Critical unlearning: Making the journey from school to university
Ever since February 9, news on the media and social media has been dominated by JNU. The fallout of an event organised by 8 students to protest the ‘judicial killing’ of a ‘terrorist’ has been spectacular. Taxpayers are angry that their money is going towards breeding the next generation’s terrorists, while social media trolls are calling for a shut down of the entire university. The purpose of this piece is not to engage in a political polemic on the events that happened in JNU, but rather is an attempt to explain the context of the education provided there, its impact on research and finally the importance of a university in inculcating a spirit of inquiry and thinking. Before that, this piece highlights the importance of university education by differentiating it from school education.
Over the last four years, in my capacity as a teacher of History and Political Science, I have always encouraged my students to express their thoughts and beliefs, no matter how controversial or uncomfortable they may be to me or their peers. I have had students asking why certain religious groups commit acts of terror, or why do we need to talk about caste now that untouchability has been made illegal by the constitution. The importance of this lies in the fact that views have contexts and pasts and if one is to engage with contradictory views and start a dialogue it becomes important not just to listen but to understand the other and not to resort to mud-slinging. It would be very easy to isolate, demonise and exclude those students who harbour these views. However, this is where the problem arises. As a teacher, immense responsibility is placed on how to handle such delicate situations. Only by giving these students the space to express these views can one even begin a discussion to help them see the limitations of their argument, which has perhaps been drawn from incomplete or biased information.
I have learnt that it is vitally important that ‘impressionable’ kids get exposed to uncomfortable truths at an early age, to spare them the shock of hearing it in their foreign universities, where they might be fearful of having to tackle this ‘radical’ new learning without guidance. As such, events are dissected and examined through various prisms. While learning about our national movement, important aspects such as gender, caste and labour are incorporated and students are then made to look at some of the limitations that many nationalist leaders had. None of this is designed to instill disrespect or disloyalty, but only meant to show how hero-worship and one interpretation is not healthy in the long run.
The unfortunate part however is that our school education system caters to rote learning and memorisation, thus criminally depriving students and teachers of the joy of understanding the essence of the liberal arts. Moreover, the school culture in our country places emphasis on discipline, conformity and standardized learning, which, while it may ensure admission into a prestigious university, does not train students for the journey that happens in the university.
With regards to the space of a university, unlike a school, this is a place where defying authority and rules is essential. The education in the university is testament to this, as board curricula, and individual textbooks give way to closer peer to peer interaction through tutorial discussions and reading lists prescribed by professors in their courses. Events in post 1947 India, often regarded as controversial and complex and therefore shamefully ignored in our school curriculum, become an essential part of classroom discussion. It is here that realities of the nation are brought out- the ‘integration of the states’, the question of languages, regional identities and caste conflicts and so on. Here, readings hitherto unknown to the student must be read if they are to excel both in their exams and tutorials. For example, Mein Kampf was an essential read in a paper on ‘Right-Wing Movements in Europe’, for it brought into the open an individual’s carefully constructed vision for the nation. The writings of Ramaswamy Naicker which is filled with vitriol against Brahminism, Hinduism and the Congress party, were necessary reading in order to bring about the contradictory nature of the mainstream nationalist movement, which tends to ignore caste in public debate. Readings of B.R. Ambedkar on questions of caste include scathing attacks on Hinduism, as well as refutations of ‘Mahatmas’. An event such as the French Revolution, so easily understood as the event which ushered in the era of Democracy, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was called a ‘Myth’ by the historian Alfred Cobbane. Reading the Constituent Assembly debates, particularly on language brought out the tension that was prevalent in the country at the time, and shattered a pre-existing myth that Hindi was spoken by a majority of the population. Understanding the Anti-Hindi agitation and the practical usage of English went a long way in mitigating those previously held ‘truths’.
At first glance, the student has a right to be aggrieved, as his or her education in school has imbibed a sense of patriotism, loyalty and support for the country. Reading the intellectual genius (and in many cases violence) of the above mentioned individuals can be harmful if not approached the correct way. This is where pedagogy at JNU becomes important to understand. Professors are mindful that students come from different backgrounds and as a result the objective is not to instruct through a political prism, but rather through a critical unlearning of the past, to freshen the mind, and finally to instill a sense of questioning. The student does not become disloyal or dare I say anti-national, but is only increasing his or her potential for research and understanding, both important tools in the job market and academia. The notion of questioning goes a long way in shaping the student’s individual thoughts which are then expressed either through speech or writing.
