RECALLING THE MORAL QUEST

Bookshelf

Woods. By Girijaa Upadhyay. Watercolor on paper. 2015.

A Prologue to an Introduction

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en years ago Avijit Pathak wrote a book on education that would have seemed just the right stuff for a world that had just witnessed its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. That collapse whose ripples were felt across the world in one way or another proved to be a disastrously expensive testimony to human greed, tolling the bells for the unbridled, unbounded pursuit of wealth and individual ambition that had fueled financial capitalism’s implosion. On September 9 2008, Pathak wrote the preface to his book; less than a fortnight later, Lehmann Brothers the global financial firm collapsed like a house of cards that it had been. Professor Pathak does not mention the crisis nor ground his work in its swirling waters. He did not need to because his objective was not to warn us of that collapse, nor to point an admonitory finger at the outcomes of vaunting greed, of an amoral world where the “privatized self” had hubristically abandoned its duties to a collective that enshrines its rights.

Pathak had grounded his meditation on the belief-systems that underwrite modernity’s rampaging hunt for the pot of gold; a set of beliefs that he told us are sold as a package of modernity all across the world with results that are endemically disastrous; 2008 was the tipping point but the crisis was all around us, in the environment’s degradation, in the happy embrace of commoditification of everything, even education. A rampaging modernity had introduced to us its secular god. Chasing away from the public realm, indeed from public consciousness itself, the sacred it had installed a secular deity and it was called the ‘Market.’

 “Recalling the Forgotten: Education and Moral Quest” is not a critique of capitalism per se; it is not a history of how we got to where we are. It is a meditation on loss–the loss of a morality of existence as a deterrent to the emergence of a possible privatized self; a self that is stripped of the ethicality of community, compassion, of caring for fellow human beings and crucially, for nature. It is a meditation on what we in India, the backyard of metropolitan capitalism have got in our embrace of an unquestioned, unexamined modernity—in short, in our embrace of an unexamined life.

Recalling the myths by which unbridled modernity perpetrates its “slow violence” as Rob Nixon memorably calls it—on the environment and on human beings in general sets the tone for the possible recovery of the self, of redemption: the paramountcy of individual desires and rights as the guiding force of progress, the definition of “progress” itself in purely materialistic terms and the conquest of nature in the pursuit of that materiality. In the pursuit, in short of the atomized self.

And nowhere are these myths-as-truths more evident than in our education. Pathak locates a crisis in schools and universities where the myths of capitalism are passed off as universal truths where “…all-pervasive commoditification and consumerism that generate violence …through constant simulation, stimulates the aggressive urge to fulfil one’s egotistic desires…” It is in the poisoned groves of our schools and colleges in general that the seeds of an atomized, privatized unexamined life are planted.

 II

 Ten years later the acuity of its meditation on loss and recovery still resonates because ten years later, the aggressiveness of commoditized individuals and consumerism and the violence of development has spread alarmingly. “Development-Vikas” has become even more of an excuse, indeed almost a legitimization for violence on the Other as urban middle class Indians hear the dog-whistles of hate and violence, transforming the victims even more into the marginalized—women, Muslims and peasant communities.A decade after Pathak wrote about “development” erasing memories, Development-Vikas is hastening the erasure of the pastoral,, of the memories of differences, of society’s disabled identified as unwanted burdens. A decade after the book, India’s heterogeneities by which it celebrated what scholars have called the Indic tradition and its picaresque traditions is under the threat of extinction by a complicit citizenry—all in the name of development. More than ever before “Vikas” is peddled and accepted as homogenization, the programming of the modern Indian scrubbed clean of those throbbing confluences of syncretic existences.

 The development paradigm has not changed. It has become more techno-authoritarian. Its seeds were planted at the birth of our nation. Pathak does not historicize his meditation beyond the necessities of laying bare the fundamental premises of modernity and its excesses. But could it not be said that post-Independence policy discourse, abetted, perhaps unknowingly,  the atomization of the individual with its emphasis on “secularism”and “scientific temper” adopted and adored for decades as articles of faith?

