What are iconic institutions, selling to confused minds?
Everywhere I traveled in the recent months, I found students of higher learning institutions, emotionally challenged. Largely, they appear to be living in a state of unexplained anger-stressed out, or perhaps frustrated, or both. For mysterious reasons today, our public universities have morphed into turbulent institutions.
With angry students, unhappy teachers and stubborn, hard-headed administrators, the idea of a university that exists as an intertwined space for dialogue, communication, dissemination and transaction of multiple knowledge traditions, or its unique, politico-ethical worldviews -it seems, has placed the survival of universities, in grave danger.
Only last Sunday, Editors at Chicago's Northwestern University's campus newspaper had to apologize, for its coverage of student demonstrators, which they said was invasive and had 'hurt students'. Obviously, this had spurred a swift backlash from professional journalists-and a broader reckoning, over reporting practices and diversity in newsrooms.
Something similar and sinister is taking shape, in the subcontinent of India-a huge country which boasts of its Universities, to be twice the number of Colleges in existence, all over America.
Do we observe a specific resemblance in this pattern? Recently, it was reported from New Delhi, India's capital city- that goons and bouncers had been hired to attack the students at Jamia Millia Islamia-another local institution, that boasts of Muslim majority students, who had been protesting against the administration. Unfortunately, the buck does not stop here. Shantinekatan - yes, Tagore's Shantinekatan-where, a permanent police camp is now underway, fully set to be installed. And, seldom do we get any positive news from iconic JNU; where the administration seems to be determined to destroy the core principles and values of this great university.
In the United States, President Trump has made the fight for political correctness and pushing its boundaries, central to his identity. The issue of free speech on college campuses has become a rallying cry to some of his supporters, including many young conservative activists, who point to instances around the country in which conservative viewpoints - and appearances by conservative speakers - have been shunned or protested by liberal students and professors.
In the backdrop of India's rich cultural heritage, I am so sad to see this state of academic affairs in this vast country.
And, simultaneously we are witnessing the death of the ideals of education as put forth by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Zakir Hussain and Jawaharlal Nehru. If public universities and sacred spaces, start to crumble, we obviously are going to lose the spirit of a democratic ideals of an affordable, good-quality education - particularly directed towards those who have been unable to lay hands on what the fancy private universities sell, in this age of large scale, trade in education.
Yes, with a sense of gratitude, I recall the role of public universities I had witnessed not long ago. My father - a middle class business owner and manufacturer of kerosene-fueled, metal stoves - was the only source of bread and butter for the family, consisting of seven siblings. And it was really possible to achieve what I did in life, because of my association with good and affordable public institutions like the St. Gregory's High, and Notre Dame College in Dhaka and of course, the University of Karachi, where I had obtained my education.
Later on in 1998, I had proceeded to Perth, Western Australia to study Education Management. I do not believe it was only the academic degree that had mattered most; for me, the Australian institution had altered my worldview and enriched my horizon. In Karachi, I had been able to witness a few talented students with clear vision-particularly those students who had come from the rural, faraway areas of the desert country. These students had included the marginalized sections of this ruthlessly, hierarchical society.
This sensitivity to cultural diversity and classes of society had but humanized me and even had gone on, to democratize my consciousness.
And further, as a teacher, I have also had the good fortune of witnessing some amazing narratives: a poor Hindu boy from Ghotki in Sindh, had excelled in academics, and turned up to emerge as a radical activist; an underprivileged student from northern and faraway northern Biltistan, had evolved as an immensely sensitive mind, to mature in life, as a good teacher at a leading college in the province; or a tribal girl from Biratnagar in Nepal, who had written quite a significant PhD thesis, to join her country's Civil Service.
Ostensibly, these are the possibilities that are implicit in a good public university. It has questioned the continual reproduction of social inequality; it has made us believe that 'merit' or 'cultural capital' is not the exclusive privilege of the select few. We have many examples of those who are privileged to go to India's Doon school and then, migrate to England and America. Or, the talented students St. Gregory's High, in Dhaka, who choose to study abroad, after short two year stint at Notre Dane College and then are successfully placed at an ivy school near Boston, USA.
Is it worth reminding ourselves, that with the assertive discourse of neoliberal capitalism, the ruling regime has always tended to become uncomfortable with even the slightest trace of the State's welfare-oriented policy? Is it that the new middle class - a product of market-oriented, cosmopolitan and consumption-promoting, corporate culture - has become absolutely hostile to the idea of a public university?
As education becomes a commodity (a packaged product, or a merely techno-managerial skill), the culture of public universities - say, the prevalence of 'non-utilitarian' humanities and social sciences, or the ethos of political debate, argumentation and contestation relating to caste, gender, nation and identity - is not always appreciated by those who wish to buy only the job-oriented 'skills' in sanitized or insulated or overpriced private institutions.
Is it the reason why these days, there is so much negative reporting about any movement that takes place in a public university? It is sad to see how some of our 'patriotic' television channels, in whatever country we live- have castigated some of the best and model institutions as 'anti-national'. After all, it should not be forgotten that the proponents of totalitarian politics have always hated and feared young minds who know how to think, question, reflect and respond!
I have no hesitation in saying that many of our students-in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal have demonstrated an extraordinary spirit of courage. They have made us believe- that a university is not a factory for manufacturing 'loyal conformists'; instead, the goal of liberating education is to activate the spirit of critical thinking.
Only the other day, I had received a message from a student. 'Sir, I am constrained to boycott the University convocation.
At a time when the entire university is in turmoil, and with the proposal of enhancing form fee - and that too in a completely undemocratic fashion, many underprivileged students are likely to lose the right to education. Hence, my conscience doesn't permit me to take the PhD degree from the Vice-Chancellor or the dignitaries invited at this auspicious gathering.
As a matter of fact, I had felt proud of my student's act of dissent. His rebellion became an act of critical pedagogy. And at times, I did feel proud when I heard these young minds speaking: the way, with extraordinary clarity, they debunk the entire politics that conspires against public universities.
It is refreshing to see young minds not merely preoccupied with 'placement' and 'salary package.' It is also sad to see the role of our administrators. They have ceased to be teachers or effective communicators. There is no trace of Bapuji MKG, or Bangabandhu SMR or India's great divider in chief, the Quaid-e-Azam, who have proved themselves to be outstanding leaders in their own realm.
As the brilliant scholars today, see every act of resistance as a 'law and order' problem, they miss the opportunity to enter the inner world of young minds: their academic aspirations amidst societal pressures, their quest for self-actualization amid the tyranny of authoritarian personalities, and their experiments with politics and culture. As eternally insecure academic bureaucrats, they have missed what a relaxed mentor needs to possess: the art of listening and the ethics of care. Not, just that. Quite often, as politically appointed Vice-Chancellors, they lose their conscience - symbolizing their inbuilt creative mechanism.
It may not be out of context to say our public universities are further stigmatized and humiliated through the presence of security apparatus and paramilitary forces, the use of the ever-expanding technologies of surveillance, the constant bombardment of showcause notices, chargesheets and circulars, and the intellectual poverty of petty administrators. Perhaps, this is a direct indication of the rising authoritarianism in all spheres of human creativity. We are living today, in an era of neoliberal capitalism. Do you still have doubts....or questions?
The writer is former educator,
based in Chicago