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In This Bewildering Time

By Debasish Chowdhury

“Education,” said Robert Frost ( the poet who made famous the immortal lines,  ‘I have miles to go before I sleep’), is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” Such an appreciation of what education truly is and ideally should be, unfortunately has few takers in today’s surcharged ambiance. After all, inability to empower learners to cope with life and its multifarious challenges confidently makes any educational exercise a total flop.

Admit it or not but we live in a grossly intemperate time. Violence, be it in the mind space or be it in the physical world, wittingly or otherwise, seems to have taken us under its firm control.  To feel it, one need not go hunting at places; a peep in any campus canteen or viewing a news channel or taking a stroll in a market or any such public place can make one alive to the reality of the boiling temper seething from within each one of us. All discourse that may end in disagreement has violence implicit in it. The implicit violence manifests vividly when one’s ability and willingness to dissent decently goes for a toss.

Selectively abetting mob violence has always and often been a powerful tool in the hands of the powers when the concern was to suppress opposition challenging their authority. History of civilisation is replete with victims of mob persecution with Jesus Christ himself leading the roll. Violence in the present time may not be a new phenomenon but the deep inroad it had made in our psyche and the ever widening social expanse it seems to be steadily gaining control over, indeed has reached a frightening level these days and is threatening the world order to explode any moment.

We may recall that in 1782, a Virginian citizen of prominence, Charles William Lynch by name, probably first applied the term ‘Lynch law’ to a social action initiated at his instance to suppress the 1780 American Revolutionary uprising. The modus operandi of that action was to deliver instant justice (?) by taking recourse to a process that involved a summary trial at an informal (read  mob) court and  hand down on the spot sentences causing grievous hurt and even death to those pronounced guilty. Virginia General Assembly legitimized the extra legal action of Lynch in 1782 itself. In the years that followed, lynching acts became a routine affair for the blacks in America. If the records are accurate, thousands of men and women lost their lives there in such barbaric actions.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, many would instantly recall, did provide a heart-rending account of what racist hostility may truly signify. Pathetic real life stories in which America starkly negated its fabled democratic principles by using lynch law remains a blot not on America alone but on  humanity as a whole. To its credit, we must, however, admit that it was the Americans again who came forward first to protest against blatant use of the lynch law. It is no surprise then that in 1939, when Billie Holiday lent his voice to the famed ‘Strange Fruit’ song capturing the ugly brutality of the hydra-headed undying racism, in particular, the racism against African-Americans in America, the song received a resounding response.

Penned by Abel Meeropol, a poet teacher, this song continues to inspire artistes of diverse hues even to date as a protest song that once used to resonate in venues across New York City including the famous Madison Square Ground where sometime back our own Prime minister too was accorded a warm public reception.

In India, thanks to the intemperate tendencies dictating our contemporary times, mob lynching on flimsy pretexts seem also to have struck a root in a rather unwarranted fashion. Even a bland academic discourse that dares to tease the now dominant far rightist perception remains fraught with the risk of a violent flare ups. Discourses on nationalism or ferrying bovines from one place to the other, in recent times, has often resulted in violent upsurge. Ringside appreciations of this dramas is being played out at regular intervals and across the territorial spread of the country can ill afford to ignore this sad contemporary reality. Indeed, ours is an impatient and unforgiving time in which compassion and concern for a dissenting voice often is a sign of weakness or absurd stupidity.

Propaganda aimed at serving oblique interests, history tells us, have often been an effective tool in fanning mass passion. Shrewdly tailor picked words from great books usually work wonders in this respect. For instance, if we only say, “The world is a family,” while actually Maha-Upanishad says, “Small men discriminate against people as relatives or strangers; only the magnanimous see the world as family,” the subtle suppression of the preceding qualifiers wittingly distorts the original’s theme spirit. By slyly highlighting only a limited context, this distortion tacitly underplays the fact that such high philosophic striving is never a given. To accept the ‘world as a family’ as life-philosophy is not subservient to small mindedness by any stretch of imagination. To claim such loftiness as real can indeed be blatantly misleading.

Lessons of history are generally hard earned and yet, we seldom take enough care to give them the due they deserve. Falling prey to misguided propaganda or responding to impulsive emotions seems to have been a general sickness for humanity in all ages or else, why do men indulge over and over again in repeating past mistakes. Through the ages, we kept learning that peace and cooperation ensures progress and yet, our fallibility to transient impulses often leads us into acts of mindless violence at our own peril.

Enriching our creative self through quality education that does not swell our information base alone could have made a real difference. Education can only be our vehicle of progress; progress of a kind that ensure quality living not bounded and defined in terms of redoubtable statistics on growth and development. In India, for centuries, education was a prerogative only of the privileged castes. Keeping it out of purview of the larger segment of her people (women included) has been India’s bane for too long a time to discount.

Onset of the colonial period enabled the people of India to override, though in a limited extent, the then prevalent caste hierarchy to reclaim its rightful entry into the realm of education. The scope of learning science and liberal philosophies returned in people’s lives through the educational edifice that largely was a western missionary creation. The coverage of that educational edifice was hardly commensurate to the needs on the ground but that the door of education was at last flung open for all deserves a humble acknowledgement.

The colonial educational setup obviously did not envisage equipping its recipients with the ability to live and evolve on their own. It was planned to create a reasonably competent workforce from within that would serve the interests of the colonial regime. Ensuring loyalty and subservience to the ruling regime, therefore, was a key concern of the colonial educational scheme. Creating liberated, free thinking, competent and confident people who would be able to take destiny in their own hands never was in its agenda.

It was only natural therefore to expect that post independence, India would devote herself full scale to promote for her people a self empowering education system. Sadly, seven decades down the line and after scores of recommendations from education commissions, the educational setup of the land still continues to languish with basic flaws. The emphases on rote learning, the inability to design and dispense education from the perspective of its recipients, lack of functional autonomy are some of the basic weaknesses that keep our educational setup under siege.

Designed largely in the intellectual culture of the period of enlightenment, the education system of India fundamentally stresses on a learning mode that is high on ordaining its recipients rather than enabling them to inculcate a spirit of independent and divergent thinking. The real delivery expected from today’s education system, however, lies not in the spirit of “filling the buckets” approach “but in lighting the fire” of independent and divergent thinking in its recipients.

The learning activities in India today warrant a full scale reorientation in their approach. With enhanced stress on globalization and a rapidly expanding virtual market increasingly engaging itself in trans-border transactions of resources and expertise, it is an absolute necessity now that our manpower resources strive to match the global standards to remain relevant. The fast changing and rather unpredictable global economy makes it imperative that products of any modern day education system remain increasingly creative and capable of divergent thinking.

Reorient our educational setup we must. To make that happen, it is imperative that we recreate in all our institutions of learning an ambiance that ensures functional autonomy and encourages responsible free thinking.  For reclaiming the glory we claim as our heritage, that would be the first step towards a new beginning. Whether we would take the call or not, of course, is a tale altogether different.

(Debasish Chowdhury is currently working as the Controller of Examinations, Sikkim University)

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