 Both these notions, pillars of the Nehruvian vision for India seem in retrospect to have played a good part in planting into the education system the seeds of a materially driven idea of progress. Perhaps, some might say, our history of subjugation and deprivation required it. But a more radical alternative to the colonial-imperial project was whispered by a frail old man whom we claimed to be, in a cruel twist of irony, the Father of the Nation; rejected outright by the emerging national discourse, could its acceptance not have overturned even more radically the “imperialism of categories” that had deprived us of our moral sensibilities and turned us into willing victims of a materiality we now longed for? But we disowned our Father long before he was killed. The road to “progress” had been laid and it was lined with milestones that would measure our secularism and scientific temper. Needless to say, these categories defined the new “imperial” project; traditions, faith, spirituality, introspection, renunciation or at least austerity and the sacred groves of nature had to give way to an outward self-assurance manifested in a commitment to empirically tested and verifiable progress.

Driven from public discourse, religion moved into the headquarters of the fundamentalist. Is it any surprise that no Indian university set up departments of religious studies or theology. In the quest for development based on the scientific temper, policymaking drove religion, faith and not before long, the Humanities with its implicit search for moral sensibilities as an essential component of progress itself, from the public imagination.

If the fanatic commitment to a western-style secularism—calling for the exile of religion to the private space—possibly hastened the distortions of almost all Indic religions into instruments of nationalism, nation-states and therefore violence and aggression against fellow human beings, the scientific temper credo led to the establishments of the new temples of learning–the IITs, IIMs—as crucibles of the new Indian– subjects of a brave new world of material progress private ambition stripped of all ethical moorings that were now considered unnecessary to the pursuit of specialized “knowledge”. Under the Nehruvian discourse of development the practice of community building, concern for the marginalized, all the elements of a moral sensibility that should have marked the individual’s interface with others and nature and with the self were appropriated by the State. This was best embodied in Dr. Manmohan Singh’s exhortation to budding entrepreneurs in his second tenure as Prime Minister to unleash “animal spirits” even as the UPA II had set in motion welfare programmes.

The separation of the private self from its public or communitarian self, one is tempted to say, began well before it reached the point of crisis that presumably drove Pathak to pen his work, recalling the forgotten in an attempt to restore what in fact had not been there! Barring a few notable instances, the state of education, notwithstanding the Kothari Commission’s worthy recommendations to the contrary has been marked by the growth of what Pathak very tellingly calls the privatized self; and now we are witnessing its darkest visions. Increasingly bereft of a moral consciousness of caring, pushed increasingly into the world of those “animal spirits” by an educational system that fosters competitiveness and masculinized individualism, the middle class urban Indian has been increasingly vulnerable to the two interrelated beliefs: the State is too inept in its enterprise of public caring and resource protection and that the weak, the marginalized and the minorities—who constitute the weak and the marginalized—deserve no better if they cannot do better. And the ones that abide by alien religions, well, they had better abide by Vikas because…we hear the dog-whistles!

 These visions of exacerbated violence are being played out, seeking validation as it were, precisely in the groves of learning. In a perverse way, those temples of the secularizing ideal and scientific temper are the wells “where the pellets of poison” to use Bob Dylan’s great line are “flooding their waters.” The call from the Prime Minster down to students to focus on studies because “Vikas” deems it fit, demands it, rather than thinking out aloud or at all, is only the logical extension of the commoditification of the soul and the erasure of memories. When Pathak tells us about the way education has been commoditized by the split in pedagogy into specialized areas, about the learning process itself becoming discrete capsules of specialized information-acquisition he is not only underscoring the erection of silos in the student’s consciousness but also warning us that such atomization of knowledge-seeking makes the young mind vulnerable to venomous discourses of hate and intolerance. It is not just army tanks that have moved into college campuses; the valorization of force is part of the larger ideological (in the way Ashis Nandy uses that phrase) indoctrination that worships violence, masculinity and aggression—to oneself, other human beings and nature..

