Youngsters: Are You Ready to Rethink Education?

We cannot let students be reduced to clients and teachers to service providers.

Recently, as I was looking at a newsletter of a leading private airline, I felt the tremendous power of appeal of the commodification of education. In fact, apart from the list of food items and drinks the airline sells for the customers, the newsletter contains gorgeous ads of all sorts of private universities and institutes of technology and management.

What is interesting is that all these education centres have not the slightest hesitation in selling their courses as a product with immense value for the corporate sector. The collaboration with ‘foreign universities’, the ‘high ranking’ as declared by some agency or the other, the ‘international’ faculty and, above all, the lure of ‘placement and package’ – the narratives of these ads suggest that the meaning of education has changed drastically. It seems the emergent middle class – guided by a mix of technocratic rationality and market-driven desires – is willing to buy this sort of education.

It is at this crucial juncture that the youngsters are also applying for admissions in liberal/public universities like the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. Till now , these universities have not given their ads in the newsletters of private airlines, or on television channels.

Somehow, this assures an old-fashioned teacher like me; it makes me believe that even now youngsters like to take admission in these places because they realise that everything that is good need not necessarily be loud, and sell itself as a packaged product. Or to put it symbolically, reading a book by Romila Thapar in the JNU library, or being inspired by a professor at DU to enquire into the perspectives of Andre Beteille and Amartya Sen on social inequality, has its own beauty; it is not like ordering a cup of heavily priced cappuccino in a private aircraft.

Also read: How Neoliberalism Fragmented Our Universities and Staved off Student Unrest

Yet, the trend towards absolute marketisation of education is so powerful that it is not easy to overcome the anxiety about the very purpose of growing up in a university. Is it possible to convince the new generation that there is something deep about the meaning of being educated, that it is beyond ‘skill learning’ and its intrinsic value is immeasurable? Possibly, as teachers and students, we face enormous challenges in this age – heavily dominated by coaching centres, traders of ‘knowledge’ and management-induced rationality of ‘success’ and ‘productivity’ – to save education.

Seeing through the ‘market-media-management’ conspiracy

I believe we should still try to establish the link between education and wisdom. No, I am not speaking of saintly or spiritual wisdom. By wisdom I mean the ability to distinguish organic needs from the market-driven greed, truth from propaganda, authenticity from cleverness, and inner beauty from outer packaging.

Students study history and physics, biology and commerce, or literature and sociology; but more often than not, bookish knowledge remains outside one’s inner being; there is hardly any politico-cultural or ethical churning. And as teachers, we too somehow do the assigned ‘job’, complete the syllabus, take the exam and hardly bother about the bridge that has to be built between theory and practice, or learning and self-realisation.

Also read: The ‘Liberal’ Education Envisaged by the Draft NEP Has No Role for Dissent

In fact, the power of the ‘market-media-management’ alliance is so overwhelming that despite our university degrees, we tend to get carried away by the propaganda machinery. The market tells us that everything is a product, and hence unless your education sells, it has no value. The media industry bombards our minds, and ‘success’ is associated with money, power and glamour. Likewise, the entire management discourse believes in ‘productivity’, ‘measurable outcome’ and fancy packaging.

Somehow, we tend to accept that a Bollywood star is more valuable than, say, a poet; a PhD in history is laughable, particularly when a hotel management worker earns more than a professor; and a course in literary criticism or philosophy is waste of time and resources, if nothing ‘productive’ can emerge out of these ‘subjective’ states of mind.

Yes, the ‘market-media-management’ narrative has created self-doubt even among otherwise sensitive students and teachers. And this is really frightening.

If the critical faculty disappears, and with low self-esteem we submit before this dominant trend, what would remain of education? Techniques triumph; wisdom vanishes. Or, despite a degree in philosophy or political studies, we would continue to support the cult of narcissism, the aggression of ecologically destructive development projects, the militarisation of the human consciousness, the normalisation of violence in everyday life, and the close affinity of cricket, Bollywood, politics and corporate houses. This is like being trained to promote the status quo.

However, in this age of mass consumption and violence, the ugliness of gross inequality and the glitz of affluence, and inner emptiness and outer glamour, we ought to assert time and again that education has to be experienced as the celebration of all that is positive, life-affirming and genuinely authentic. Yes, young students are possibilities; and teachers (even if the system wants to reduce them into mere ‘service providers’) are catalysts; and when they come together in the form of a dialogic relationship, a revolution takes place in the classroom.

No fancy ad can capture the moment – what it means to study Marx and Foucault, Gandhi and Illich, Eliot and Tagore, and Shankara and Sartre.

One dominant feature of the prevailing practice of education is that we are oriented to the technique of mastering the outer realm through a pragmatic mix of ‘skills’ and instrumental knowledge. In this entire exercise, dominated by what I regard as the ‘engineering’ mindset, what is missing is the art of cultivating the inner world of the learner. It is possible to have ‘skilled’ scientists, techno-managers and bureaucrats; yet, the everyday world we live in may remain violent, toxic and insensitive. And, despite the ‘skills’ we learn, our inner world might remain deserted and empty.

Also read: The Systematic Dismantling of Public Higher Education in Western UP

It is sad that we have almost forgotten that to be educated means to be soft and sensitive; to be educated means to be a caring person with heightened empathy; and to be educated means to be reflexive and contemplative.

What worries me as a teacher is that the aesthetics of education has been ruthlessly killed by the market-driven technocratic culture of ‘skill learning’. Its implications are devastating. As reflexivity disappears and the poetry of existence withers away, we tend to become one-dimensional. Coaching centres, technical institutions, placement, 9-5 routinisation leading to what Albert Camus would have regarded as the ‘absurd’, fulfilment of artificially constructed needs, and a never-ending race: is it for which education prepares us?

I believe we must encourage youngsters to ask this question. Possibly, a new culture of lifelong learning (something beyond the imagination of education shops) can emerge out of this politico-existential query.

Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University.