A turn to e-education or online academic activities is a foregone conclusion in the time of social distancing. There is no other choice available. In this situation of compulsion, however, is a chance to ask whether we can try to optimally humanize online academics.
Could this choice in compulsion not be transformed into a golden opportunity to create an innovative alternative?
This is needed in a time when we are running short of trust, faith, and strength of self in a society under tremendous psychological pressure. Mere celebration or rejection of the online mode, hybrid content of education – what is known in the sector as information communications technology (ICT) – may not serve any imperative. Instead institutions across India need to thoroughly check the humanistic and social efficacy of it.
For, to recall a profound philosopher of education Jiddu Krishnamurthy, ‘merely cramming a child with a lot of information, enabling to pass examinations and be employable, does not amount to education’.
Myopia Versus Utopia
Krishnamurthy’s nuggets of wisdom available in the lectures he delivered in the late 1940s are essentially about humanising education. This makes renewed sense in a time when multiple reports and analyses have underlined the frayed social cohesion we are experiencing during the pandemic and lock down. We need to remember that teachers and students are not immune to this rattling experience.
The reports from medical and mental health personnel have informed us of a rise in mental and psychological distress. Many cases of suicides and other kinds of ominous morbidity have occurred during the lock down. Among other things we realised that it is imperative to set our socio-cultural life right, so that we can deal with the acute vulnerability we are all experiencing due to fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.
A reinvention of education in the online mode is essential at this time. The pandemic demands reflection and a self-critical approach to life, work and value orientation from everyone, including teachers and students.
Instead, where are we headed? The administrative machineries in most of the colleges and universities across India are geared toward perpetuating the perennial problems of curriculum and pedagogy within habitual comfort zones. The bewildering flurry of emails amongst colleagues invariably reaches the conclusion, ‘teachers have to continue managing and controlling the students enrolled for various programs’.
There is a chance, at this point, for a novel sensibility that is conspicuously absent so far. A sensibility that can actually bridge the new risk-averse delimited social life of teachers and students, and the content of education. The turn to e-education alone does not solve any problem. Rather, it may in fact augment the risks associated with the dependence on smart devices, minuscule representations of artificial intelligence.
Pedagogy of The Oppressed
Unfortunately, we hear continue to hear stories from some of the critical teachers from across India about the unrelatedness of the plans of online education and our life in contemporary India. Most academic administrators are unwilling to hear the critical suggestions from discerning teachers.
As a result, colleges and universities are coming up with plans that includes the same old courses, in the same old format, with the same old pedagogy and brutal scheme of evaluation and elimination of students. There are universities and colleges planning to ensure compulsory attendance in online classes too.
And there is an ominous idea of devising a way to penalise the students with low attendance as well. It is hardly a plan for an actual educational relationship between teachers and students in a difficult time. Instead, it is a plan to shift a system of fear and anxiety online and perpetuate an oppressive model of education.
In this time of a cruel pandemic, that has made humans anxious about the very possibility of a tomorrow, such plans for online classes only exacerbate the failings of our shortsighted academic system. Many critical thinkers about education have long tried to explain the limitations of the existing brick-and-mortar education set-up.
We learned from Paulo Freire that the ‘banking’ model of education only equips students with the popular formulas of success. In such a system teachers and students have only a power relation rather than a creative relation that aids in learning. Freire proposed a pedagogy of the oppressed against this system way back in the late 1960s. The institutions of higher education left such nuanced critique of education applicable for the level of schools alone. The varsity system allegedly did not permit Freire the kind of critical insights to set the system and practices right.
As a consequence, even in this moment of profound disruption of the old ways, no one is interested in exploring novel alternatives. The times we live in demand a humanized approach to education at all levels, be it at school, college or at university. An anxiety-prone society deserves a more compassionate pedagogy where quality and experience matter, not quantity and numbers.
Could the institutes of higher education grab this unusual opportunity and deliver a pedagogy of the oppressed for students and teachers in India? Only time will tell. And so will, perhaps, the actions of our numerous teachers and scholars.
(Dev Nath Pathak is a founding faculty of Department of Sociology at South Asian University (a SAARC initiative), New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)