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So why is Pathak’s plea to recall the forgotten so relevant to these times? To be reminded of the need for an “ethical balance between the individual and society”by which to affirm “herself only in a life-affirming relationship with others”; that the material/physical component of the human personality seeking gratification of desires needs to be tempered by a psychic/spiritual quest; that man’s engagement with nature has to be re-negotiated to re-discover its powers of regenerating all existence—all three conjointly help begin the journey to a recovery from the loss so far unexamined; they are guiding lights for a search for answers to questions that we should be asking ourselves. It is to re-discover our moral/ethical roots; not in some scriptural sort of way, not through the sound-bytes of god-businessmen but by re-negotiating as Pathak ever so gently but firmly informs, us existential questions that we have failed to ask ourselves in our pursuit of material progress. In Recalling the Forgotten, the author is asking us to remember that life has a moral purpose and that its quest must begin with education and a pedagogy that can in the first instance ask the right questions for answers that are blowing in the wind. —The Beacon

Education and Moral Quest

 

INTRODUCTION

Moral Questions: Situating the Debate

Avijit Pathak

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here are primarily three ways through which I wish to reflect on moral/ ethical questions which, I believe, are absolutely important for a deeper understanding of education: (a) the relationship between the individual and society; ((b) man’s own inner struggle resulting from the dialectic of power and love, egotism and altruism, and desire and austerity; and (c) the mode of human engagement with nature.

When we think of the relationship between the individual and society, a series of moral / ethical questions begin to confront us: questions relating to human rights, democratic freedom, collective welfare, social justice and egalitarianism. Yes, in liberal/ modern times we have been repeatedly warned of the dangers of the tyranny of collectivism: how in the name of the ‘collective’, be it a caste association or a religious group, one can be belittled, and deprived of one’s creativity, uniqueness and freedom. Possibly a major aspiration of the age of modernity is the affirmation of the individual-her agency, her rights and her freedom. It is in this sense that modernity can indeed be said to be a liberating force rescuing the individual from the trap of excessive collectivism or communitarianism. It fights all sorts of religious orthodoxy and fatalism. It gives one the courage to question, and believe that life is a domain of possibilities. Indeed, modernity, for its enthusiastic proponents, is about freedom: freedom of the individual. But then, is the individual a discrete entity? Or, is one’s freedom unbounded? It is in this context that I wish to refer to an illuminating sociological wisdom. ‘Even though sociology as a formal/academic discipline was a product of modern times, it did not forget to point out a more nuanced understanding of modernity-particularly the relationship between the individual and society. It did not deny the merits of individualism, or the doctrine of rights. But then, sociologists have repeatedly asserted that society is not and cannot be a mere collection or aggregate of individuals; society has its own sanctity and transcendent power that must locate individuals, and make them aware of the boundaries, or the historicity of their freedom. For example, we know how Emile Durkheim, despite his modern sensibilities relating to growing individuation, differentiation and division of labour in complex industrial societies, celebrated this ‘social fact’, and critiqued the principles of utilitarianism: the glorification of the atomized individual driven by the will to maximize his own pleasure (Durkheim 1933). ”If interest is the only ruling force’, wrote Durkheim, “each individual finds himself in a state of war with every other since nothing comes to mollify the egos, and any truce in this eternal antagonism would not be of long duration’ (Ibid: 203-04). In fact, Durkheim made us aware of the limits to excessive individualism. It was like striving for an ethical balance that nurtures a meaningful engagement between the individual and society:

Men cannot live together without acknowledging and consequently making mutual sacrifices, without tying themselves to one another with strong, durable bonds. Every society is a moral society… Because the individual is not sufficient unto himself, it is from society that he receives everything necessary to him, as it is for society that he works. Thus is formed a very strong sentiment of the state of dependence in which he finds himself. He becomes accustomed to estimating it as its just value, that is to say, in regarding himself as part of a whole, the organ of an organism. Such sentiments naturally inspire not only mundane scarifies which assure the regular development of daily social life, but, even on occasion, acts of complete self-renunciation and wholesale abnegation. On its side, society learns to regard its members no longer as things over which it has rights, but as co-operators whom it cannot neglect and towards him it owes duties (Ibid: 228).

