The Pandemic as an Opportunity to Educate on What it Means to Be a Citizen

Higher educational institutions could have used this time to cultivate civil engagement.

Before the coronavirus arrested us in our stride, in late March, people across India were in the throes of other urgent campaigns: Who is a citizen? What is the role of a university in a modern, democratic society?

I want to pose the question thus: Is there a connection between citizenship and student-ship, to coin a new word for this conversation? This lockdown may have curbed the movements of those of us who have comfortable holes to retreat to, but this forced retreat has in addition given some of us the room to turn over the big questions of our times.

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with an aunt, herself a former teacher, who expressed her disapproval of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and the students protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “Why don’t they just concentrate on their studies and stay out of politics,” my aunt opined. I argued that being a student is not just a condition of receptivity, where students take in information/knowledge and subsequently demonstrate their competence in an examination. There is a lot more to education than the storage, management and retrieval of information/knowledge

If we are, according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to become an atmanirbhar or self-reliant, self-sufficient nation, should we not, as a society, be evaluating the knowledge we receive/impart? How about assessing the epistemological roots that have given rise to the knowledge we are circulating; and its efficacy for the glocal context going forward? To put it in Gandhian metaphors of swadeshi and khadi, it is time to deliberate afresh on our economic, political, nay our very moral choices.

The Hindu nationalist agenda of the current government, which seeks to return the country to a glorious albeit mythic past, notwithstanding, we need to examine the emphasis of our indigeneity in determining the contours of our own modernity. How do we balance the apparent binary between the home spun, and the locally generated, on the one hand, and the globally interwoven tapestries of technology, information and currencies, on the other.

If the national economy is shrinking appreciably as a result of the pandemic, what educational stimulus is the government providing to ensure that we have a dynamic generation capable of leading the nation across the concurrent tensions of the local and the global.

Also read: Is Social Distancing Feasible for a Majority of Schools in India?

Just to take an obvious example; most institutions of higher education have hurriedly adopted the internet application Zoom for the online delivery of academic material, to close out this academic year. Zoom happened to be the software gaining clientele in multinational corporations, that seek to assemble employees from across the world to meet online in synchronous time. Its default use in education reflects the fact that corporate practices, rather than sound pedagogy, have sway in our classrooms. No doubt, cost was the determining factor. But there are countless other apps that could have ushered in a very different pedagogical style from the one practiced today in face to face learning/teaching across the country. Asynchronous interactions between faculty, students and community can add a whole new dimension to education.

As with so much else, the coronavirus pandemic has inadvertently become the stress test that institutions are being subjected to. Had the Ministry of Human Resource Development made a timely recommendation on what kind of online learning app would be most appropriate for different kinds of colleges and universities, we could have turned this unexpected break in our academic calendars, into a blessing in disguise.

There is another facet to online learning, besides the ease of delivery. It the democratic potential of digital technology. In 2007, Karen Mossberger et al published Digital Citizenship: The Internet, Society and Participation, in which the authors established that “digital access, digital skill and literacy, and, ultimately, digital citizenship,” are the hallmarks of modern societies the world over. The neutral gear that the pandemic forced us into for almost 4-5 weeks could have been imaginatively deployed to switch gears.

Also read: What a Survey of Children in Bihar Revealed About Online Schooling

We could have modified our educational goals to introduce the concepts of citizenship afresh. The rather narrow limits of the public discourse around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, that had elicited such sharp and opposing responses from students, activists and politicians across the country, resulting in a veritable stalemate, just before the pandemic, could have been given a positive turn by the leadership from both the ruling party and the opposition groups at the level of the states and the Centre.

I said earlier that education is more than about the storage, management and retrieval of information. So, what is it that we need to inject into our educational system to ready students for a post-pandemic world? Digital literacy, after all, is more than what one needs to manage one’s social media accounts.

We need to connect citizenship and student-ship; to cultivate habits of civic engagement not only in our students but others who claim to be educated. Being credentialed by an institution to practice one’s professional skills, and be gainfully employed, is to fulfil only a fraction of one’s social responsibilities as an educated citizen. Despite not having the advantages of higher education, the women at Shaheen Bagh understood this responsibility very well; why can’t other civic-minded people follow suit?

As early as 1987, sociologist T.H. Marshall argued that digital citizenship was a means of facilitating the equal economic activities of all members of society as well as their increased political participation. To these civic habits I will add the necessity of paying attention to how our elected representatives are conducting the business of governance even in times when an election is not imminent. We have seen how farmers use social media to get professional advice from geologists and meteorologists on how much water their crops need and when they need it, depending on water levels in the soil, and larger weather patterns. Digital media provides us with the resources to form vibrant online communities. The lockdown has given us the time to explore these possibilities.

Let us examine the timeline. On May 12, the prime minister gave a speech on the opportunities that would open up after the pandemic, for India to become a self-reliant nation. On May 30, the prime minister has been compelled to apologise in a letter to the nation for the government’s indifference to the plight of the migrant workers, following the lockdown at the end of March. The conspicuous absence of any mention of the migrants’ plight in his May 12, has been the subject of considerable social media chatter.  It is possible that social media may have led the prime minister to a swift course correction.

Modern India has entered the age of digital citizenship/studentship. Under the circumstances, we can no longer treat our classrooms as the static arena for the imparting of information. We must invert or transform our classrooms, chat rooms and Twitter feeds into theatres of engaged democracy where tools of research, analysis and critical comparison are par for the course.

Also read: Bureaucracy Forgets It Is Staff and Students that Make a University, not Exams

Online learning is not confined to the delivery of course content from faculty to student; it is the preferred medium of communication among students, and should be opened up to other digital citizens as well. Assignments designed to turn the students outward and to connect their subjects with the person on the street, are an easy first step in digital citizenship connecting with studentship. Colleges and universities along with other civic organisations are laboratories for what we want to become as a progressive society.

Next time somebody makes the argument: “Why do these JNU types turn everything into politics?” I will say, “Wouldn’t you rather that those who study history, political science, sociology, anthropology, law and world languages and cultures, manage the august affairs of the country, rather than those without any experience in digital citizenship?”

As citizens of a self-reliant, maturing global power, we should be demanding that aspirants for political office demonstrate their experience in building institutions of democracy and strengthening campaigns of people power.  Voters need proof of politicians’ competence in building digital citizenship as a means to social progress.  Let us use this lockdown to pivot the conversation on citizenship from place and date of birth, as criteria for citizenship, to the exciting possibilities of digital citizenship.

Poonam Arora, PhD has, until recently, been a professor of humanities and an educational administrator in the US. She is now a freelance writer based in New Delhi.