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Where mediocres fear to tread

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Let students think. Let them make their own choice. Do not ridicule their dissent as ‘dirty politics’. Of course, they have to know that violence in any form is disallowed. But to the intelligent, physical violence is redundant anyway.

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Catch them young and teach them not to think

I start this bit of sharing my mind with a question to all readers: What is the most common visual that crops in your mind when you are asked to describe children learning in a school in India? My firm belief is that seven out of ten of you will immediately visualize a classroom filled with kids (boys and girls mixed, most likely, for young readers, and perhaps only boys or girls for those who – like me – grew up in a uni-gender school) swaying in unison while they are reciting ‘five one zaa five, five two zaa ten, five three zaa…’, with a mostly disinterested and forced-to-be-benevolent teacher either leading the chorus, or supervising it. I grew up being part of that omnipresent picture in Indian schools. So is my daughter growing up now, and very smilingly asks me how on earth I knew how she learned her tables. There is a difference though. It was only much much later that I realized that the phrase which I parroted was actually ‘five ones ARE’, and not ‘five one zaa’ – whatever the latter means. Telling isn’t it? I hadn’t ever bothered to even find out what I recited unthinkingly meant, and persisted with utter gibberish in my childhood, and never bothered to think about it even when I grew up.

 

Until of course, I had to teach it to my son around ten years back. What on earth was “zaa”? I asked myself. And then it dawned, of course – what an idiot I had been!

 

But whose fault was it? Mine, or that of those utterly disinterested teachers? Teaching – especially at schools – has always been a thoroughly ill-paying job in India, and considered a career option of losers – those that failed in the competition and had nothing else to do. The result was straightforward. You did not like what you did. Not passionately at least. Nor with a fervor strong enough to really think about what your actual job was. Was it just to finish a mostly ill-planned syllabus, or was it to teach people to think!

 

One moment – I am sure a practicing teacher of even these times would say – what was that? Teach students to think? What vague intellectual skulduggery is that? How would the kids clear the JEE if they are taught to think and not complete the syllabus, and then do some stuff from outside as well, so as to increase the probability of cracking the most holy JEE?! Of what value is thinking if you get 60% in your school-leaving exams and do not crack at least the state JEE to get into a private engineering college? How can students become good engineers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, stockmarketeers, business-people, chartered accountants, scientists, etc – basically be defined as a success in society – if they do not perform well in exams?

 

Thus, we create successful people who are actually trained not to think. Just parrot what is written in books. Learn the stuff, cram it all into an ever-protesting brain, and then vomit during exam time. Who cares if you forget what you learned in a month after the exam? Or even two days, as long as you cracked the written exam and the interview and got the dream job? You won the battle, the war is not your concern.

 

And thus, successful people are created. Successful people in society who do not know how to think, how to analyse a situation rationally. Any situation.

 

But there is a catch in my argument, you would say – in the list of professions I provided in my rant a little while ago – I also included scientists! What was that, now?! That scientists are also created in this system proves that it is working – doesn’t it? For surely, scientists know how to think! Otherwise, how on earth are they scientists?

 

The ‘un-thinking’ scientist

Right you are, I would say. And wrong as well. For in our system, we do create scientists who cannot ‘think’. Of course for scientists, the bar is different. A scientist can write complicated computer programmes and perform complex measurements with state of the art equipment worth crores. But when I talk about thinking, I imply being creative, coming up with out-of-the-box brilliant new ideas that can change how science is practiced in the world. That can bring about a paradigm shift.

 

By saying this, I am actually being cannibalistic and even self-deprecating. For I too belong to the very clan of scientists that I refer to here, and I seem to admit that even though I make tall claims in talks in conferences and (especially) in front of funding agencies, what I have done till now has been largely incremental. Of course that is not for me to judge, but I have no qualms in admitting that I have really learnt to think in the science way and understand the science method a considerable time after I had finished curricular education – perhaps at the late stages of my PhD, and that too – by myself.  I found out independently that the method of science – namely to question, investigate, experiment, analyse, and finally conclude, strictly on the basis of the findings from the last step of the chain and within the limits allowed by the accuracy of the measurement – could be used in any sphere of life. The system did not ever teach me that. The system was actually not too particular about my getting involved in any of the spheres of life other than the small space where I did my science – for what have scientists to do with things that do not concern the instrument or the computer which is their daily bread. The system never told me that creativity cannot have bounds, and creativity in science is not too drastically different from creativity in theatre or painting or poetry. There too you need to learn the techniques and particular skills involved, but after that you need to let go, and express your very own creativity in the language of your art. But even there, you need to be aware of your surroundings, be conscious of what is happening in the world around you, react to that – and then let the thought process that drives you come up with something novel.