Durkheim’s moral sociology, we know, was not appreciated by all; conflict theorists saw the traces of ‘conservatism’ in his worldview; and phenomenologists were disturbed by the structuralist’ element in his thinking. Yet, the fundamental issue he raised about the need for an ethical balance in the relationship between the individual and society could not be denied. Possibly the master thinker was making an attempt to recall what many modemists often forget: the need to see beyond the discourse of rights, and unite it with the ethos of collective concern or duties. If we emphasize only on duties, it is likely to promote submissiveness. Likewise, rights without duties can degenerate into a form of egotistic cult. In fact, the complex and dynamic relationship between the individual and society, rights and duties, or ’agency’ and ‘structure’ remains a major sociological riddle to be solved (Giddens 1993). Even Karl Marx-a great modernist, and the darling of all radicals-could not give his consent to the doctrine of the self-centred individual insulated from the flow of collective existence. He critiqued ’alienation’ and ‘estrangement’, saw beyond bourgeois individualism, and imagined communism as ‘the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and man-the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and species’ (Marx 1977: 97).

At a deeper existential level, it meant that the individual could affirm herself only in a life-affirming relationship with others, and society could become truly vibrant and alive by allowing individuals to evolve, grow and prosper, Neither naked individualism nor collectivist totalitarianism, but a culture of mutuality, reciprocity and relatedness was what Marx was striving for. In fact, to act ethically and morally is not just to think about oneself; it is also to think of others, and transcend the otherness of the other, and find a meaning of existence in a reciprocal bond between the self and the world. Look at Marx’s prophetic message: ’If you love without evoking love in return-that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent-a misfortune’ (Ibid: 132). Yes, such an intense ethical / spiritual quest, I believe, has acquired urgency at a time when neo-liberalism, global capitalism and marketization have accelerated social Darwinism, and promoted the cult of egotistic self-interest, and narcissistic individualism.

Another important ethical question emanates from man’s own inner struggle. Yes, the material / physical component of human personality, it can be argued, strives for power-instant gratification of desires and instincts. It knows nothing except itself. It is pleasure-seeking, restless and violent. But then, there is also a psychic / spiritual / aesthetic quest for something more subtle-peace, tranquility, merger and transcendence. It is this continual struggle that characterizes the human situation. For example, when we reflect on psychoanalysis-particularly Sigmund Freud’s penetrating analysis of the human psyche-we come to know about this conflict which the celebrated thinker characterized as a conflict between id and superego, between Thanatos and Eros, between instincts and civilization (Freud: 1985). For Freud, man is essentially a conflict-ridden being, and the power of the unconscious filled with desires and impulses is irresistible, and the idea of a moral, peaceful, altruistic civilized being is more like a construct through which society rep resses man. To put it otherwise, the moral foundations of a civilization, as Freud would have argued, are bound to crumble through neurosis, phobia, anxiety, psychic disorder, violence and war:

If more is demanded of a man, a revolt will be produced in him or a neurosis, or he will be made unhappy. The commandment, ”Love thy neighbour as thyself, is the strongest defence against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological proceedings of the cultural super-ego. The commandment is irnpossible to fulfil; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty. Civilization pays no attention to all this; it merely admonishes us that the harder it is to obey the precept the more meritorious it is to do so. But anyone who follows such a precept in present day civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the person who disregards it. What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! “Natural” ethics, as it is called, has nothing to offer here except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better then others (Ibid: 337).

Yes, this debunking of moral principles was like a shock, something that we also experienced when Friedrich Nietzsche, much before Freud, came with his notion of superman driven by the ‘will to power ’-the superman who loathes ‘the petty virtues’ and ‘the petty prudences’, and instead, asserts that “life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation’ (Nietzsche 1981: 229-30).

