Don't talk back: The dominant pedagogy of schools in Kashmir

The author of the article bemoaned the online–based learning which has inaugurated, in his view, a debased form of teaching-learning exercise and also for leaving out the unprivileged from accessing these ‘classes’. I want to point out the blind spots of that article in order to show how the author creates an idealized image of schools and wants us to think of them as  ‘spaces of deliberation’ and ‘pursuit of truth’; while the reality, outside his ‘Disney dreamland’ (using his own metaphor) image of schools, is far from how he portrays it. In fact, the real image is quite unhealthy and grotesque. And we must resist this idealized image in order to ask for a better situation in our schools. (I use school as a metaphor for all levels of traditional learning institutions—pre-college schools, colleges and universities.)

I want to focus specifically on the author’s notion of classrooms as ‘spaces of deliberation’ and ‘pursuit of truth’. He seems to assume that classroom settings are actually such spaces where the critical deliberation and ‘pursuit of truth’ take place. This couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, the transaction of mere vacuous information devoid of any critical spirit that transpires there is astonishing. I don’t want to generalize here. I am willing to concede that in some places in the West, India and elsewhere as well, some schools might be operating in that spirit.  Yet, they are few and far between. However, here the question is deliberated upon specifically in the context of Kashmir. So let’s stick to Kashmir.

Let’s start with the basics. In our high-tech age of information revolution, we have everything available online. Students can learn their topics by reading about them on internet or watching lectures on YouTube or other such online platforms like zoom. This poses an existential challenge to traditional mode of schooling. Yet teachers, particularly in our part of the world, have not risen to the challenges posed by the technological advancements. The only role teachers were supposed to have in this age of information explosion was to help students think, create a space for them wherein creative discussions could take place, enable an environment in  classrooms where critical attitudes are incubated and help students learn draw broader connections and skills of evaluation and other hermeneutic techniques. They have thoroughly failed on this front.

Schools/classes have become merely information (commodity) delivery centers and teachers the delivery persons. Whatever little critical attitudes, if any, students come away with from schools is by reading the contents of their syllabuses.  So let’s not give them (teachers) the credit where it is not due. There hardly are even any exceptions to this general outworn pedagogy in Kashmir.

This tickles the most obvious question: why continue with orthodox school systems if the same thing (even in more diverse form and content) can be accessed on the internet? Indeed the un-thoughtful answer would be because schools are spaces where ‘mediation’ for ‘pursuit of truth’ comes to pass; but that is precisely what I challenge. They are not such spaces at all. This is a purely mythical image of these institutions, more so in the context of Kashmir.

Of course there are some social benefits of schools—you meet new people, strike up acquaintances; may be even friendships too. (I’m little hesitant to call all close human connections as friendships. As Aristotle reminds us: ‘O my friends, there is no friend.’ I leave this almost impossible declaration here without any elaboration for lack of sufficient space.) But can’t such things occur outside the confines of the academic spaces?

Kashmiri Schools—where sickening power relations are cultivated

The author lamented how e-learning reduces students to the status of subordinates through technologically mediated system of operations; this is where the most glaring blind spot of the article lies. The author conveniently forgets or may be unconsciously glosses over power relations that shape up in schools which for all practical purposes are that of a boss and a subordinate. This is, in fact, just stating the obvious; as anyone who has been to a school even for a day would attest to its veracity.

And ironically enough, this sickening power relation is enforced through the very process which is supposed to bring about emancipation. Let me illustrate this: a quintessential pedagogical approach of a teacher in our classrooms is that he/she enters the class and unloads a bunch of facts and details in front of students, even makes them feel guilty for not knowing what the teacher does. That is where the power-relation takes its root: students treated as subordinates (ignorant) and teacher as the boss (knower). Teachers generally use this epistemic power to perverse ends of self-gratification. And through this deployment of power students’ self-development and free expression is thwarted almost forever; this ends up creating intellectually stunted human beings instead of emancipated ones. This is not only a pedagogical failure but also a human failure!