 

In the case of science, we often address problems that tend to be abstract, and the techniques we use to understand nature do not necessarily make too much sense or impact in the daily affairs of the world. But the crucial point is the choice – as a creative person, I cannot be told what to think, what to indulge in and what not to indulge in – I shall make my own decision. I shall absorb anything which intrigues me, excites me – I shall reject what does not. And here is where the quasi-feudal social settings we have still in India get bothered about – allowing a creative person too much creative space. Allowing a thinking person to analyse things supposedly beyond their exact subject of interest. The reason is simple – the ones in power are straightaway afraid of creative, intelligent, yet free minds – who would more often than not see through their connivances and intrigues, and indeed the dastardly ruses they employ to ensure that their power remains intact and safe.

 

The science of the politics

So can we go to the basics, and try to dig at the roots? Politics – if you search for it in Google – is primarily defined as ‘the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.’ Thus, there are two major points here – governance and debate. The former is carried out by a set of people called politicians universally. However, there is a difference between what happens in the developed world, and what happens in our country. In the former, one takes up politics as a career mostly after one is successful in a particular profession and has really learnt how to make things work in their favour. Who want to now widen their sphere of influence and power. They hold strong political opinions, though, for most of their adult lives – and these opinions are formed and nurtured mostly during their college/university days. In India, we have a very different situation. We mostly have professional politicians. Those that only indulge in politicking all their lives. Who more often than not (especially in these days) have never spent a single moment in their lives studying political science (or anything, to that matter) with any seriousness. Politicians are thus a separate class of people who reside in the havens of their respective parties, and contest, and even conduct elections. For elections in India are often an exercise in ensuring that ‘your’ voters come out and vote – and while this is certainly not rigging, it is not a very clean manifestation of a thinking democracy either.

 

 

As a result, for a considerable majority of our politicians, education is unimportant. Their concern is only and only power. Interestingly though, at the time when India was formed – this was not the case. We had a bunch of politician-philosophers who shaped this country, wrote its constitution, and ensured that it did not break into pieces after it was formed. And that it was democratic and the state did not revere a particular religion unlike most of its immediate neighbours. As time passed, the complexities in managing a country as diverse as a continent and being acceptable to all its very different people in order to win the national elections, possibly led to the acceptance of desperate means to achieve the ends. Thus, governance became more of an exercise in ensuring that the party did not lose elections. Ethics became a barrier than a best practice. Politicians therefore needed to recruit cadres in order to ensure that the election tests were passed. The recruitment of these cadres commenced in colleges. And thus, when we talk about politics in educational institutions, we imply the politics of desperate power-mongering. The politics of political parties.

 

Not the politics of governance.

 

And certainly not of debate. Since we do not think that the curricular education we force our students to swallow whole has any scope of debate. You are not really supposed to challenge the teacher – the legacy of the ‘gurukul’ continues still. Guru is virtual God, you should respect and therefore ‘Sir’-ify or ‘Madam’-ify them, make them happy by obeying, respecting, and honouring them. And thereby ensure that you never use your own mind to think. The materially denied guru is thus emotionally compensated. They too had never been taught to think, and they continue creating clones of themselves. And yet, the very essence of democracy is asking questions, displaying righteous dissent when necessary, creating institutions where rules are obeyed irrespective of the person implementing the rules. And where the rules are created after much thought and argument and finally, a consensus, or at least the consent of the majority. This is how our country had been created. And yet, this is not how we are running presently.

 

Students hold the key

The students of today shall become the leaders of tomorrow. Today they are energetic, they are impressionable, they are creative, they are restless. Their tomorrows are being shaped by our handling of them today. But even today, they hold immense power. To bring about change. Across the world, France and Japan saw tumultuous student movements late last century, during the sixties. In France, the movement changed the way the country ran forever. In Japan, it was brutally crushed at that time, but the strains did not die out, and now – the Japanese educational system has been almost entirely overhauled.