But then, as I wish to argue, this is only one narrative about human vulnerability, about the supremacy of aggression over peace, power over reciprocity, and narcissism over relatedness. It should not be forgotten that there is yet another narrative which, unlike that of a Freud or a Nietzsche, tells a different story: a story of possibilities, a story of human evolution from darkness to light, from egotism to altruism, from violence to peace and tranquility. 1 In a way, it is also a central concern of mystics, spiritualists and even profound humanists. It would be argued that man is capable of overcoming the limitedness of his own little world, and experiencing something higher, nobler and wider. In our own Indian philosophy, to take a striking example, we often Speak of the three gunas born of prakrti-tamas, rejas and sattva-that bind down in the body (Bhagavadgita. XIV). Tamas is about inertia and darkness leading to ‘unillumination, inactivity, negligence and mere delusion’ (Ibid: 13); rajas is about passion and vitality which result in greed, unrest and cravings‘r (Ibid: 12); and soften is about calmness and peace. And life’s journey ought to be a movement towards settva through a series of moral/ ethical practices. Not solely that. A liberated soul transcends even sattva because he is beyond all gunas. Until we reach this stage, as it is believed, we are only in the making; our evolution is incomplete. It is an ideal that is heavily demanding-an urge to become like a yogi who regards pain and pleasure alike, who dwells in his own self, who looks upon a clod, a stone, a piece gold as of equal worth, who remains the same amidst the pleasant and the unpleasant things, who is of firm mind, who regards both blame and praise as one’ (Ibid: 24).

It is this quest that is seen in all grand ideals of love, devotion and prayer. How to see beyond one’s little self, and embrace others is a moral quest. Or, how to pass through the conflict between darkness and light, and move towards a higher state of being is a question that continues to have its impact on our moral sensibilities. What a wonderful interpretation of this conflict Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi made when he reflected on the Bhagavadgita:

Personally, I believe that Duryodhana and his supporters stand for the Satanic impulses in us, and Arjuna and others stand for Goddward impulses. The battlefield is our body. The poet-seer,who knows from experience the problems of life, has given a faithful account of the conflict which is eternally going on within us. Shri Krishna is the Lord dwelling in everyone’s heart who is ever murmuring. His promptings in a pure chitta look like a clock ticking in a room. If the clock of the chitta is not wound up with the key of self-purification, the in-dwelling lord no doubt remains where He is, but the ticking is heard no more (Gandhi 1982: 13-14).

And this quest, I would argue, has acquired added relevance in our times, particularly because we see the all-pervasive commodification and consumerism that generates violence and restlessness through constant simulation, stimulates the aggressive urge to fulfil one’s egotistic desires, and makes one believe that ‘life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume’ (Fromm 1985z89).

The mode of human engagement with nature is yet another domain that leads to moral and ethical questions. It is true that we live in the age of science and modernity, and it asserts man’s scientific rationality, technological intelligence and supremacy over nature. Yes, in a way, modulating, shaping, dominating and conquering nature has become an integral component of the ‘civilizing’ process. And it has led to immense techno-industrial development and heightened standard of living. It is also true that this techno-scientific skill has helped humankind to survive, and overcome the forces of nature which, at times, are damaging to human safety, security and growth. If we recall our utter helplessness before the wild forces of nature in pre-modern times, it is said, we would invariably remain grateful to what science and technology have done to enrich human life!

Yet, it should not be forgotten, there is a dialectic in the entire process. The same liberating forces-if exercised excessively, and without a sense of humility-can prove to be utterly destructive. It is like despiritualizing nature, and reducing it into a mere “resource” for man’s continual material well-being. Nature, Francis Bacon argued with immense zeal, must be ”bound into service’ and made a slave, put ‘in constraint’, and “moulded’ by the mechanical arts. Or, for that matter, as Rene Descartes thought, there is no fundamental difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes”. No other relationship-say a creative / delicate relationship-with nature is possible anymore. It has to be perpetually utilized; its resources have to be exhausted, and this victory must go on indefinitely No wonder, the principle of aggression is implicit in the dominant notion of development. It conquers everything: trees and forests rivers and mountains, plants and animals. It annihilates memories and mythologies. Its only motto is limitless ’ growth’ which dispassionate economists quantify; and this magical number is enough for governments to carry on their developmental projects-building huge dams, occupying fertile lands for constructing Special Economic Zones, demolishing old habitats for decorating the urban space. Is it, therefore, surprising that today a series of moral/ ethical issues have begun to emerge: issues relating to development, environmental disaster, standard of living, displacement, rehabilitation, and above all, ways of relating to nature? In fact, the anguish over the demystification of nature can be felt in the language of what we often regard as the other West-the language of romanticism relating to the enchantment of nature and a living relationship with it. an intense poetic imagination that once led Walt Whitman to write:

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle.
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same.
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle.
The fishes that swim-the rocks-the motion of the waves-
The ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there? (Whitman 1986389)

As a matter of fact, it was also the language of philosophic anarchists and utopians like Emmersen and Thoreau. And yes, contemporary neo-leftists, ecofeminists and environmentalists have repeatedly warned us of the dangers of “instrumental“ orientation to nature, and celebrated the ethos of balance, harmony and understanding. Again, when we look at some of the ancient texts-fay. the Vedic hymns relating to the adoration of nature, we witness a similar spirit of reverence, wonder and respect.2 These voices, let it be clear, are not recalled here to relinquish science. and celebrate an idealized living in the lap of nature. The fact is that the questions which are emerging are critical and deeper. Can we keep looking at nature in the same way as we have been doing, particularly for the last four hundred years? Can we go on destroying the ecological balance -the entire natural landscape and its biodiversity in the name of ”development“? These are complex questions having moral, economic and political implications. But then, these questions can no longer be escaped. Possibly this requires a high degree of moral/ ethical sensibility: an attitude of self-restraint and balance, an alternative principle of economics and standard of living, a spirit of living engagement with nature. or what a contemporary social scientist has regarded as ‘core ecological values’ implying: (i) living in harmony with nature, (ii) over-coming anthropocentric prejudice. and (iii) recognizing intrinsic value in beings other than humans (Hayward 1994 : 31-32).

These three ethical principles-a reciprocal relationship between the individual and society, an inner quest for peace and harmony, and a creative engagement with nature-are not isolated and separated. In fact, all these three principles constitute a whole, and indicate what can be regarded as a spirit of merger-seeing beyond one’s little self, and experiencing an intimate bond with the larger reality which manifests itself in the dynamics of human relationship, or in the vastness of natural milieu. It is like striving for a culture that values solidarity, egalitarianism, ecological balance and human fulfilment in love and tranquility. ‘Why is it that all good things-Gandhism, Marxism, socialism, environmentalism and spiritualism-collapse? And why is it that we continue to cherish the glamour of capitalism: its market, its technology, its comfort, its aggression? Or, why is it that in the struggle between the good and the evil, it is always the evil that wins?’ As a young learner-a school student of Class XII-asks me this pertinent question, I find no immediate answer. I, however, begin to realize the importance of a quest for alternative values which, I guess, can make the young learner and her generation think, feel, act and dream differently.

And my central argument in this book is that education has to play a key role in this transformative process. I insist on this point because in the name of ‘determining’ causes like techno-economic and other material factors, there is a tendency to undermine the significance of education in the process of social transformation. For instance, it is believed-particularly by techno-economists and even by a section of orthodox Marxists- that our beliefs, attitudes and worldviews are primarily dependent on the economy and technology, and hence no significant result is likely to come if we work in the ‘soft’ domain of education without looking at the ”hard” reality. I do not wish to enter into the a ge-old philosophic debate between the materialists and idealists. What I am pleading for is rather simple and straight, It is for a more dialogic and dialectical interplay of economy and culture. It is not a question of either/ or Instead, it is a realization that for any project of social transformation we need to work with equal intensity in‘ the domain of education: the way we think, define ourselves and relate to the world. In fact, among the Marxists it was Antonio Gramsci who realized and spoke of this truth rather convincingly because he knew the importance of cultural hegemony, and the resultant need to work in the domain of culture to transform human society (Gramsci 1971). In fact, Gramsci saw ‘primitive infantilism’ in economic determinism. The domain of culture, as this creative Marxist asserted, is an important terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, and struggle. And particularly in our times when civil society and cultural / educational institutions have become immensely powerful, as Gramsci would have reminded us, there is an urgent need for the ”war of position’: a struggle in the domain of ideas and consciousness. No wonder, for him, education was absolutely important in diffusing a socialist ‘counter-hegemony’ among all potentially revolutionary subjects. Gramsci was just an example from the Marxian tradition. As a matter of fact, if we look at the history of ideas, we do realize how the possibilities implicit in the domain of education fascinated a series of thinkers and activists-from Leo Tolstoy to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, from Ivan Illich to Paulo Freire. We were repeatedly reminded of the transformative power of education.

