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The turmoil at JNU and other universities demand certain introspections regarding the institutions of higher education across the country. When there is a massive paradigm shift happening in our social discourses, the movement towards a neoliberal economy and culture, student community ought to be an informed and educated one. Apart from these premier institutions, how are the student communities responding to these changes? How awakened are they to the current social realities? How are their responses shaped? Who addresses them and shapes their political sensibilities?  This large community of students will play a significant role in nation building. So how are we equipping them in this world of fake news and sensationalism?

In this scenario, should classrooms provide a space for political discussions? Should sensitive topics be discussed within classrooms in the presence of an informed educator?

We live in a deeply polarized world, where the politics of identities is cleverly exploited by neoliberal structures and hegemonic power centres to their benefit. Often common man plays into their hands, imagining himself to be wielding power, when in reality, he is being exploited and manipulated by the power hierarchy. Indian society is no different and the presence of varied media spaces worsen this situation. Now that we have several platforms for discussions, one would expect more conversations and awareness on social issues, but instead we have regressive worldviews and arrogant opinions, casually conversed, with a diminishing interest in research or intellectual pursuit.

How can classrooms become proactive spaces for discussions and debates?

For teachers, uncomfortable conversations within classrooms are always better than assuming a stance of being apolitical and staying clear of sensitive issues that students encounter in life.  Of course, students should learn to identify fake news, but they should also be equipped to comprehend and respond to social issues, especially in contemporary India. Politically ignorant population can be easily swayed through rhetoric that borders on melodrama, with exaggerated gestures, to create a visual impact on the audience.

Ignoring, sidelining issues, sensitive ones, does not alter the reality of their existence. They are avoided for fear of causing friction, or because of the incompetence of the teacher. Students, on the other hand, are constantly being bombarded by the same issues, outside the classroom, through social media, television and other mass media. Often, they are left to choose for themselves, a stance which they might feel to be right.  In an age of affective politics, young minds can be easily swayed by emotional appeals and clarion calls for patriotism or nationalism, often invoking age-old traditions or a mythical past when the ‘nation’ reigned over others, economically and politically.

So, who moderates these discussions? There are teachers who claim to be apolitical. Since knowledge is shaped by power hegemonies, the claim to being apolitical is a sham, a hypocrisy that ought to be challenged. Since classrooms and curricula are political, are part of an ideological apparatus, as prescribed by a politically defined nation, every statement made, every lecture delivered in a classroom is also political.

In this environment, at least language classes, along with humanities and social sciences, should provide the golden opportunity for teachers and students to be critically active in classrooms, learn to use polite language in debates and arguments. In a world where our words can be heard through various social media, it is vital to be trained to stay on topic without being offensive or personal and participate in discussions.

In a democracy, citizen’s participation is active and decisive, and teachers have the freedom to express their choices and positions on various media, along with the students. Since these platforms are to a large extent unmonitored, these opinions can be damaging and detrimental to the students who are shaping their sensibilities, as youngsters. In a classroom, in a closely monitored environment, the teacher gets to create the environment for vibrant discussions and allows a glimpse into the world of constructive criticism and critical thought processes.

American Educational Research Journal conducted a study on political neutrality in classrooms and the lead researcher Alyssa Dunn made some interesting observations. She said that since education is inherently political, the stance of political neutrality only hurts the cause of neutrality. It validates social divides, through avoidance of sensitive topics, while the students remain ill-equipped to confront the real social evils. (neatoday.org) In another instance, ten former state and national ‘teachers of the year’winners in the US, wrote a letter in 2016, protesting against the election campaign of Trump where he repeatedly used xenophobia and racism and arrogant nationalism to win the elections. They wrote:“We are supposed to remain politically neutral. For valid reasons, we don’t want to offend our students, colleagues or community members. But there are times when a moral imperative outweighs traditional social norms. There are times when silence is the voice of complicity”.(Washington Post)

How do you equip your student to have public deliberations? How does she learn about constructive interventions?   How do you help students identify radical ideologies that are founded on unverified myths? How do you prepare students to tackle the onslaught of thought processes that threaten the core values that build a humane and civil society?

Then comes the crucial question, how equipped are our teachers? Apart from a few institutions, especially higher educational institutions which have teachers who are willing and are empowered to actively intervene, challenge and demand social changes, how many of our teachers across the country have clarity of vision to permit students to argue and debate in class, about social issues that are of relevance in contemporary India?

I recently saw a female teacher post the picture of a pepper spray bottle accompanied by a sarcastic comment on the Sabarimala issue. A man had used the spray on a woman who was in front of the police station seeking help from the authorities to enter the shrine. The teacher expressed her glee at the act of violence and endorsed it in clear terms. Students liked and commented on it, asserting that they supported the act of barbarity on a woman in a civil society. In another instance a young female teacher denounced the same incident and posted on Facebook. Several students responded to it and there was a discussion where her colleagues too intervened and created a platform for a constructive discussion on the topic.

Our higher education system has teachers in various systems, at the level of central universities, state universities, private and self-financed universities, and then the whole network of government and government-aided colleges where the focus is on teaching rather than on research. As per the MHRD statistics published in 2018, there are39071 colleges in India, as against 799 universities,  which also suggests the large number of students who graduate every year through these colleges. So shouldn’t we focus on these institutions and the role of teachers in imparting an education that creates responsible adults? Rather than assuming a dishonest position of being ‘politically neutral’, teachers should be bold enough to create a learning environment where students are encouraged to debate and discuss social issues and encourage them to explain their positions, challenge them and encourage them to rise above obstinate prejudices and evolve, as human beings. Being ‘apolitical’ is a crime when teachers are the easily available source of insightful observations and opinions for a large majority of students who complete their higher education through the innumerable colleges in this country.

Allegations of indoctrination may arise, but what do we want from our youngsters? An educated, rational youth-driven democracy, or a confused, violent and ignorant mobocracy?

Swapna Gopinath is a Fulbright fellow at the University of Rochester, New York and actively observes and responds to political and cultural changes in India. Her area of research falls under Cultural Studies and Visual Culture.


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