 

In India, we believe that education can only be obtained by the studying of books, taking notes, asking docile questions which would not insult the teacher in any way, and getting good marks in exams. For students studying science, the lab is an add-on. When you are a student, you should thus put your heart and soul only in the study of your subject. Learn it well, know everything possible of it.

 

Undoubtedly, you should do that. You will, automatically, if you love the subject you study. But not at the cost of shutting out your mind to the rest of the world. Having zero political consciousness and social awareness. Thinking that history is for those who failed to get science after school. And certainly by not protesting against authority irrespective of the latter’s high-handedness.

 

‘We are like your fathers’ – we were told several times at IISc where I was a graduate student. And where I was once part of a student crowd that had the Registrar (a very good friend now) get out of his abode and address it at two in the night when we caught mess-workers red-handed for stealing from the supplies and thought that the institute was turning a blind eye. Thankfully, the Registrar did not rebuke us as his naughty children at two o’clock in the morning, but there were others who did. And I still remember the irritation we all felt when a particularly insidious act (according to us) would be watered down and rationalized by this unapologetically patronizing statement. But I must say – though one of the Directors during my time did try to intimidate us by reaching out to our advisors to try threaten us (most of our advisors laughed with us on the complete inefficacy of that move), the institute was never high-handed. We too marched for salary hikes, and went berserk when the institute was apparently cutting trees on the sly – the institute mostly observed benignly. There was no question of the police. Everything was finally ever so civil. We indulged freely in the politics of our existence in the institute. We did not back down till we thought our demands were met. At least given grave hearings.

 

But even then, there were some of our own ilk ridiculing us. Some of our friends for whom life was a continuous cycle of lab, hostel, mess, and back to lab. I don’t think any of these non-politicking friends of mine are world-leading scientists now. I do not claim to be one myself, but I now edit international journals in my field of research after having started on it only after I joined my institute after five years in the industry. I think I would have done better had I been taught the art of thinking in my formative years in school and college.

 

Creativity: Proportional to freedom of the mind

Good science needs an open, unfettered mind. A mind that challenges existing ideas, that debunks stereotypes. And it cannot be that if you have a mind open in one direction, it is completely closed in another. Then, you possibly bear close resemblance to a robot that is programmed in a certain way. Most human beings are not like that. Of course, you can choose to be disinterested in anything else but your subject. But let that be only after you know your choices, and make a conscious decision.

 

To all those that shout out incessantly these days that students indulge in too much of completely ‘unnecessary’ politics, I have the following to say:

 

  1. a) Politics is not political parties.

 

  1. b) Showing dissent in a civil manner is not

 

  1. c) We deserve to be governed by intelligent, educated Please note that I do not mean curricular education here – I mean education that leads to analytical thinking which can even be taught by life to its eager student – indeed several of our most capable politicians such as Maulana Azad or Kamaraj or MGR have had no formal education as such. We need leaders of their ilk – leaders who, during their tenure as students, learned to think. We do not want parrots who recite what their political messiah teach them.

 

I do not advocate that political parties invade educational institutions. That has spelt disaster in many of our colleges, our universities, where everything is available but a proper education. Let the spaces that still attempt to mete out education be out of bounds for political parties. But that does not mean throwing the baby out with the bath-water.

 

Let students think. Let them make their own choice. Do not ridicule their dissent as ‘dirty politics’. Of course, they have to know that violence in any form is disallowed. But to the intelligent, physical violence is redundant anyway.

 

After all, a democracy cannot run close to full steam while being governed by mediocres. Mediocrity often merges with insecurity and even complete idiocy – and these cause irreparable harm to democracy. Students, that way, act as guardians to a democratic nation for they react strongly, and often immediately to any sign of democracy being compromised.

 

Gag your students, and you are probably gagging your democracy itself.

 

Ayan Banerjee is a Professor at the Department of Physical Sciences, IISER Kolkata. The views expressed are personal.

 

This article is part of a Confluence series on Students and Political Protests. The remaining articles in this series can be found here.

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