My book begins with this possibility or with this hope: much can be done in the domain of education. At a deeper level, education, as I would argue, is essentially about the moral/ ethical quest: a process of transforming our consciousness, our beliefs, aspirations and orientations to the world. True, none would dispute that such liberating education is a life-long process, and we continue to learn through diverse experiences in politics, family, sexuality and spirituality. Love and separation, disease and recovery, and struggle and resistance: every major episode in life is a taming point, and gives us illuminating lessons. In this informal/ experiential mode- passing through the complex trajectory of life, seeing a film, listening to a piece of music, and reading a novel-we learn great moral lessons.

It is in this sense that education has a much broader connotation than its merely formal/ academic component. But then, I would argue that even formal education-the way a complex society expects us to pass through well-defined stages of school/ university learning- cannot escape the moral / ethical question. It is wrong to think that formal education is only about academic / technical skills, and there is necessarily a separation between academic methods and ethical pursuits.

Because all these skills which we value today-say, the skill of a doctor, an engineer, a scientist, a manager or a historian-have to be operationalized and practised in a concrete socio-historical setting, and if we do not reflect on life’s deeper objectives, these skills may prove to be useless, or even utterly disastrous. For example, how often we have seen a ‘skilled’ scientist allowing himself to be hijacked by the military establishment to further accelerate the growth of technologies of mass destruction; a management graduate joining the lucrative corporate world only to sell soaps and wine; or a doctor with his specialized skills taking active part in the unholy act of female infanticide! In other words, it is like living in a’ strange world in which the continual production of ‘specialists’ and ‘experts’ does not necessarily assure human connectedness, creativity and love.

As a matter of fact, in the ultimate analysis, it is our creative and critical orientation, or our moral sensibilities that would shape how we use these ‘skills’, and enrich our world. That is why, divorcing formal education from deeper moral and philosophical queries would be utterly damaging. This does not mean that morality demands religious education. Nor does it mean that ethical sensibilities have to be cultivated through sermonizing. Anyone engaged with education knows how authoritarian and life-negating such moral learning can prove to be. Life has to be lived, felt and experienced, and not reduced into a series of moral axioms to be bombarded on the mind of the young learner by an authoritarian teacher. In fact, for ethical questions, what we need is just a sensitive / dialogic process of learning when we study science and economics, engage in mathematics, or look at history. As I would argue in this book, all these branches of knowledge-from mathematics to literature, from history to physics-which we include as part of ‘legitimate’ curriculum in formal educational institutions have their deeper philosophic and ethical meanings. And with a radical pedagogy, these academic disciplines can indeed act like a catalyst, and arouse our moral sensibilities


Reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Author Avijit PathakAvijit Pathak is Professor at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, New Delhi. He has written extensively on the state of education in India and since the publication of his Recalling the Forgotten has spelt out his concerns about the commoditification of schools and universities, the closing of the Indian mind, the privatization of the self and the pillage of the environment that our quest for technical efficiency has led us in books such as The Chaotic Order. An Unknown teacher’s Pedagogic Travelogue. June 2015. On Social Constraints and the Great Longing: An Essay on the Human Condition. March 2014. The Rhythm of Life and Death June 2011and in articles in print and digital media.
 

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