehood and restoration of truth, criticality and positivity, theory as practice, practice as theory, knowing as doing, and doing as knowing.

No learning becomes authentic and meaningful without reflexivity and passionate engagement. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Does it then mean that a teacher loses the rigour of scholarship, and becomes merely a preacher, a demagogue, an activist? This, I believe, is a wrong question because there is no contradiction between being a scholar and being a reflexive commentator of life, culture and politics. I wish to make my arguments with two illustrations.

First, think of a schoolteacher inviting children to the fascinating world of mathematics – say, the play of ‘fractions’ and ‘percentage’. Is it impossible for her to teach her students with all rigour and intensity, and then reflect on a societal riddle like this: ‘Kunal – a child from Goenka International School possesses 20 fancy woollen clothes, and Alisha – a girl from Shahdara Municipality school – wears only a torn pullover throughout the winter. By what percent does Kunal possess more than Alisha?’ A question of this kind helps the child to reflect on the world out there; and eventually – with the guidance of a good pedagogue – she can use mathematics for understanding the world’s asymmetry beneath the numbers –  say, uneven consumption of milk and fruits across different social strata in a ruthlessly hierarchical society.

Second, think of a university professor asking her students to have a rigorous/scholarly reading of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Does she negate the rigour of her intellectual skill if she asks her students to write a paper on the prevalent technologies of surveillance – from the all-pervading presence of CCTV cameras and constant ‘visibility’ over citizens through the 12-digit number called ‘Aadhaar’ and biometric devices? Or does scholarship mean writing merely a sanitised paper referring only to Bentham’s panopticon, quoting Foucault like a mantra and remaining absolutely silent about what is happening in front of our eyes? Learning through doing, or learning through active participation in the world, as Gandhi indicated in his reflections on basic education, has tremendous significance. To forget it in the name of abstract scholarship is to miss the ethics of teaching.

For a dialogic teacher with art of relatedness

All conversation derives its genuineness only from the consciousness of the element of inclusion, an acknowledgement of the actual being of the partner in the conversation.
∼ Martin Buber

It is equally important to realise that teachers are not merely ‘subject experts’; in fact, it is through history and physics, music and mathematics and anthropology and economics they are evolving a mode of communion with young minds. Teaching is a relationship, a touch, a promise to walk together – the way Tagore walked with children and made them see the unity of work and play, or Martin Buber pleaded for the ‘I-Thou’ relationship. Well, these days, because of the growing commodification of education, we see a new brand – teachers as traders of ‘skills’ located in all sorts of education shops, and engaged in a purely instrumental relationship with students as consumers of ‘packaged learning’.

Moreover, we witness the ‘online’ revolution filled with ‘virtual’ solutions that somehow diminishes the significance of a real/living/physically embodied engagement between the teacher and the taught. Under these circumstances, it is not easy to speak of the teachers who can make a difference in the way we see, perceive and experience the world.

Yet, we need them because we are living in dangerous times when, to use Zygmunt Bauman’s prophetic phrase, our ‘surfing orientation’ causes deathlessness; and when the overflow of media simulations in the ‘hyperreal’  world make it increasingly difficult to hold to some solid foundation of truth. Noise replaces dialogue; the spectacle becomes more real than the real; money transforms everything into its opposite; life becomes a ‘performance’; suicide bombers and ‘encounter deaths’ make everything absurd and meaningless and professional psychiatrists become the only ‘listeners’, despite the overflow of ‘Facebook shares’. Yes, we need teachers who can help us remove these dark clouds, and see the radiant sun. We need teachers who can make a distinction between propaganda and truth, living democracy and seductive authoritarianism, and the richness of the inner world and the packaging of the outer show.

We have Machiavellian politicians and clever technocrats. We have strategic diplomats and ‘pop stars’ of diverse kinds. We have academic bureaucrats, politically appointed vice-chancellors, exhausted/alienated schoolteachers caught into the repetitive cycle of election duty, census work and management of mid-day meal schemes, and fancy principals (or mediators between ambitious parents and corporate owners) of elite schools. But where are the teachers who touch our souls and inspire us to imagine, to borrow from John Lennon’s musical metaphor, “no hell below us/above us only sky “? On this special day let us strive for them.

Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at JNU.