The author of the piece seems oblivious to this kind of embedded otherization, and the ‘subjectivities’ (in Foucauldian sense) it produces in such academic spaces. Moreover, subordination to a human being can be more degrading in myriad ways than to an inanimate object or some algorithms. One wonders what kind of ‘emancipation’ would come off under such circumstances. It would take a whole essay to unravel the devastating effects of this aspect of it here. So let me just point out that it is  disingenuous to talk about the  harmful power relations that e-learning has the potential to usher in, while remaining silent on the existing power-structures of schools and teacher-student relation in and outside the classrooms in Kashmir.

A truly liberating approach would show the recognition of the fact that, notwithstanding differential cognitive abilities (0n either side), knowledge has a temporal dimension to it too. One, for the most part, knows something because one is advanced in age—that affords him/her the time and opportunity to learn more than the students.

This recognition could initiate a liberating pedagogy where students are taken as the fellow travelers each time a teacher embarks on the journey of an unsteady terrain of interpretation with them. Since no interpretations are settled and no meanings final, the students could be taken as more valuable to the discovery of new or hitherto unknown ways of knowing.

Talking back and the consequences

Furthermore, the moment students try to raise larger question of injustices within and without the school premises, the coercive disciplinary mechanism of schools is brought in. Provision for expulsion is a permanent feature of school systems. Some students do get expelled. Many more choose to ‘fall in line’ because the threat of expulsion is a sufficient deterrent. This turns schools into mini-states that function on the same panoptic logic of ‘disciplining’ their members. So when students choose to talk back, they are silenced through various means and mechanisms. While education has to necessarily arm students to raise larger questions of politics and to engage with pressing issues that affect society at large, that is what is  stringently muzzled  in these spaces here.

Thus, this regime of ‘disciplinary power’ of schools, which for the most part is exercised through its invisibility, transforms them into a perverse site of power operations. It also tends to manufacture permanent docile cogs of a coercive state-machinery out of pupils enrolled there. This runs against the purported role of schools to enable students to question and refuse to be put into a mold. So instead of being bastions of democracy, our schools have become institutions where ‘normalizes subjects’ are produced.

As the author reminded us of the real-world situation of inequalities which is markedly different from the ‘Disney dream-land’ situation of perfection, he needs to be reminded how fictitious his idealized portrait of a classroom is.

Both school-based and online remote teaching are basically serving the same end in Kashmir with just the difference of the mode of delivery. One ensures the home-delivery of the product, the other requires you to assemble at specific places to get the almost same product by yourselves. We could make a choice here: do we want a home-delivery? Or do we want to travel many a mile with multiple attendant costs to get the exact same commodity? (Commodity is what it has been reduced to)

Those who could not have afforded the smart phone can afford them now. They will not have to pay fee, other charges and the daily expenses. They could be encouraged to invest that amount to procure a smart phone—if that has to be the order of the day.

Of course, we have a better alternative: we can begin to have a debate about our schools and talk openly about the pathologies (some of which I indicated above) that plague them in an effort to really make them ‘spaces of deliberation’ and ‘mediation for pursuit of truth’, as it were. For our cure can begin when we first acknowledge the trouble we are deeply enmeshed in. Let’s, indeed, return to schools but not their present form.

Post Script: Long before the ‘pursuit of truth’ was institutionalized and circumscribed to such academic spaces, it (knowledge-seeking) was pursued in open spaces. Socrates and other Greek and Roman teachers did it in streets and open fields with whoever they encountered on their way and showed interest. That way it was more democratic and free in nature. One might argue that since our societies are organized on a completely different socio-economic logic, such kind of learning is not feasible any more. But that is the indictment of how ‘knowledge’ has been narrowly confined within constrained spaces and hence made deeply undemocratic in character. So chatroom or classroom, both are problematic in their own ways.

Note: I’m a former student of Kashmir University who skipped the  entire first semester of M.A for the fear of failing, owing to the fear created in and outside the classrooms there.