In-between school and one’s job lies the experience of a university. At the extreme ends, specific tasks are required to be fulfilled, often ending up in mundane routines which do not give scope to the student to play with ideas and decipher right from wrong. In the university, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is a place where Gandhi battles with Ambedkar on the question of Caste, Adam Smith and Karl Marx engage on economics, Nehru and Bose discuss nationalism, Periyar questions India, while Savarkar and Jinnah provide their own inputs on the two nation theory. It is in this context that we must view the university. The education here is not the accumulation of facts but rather the exposure to uncomfortable truths which every student of the social sciences must be exposed to. Tutorial discussions make the students go beyond their comfort zones in order to defend their views and findings, and reach conclusions not on emotion or sentiment but analysis and reason.
Interactions with people from different regions and identities provides students the opportunities to learn about not just their peers but also their own unique histories. While a student from Delhi or Mumbai might not accept the idea of ‘azaadi’ for states from the union, a young Kashmiri student’s perspective on the reality of the state or a Manipuri’s tales of the state atrocities in his or her state goes a long way in eliminating certain myths and stereotypes one harbours from the days of the school. Here, information is not provided through the biases of politics nor through the sensationalist media, but through actual written and oral histories. If thinking differently is to be seen as a threat then the university as a concept must be destroyed.
The university is the ground for the formation of political opinion. It is the environment where a student’s beliefs and thoughts are first nurtured and then expressed.There is one other aspect of the university that must be addressed. While the above section has discussed this from an academic perspective, extra curricular activities also go a long way in ensuring a holistic development of the student. As a personal example, I would use the example of college debating societies. These societies or clubs give students the opportunity to engage in constructive argument and dialogue with their peers (for financial rewards in many cases). The methods associated with research once again are drastically different from schools. In the case of schools, a simple cut-copy-paste from the most accurate google search on a topic, followed by memorization and flowery language would seal the deal. In the university, students are discouraged from using technology and rely on the strengths of their logical and critical thinking, as well as contributions from their teammates, which go a long way in developing other skills such as argument construction from scratch and teamwork, other important skills for the future.
Moreover, choosing sides in debates is not subject to a person’s pre-disposed political affiliations or views on issues. Rather, students sometimes are forced to argue on the side of issues which they may have been uncomfortable with during their schooling. On a personal level, I have argued on the side of topics which I may personally disagree with, such as the support for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the deployment of the armed forces in Naxal affected areas in central India. The point here is not to change one’s beliefs, but only to engage and understand where the other viewpoint stems from. This has two consequences. First, the existing viewpoint one cherishes gets strengthened, as only after engaging with its adversary can the student go further into depths of his or her side and strengthen his or her position on the issue. Second, in an environment where students are constantly challenged, readings, which are sometimes difficult to grasp owing to their own political leanings are slowly absorbed by the mind, through previous experiences of debating and arguing in a civil matter, respectful of both sides. The essence of debating in the university as such, encourages students to think about hitherto taboo issues such as – homosexuality, prostitution, the conduct of the armed forces in conflict zones, among many others in order to instill not cynicism with their own views, but a welcome engagement with others, again an essential tool to take away from the system.
This piece has tried to place the university as a bridge between school and the environment of the work place. While the limitations of both have been highlighted above, it is imperative to understand, that students, once they become workers in various fields will follow definite routines, patterns and structures, and will thus become cogs to an eventual end, which might or not have personal satisfaction. Thus only the space afforded by the university allows for conflict, for disagreement, for engagement, for intellectual competition, for radicalism, and finally for a student to fully develop a frame of thinking which goes beyond the limited confines of prescribed textbooks or work routines. If we as a society continue to view the university as merely an extension of school education, divorced from politics, questioning and challenging authority, we are headed for a future devoid of independent thinking, and choice, which are the hallmarks of any progressive society. To save our society, we must save the university.