All of us got more or less, what we wanted,
all except Amalkanti –
who used to think so much about sunlight
that he wanted to become sunlight.
∼ From a Bengali poem by Nirendranath Chakraborty
As the new academic session is about to begin, the youngsters – after passing through a faulty pattern of evaluation quantifying academic achievements through abstracted numbers and pedagogically irrelevant ‘cut-offs’ – will begin a new journey. What does this transition mean – from the protected and ‘disciplined’ spaces of families and schools to colleges and universities filled with a mix of ‘freedom’, higher level of learning and aspirations/anxieties associated with adulthood?
At a time when Indian society is passing through a rapid transformation because of market-induced desires, aspirational/restless middle-class normalising the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’, massive commodification of education and turbulent politics, is it possible for the young minds to feel college life as a liberating experience?
As a teacher continually interacting with young minds, I feel that there are two issues that need to be addressed to understand the fate of the young in the domain of higher education.
Beyond the regimentation of discipline and other-directed excitement
As my memory takes me back to my college days, I understand with absolute empathy the challenge of freedom the youngsters would be confronting. I recall a friend of mine who was a ‘disciplined’/’good boy’ from one of the leading Ramakrishna Mission schools in West Bengal –known for its ‘moral education’ and ‘disciplined’ living (with a meticulously structured timetable) under the constant supervision of the monks.
Yet, with his entry into Presidency University in Kolkata – known for its intellectual vibrancy, radical politics and relatively relaxed mixing of boys and girls – the structures of his earlier ‘disciplined’ self began to collapse. He began to bunk classes, drink heavily and often justify this act by arguing that even a veteran filmmaker like Ritwik Ghatak was anarchic and alcoholic. As I see, his earlier ‘discipline’ was based on fear and regimentation; never did it become his inner music, the very rhythm of his conscience; and his new ‘freedom’ in the college was also shallow and imitative – the return of the repressed, and complete lack of control over the movement of life in the absence of stern headmasters.
I feel that even today for many youngsters, life at colleges poses a similar challenge. It is at this juncture that they are endowed with an existential riddle – how to see beyond the chains of regimented discipline and irresponsible freedom, and how to experience the depths of freedom as a reflexive quest and a continual dialogue with the self and the world.
In fact, it is in the domain of human relationships that this freedom ought to manifest itself. Even though there is a Bollywood image (the Karan Johar variety) of the college as a space of instant romance, dance, music and picnic parties, the fact is that it is a complex domain – you experience heterogeneity, you feel more strongly the meaning of engaging with the opposite sex as friends/colleagues/co-travellers, you find teachers of a different kind and new academic challenges, you find the library, the cafeteria and the theatre/film club as sites of experimentation and new relationships.
The art of living in this new domain – distinctively different from the protective context of the family and the rigid structures of school life – requires the cultivation of freedom: the freedom to understand others without objectifying/stereotyping them, the freedom to retain the beauty of symmetrical gender relationships, the freedom to relate to teachers as dialogic partners, and above all, the freedom to retain the grace of life.
However, the obstacles are enormous, and freedom is never an easy proposition. Even in ‘good’ colleges, privileged youngsters tend to stigmatise others on the basis of caste, ethnicity, look, accent, and English. As the contemptuous expressions like ‘chinki’ or ‘bahenji’ reveal. Likewise, in a media-induced/other-directed world, it becomes exceedingly difficult to retain the faith in one’s uniqueness; the constant pressure to look like others, or to follow the dominant imagery associated with an institution (say, Fabindia if you are at Lady Shri Ram College) diminishes the spirit of freedom. Is it this reason that at times a college looks like a site of what David Riesman regarded as ‘other-directed’ personalities, and heavily ‘sponsored’ gorgeous college festivals are filled with standardised pop culture industry?
Moreover, when you attend classes only for getting ‘notes’ or for fear of the rule of mandatory attendance, you do not realise the freedom of being a vibrant learner celebrating joyful learning as an intense engagement with the teachers. At a time when the aggression inherent in consumer culture reduces every experience into an object for instant consumption, the ‘having orientation’, to use Erich Fromm’s language, disrupts the rhythm of human relationships; even ‘falling in love’, as canteen/hostel gossips in a college would suggest, becomes a matter of prestige, an exercise of possession, or a demonstrative Valentine’s Day spectacle.
That is why, as youngsters enter college they are bound to grow up with these challenges emanating from the dialectical interplay of positive life-energy and temporal excitements, engaged learning and strategic formula for success, love and desire, and authentic self-quest and the lure of fashion. The spirit of being young is to undergo this complex journey.
Job seekers, scholars and awakened citizens
This is also the time to think of careers, and it is, therefore, not surprising that one begins to see oneself as a job seeker. While its importance can by no means be denied, the problem arises when one sees education only through the angle of what private universities and technical institutions regard as ‘placement’ and ‘salary package’. This obsessively instrumental approach – quite popular among the aspiring middle-class in the hyper-competitive neo-liberal market – diminishes all noble aspirations, utopias and dreams associated with the youthfulness of being.
Poetry dies, good cinema disappears and the urge to read the good stuff outside course material is ruthlessly repressed. These job seekers fail to evolve a positive orientation to meaningful education – say, the way a student of history reads Fernand Braudel and Eric Hobsbawm, and feels immensely excited about it, or the way a student of physics, despite intense engagement with lab work, manages time to visit the library and issue the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Hermann Hesse. It is sad if the spirit of creative and intellectual adventure disappears from the life of a college/university student, and he/she dreams of becoming merely an employee of a multinational corporation.
While job seekers become dull, routinised and superficially smart at a time when there ought to be the flowering of youthfulness, even ‘good students’ – the ones who attend classes, follow the teacher’s instructions and do well in tutorials and assignments – can become instrumental in another way. For them, a scholarship is also a kind of fetish, a sort of ‘cultural capital’, or yet another calculated move for getting a scholarship abroad. No wonder, they hate politics; they hate all sorts of ‘diversions’. Possibly, many ‘sanitised’ private universities and elite colleges promote this ‘politics-free’ environment; and at the same time, politically troubled public universities are condemned by the media and over-protective guardians.
True, there is reason to be worried when campus politics is lumpenised, and ‘big’ parties use the young for their partisan goals. However, the answer is not an escape from the larger societal issues; the answer is not naked careerism (‘bourgeois’ in aspirations, ‘subaltern’ in historiography) in the name of scholarship; possibly, the answer is life-affirming/positive politics – the politics that transforms a scholar into what Antonio Gramsci would have regarded as an ‘organic intellectual’, the politics that awakens human sensibilities and makes one an active participant in the shared public domain.
The irony is that neo-liberal rationality seeks to privatise public issues (for instance, you need not bother about the supply of safe drinking water, buy mineral water instead, don’t raise an issue regarding public transportation, use your smartphone to hire an Ola/Uber service) instead, and new technological gadgets further intensify the degree of atomisation. The ethos of alternative politics as a mode of ‘counter-culture’ ought to resist this atomising tendency – the culture of narcissism. Who can do it better than the youth? To be young is to relate. To be young is to love. To be young is to resist the principle of domination.
Is it possible for the college-going generation to redefine itself as blooming flowers – not merely as calculative job seekers or intellectually burdened narcissistic scholars?
Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.