Problems of education, John Dewey once said, are problems of democracy. The image of education we create mimics and makes our democracy. When our education prioritises a singular thought over actions of the many, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to join the public realm. Propaganda is a tried and tested form of violence designed to decimate the public realm.
It is in the realm of the public space where power could be ideally realised through the potential of greater action and wherein people would come together through diverse actions and conversations. But, unfortunately, the public school or college classroom, which could have been a great example of a public realm, has never been allowed to realise its great potential.
The gulf between thought and action, Plato argued long ago, is the same gulf that separates the rulers from those over whom they rule. Actions are unpredictable and irreversible, a threat to our technocratic theocracy, which like any other form of tyranny, demands that experience and actions of the many must make way for thoughts of the few. When education is substituted with propaganda, thoughts of a few turn into the will of others. Consequently, experience, the bedrock of democracy and public education, disappears.
So, in the public school or college classroom, our government, still reeling from its colonial hangover, has mandated that learning must be synonymous with outcomes, and experience with desired performances. Apparently, the answers are there, neatly standing in a row, the human is irrelevant and the function of public education is to get everyone to the same set of answers. The rich possibilities inherent in our natural curiosities are lost to a journey in a dark tunnel with the promise of light at the end of it.
Tyranny, whatever its nature or appearance, is not a fan of actions in the public realm or, for that matter, the public realm itself
No wonder that tyranny, whatever its nature or appearance, is not a fan of actions in the public realm or, for that matter, the public realm itself. But even for such a government, when violence becomes its preferred form of propaganda, it is a significant moment. The problematic origin of our current theocracy (in more than one sense of the term) lies in our collective amnesia of one of the worst genocides in history, much of which still remains unreported. Perhaps, it has given them the confidence that this too, shall be forgotten.
And they may be right; protests of the few may not eventually translate to votes of the many. But as the great Hannah Arendt said: violence can only destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it. The power of democracy – the potential for greater action and conversations – lies in and stays with us coming together.
In Delhi, the recent happenings at Ramjas College, and the earlier happenings at Jawaharlal Nehru University collectively embody the great crisis and hopes of public education and the public realm. They show that a government which is afraid of the public realm is also afraid of the power inherent in diversity and plurality.
When a large government fears seminars on fascism in a tiny classroom, it tells us that it is perhaps scared of looking itself in the mirror. It tells us that they know that we know who they are, and they are scared that we will talk about them. It tells us that they fear the power of the public realm.
The crisis of post-industrial public education – and I believe this is not only an Indian crisis, but a global one – is that we have created public education in the image of publicity, rather than the public. So, it has become essentially eventless, because it has become the promise of a future that is continuously deferred. As John Berger would have said, an experience is impossible within publicity. It eliminates all becoming, and with it, the possibilities inherent in the plurality of the public realm.
The seminar in Ramjas stands out as a bold example of the public realm, and what public education should strive to be.
This is true across disciplines. In today’s public education, science is reduced to facts and theories that promise certainty, and art is rendered an exercise in futility. What is lost in the process is the authenticity of experience that binds the work of scientists and artists, that they are both working with and within uncertainty.
Both art and science involve a complex and creative interplay between materiality and ideas, between thought and action. The experience of science in classrooms, in contrast, hovers between regurgitation and reproduction, and the experience of art is virtually non-existent in schools. Worldwide, the disciplines of humanities and histories face great peril in the form of revisionist attempts to ignore or cover up the atrocities of the ruling class. Histories of colonial aggression are still left out in the west, and the abhorrent histories of slavery are still left unspoken in the majority of the southern states in the US. In our current theocracy, Indian history is being rewritten and destroyed in several Indian states through saffron revisionist efforts. And, across India and the US, several states are now toying with mind-numbing efforts to mislocate science in religious diktats.
The seminar in Ramjas stands out as a bold example of the public realm, and what public education should strive to be. The saffron violence is merely a threat to the physical, but, to paraphrase H.G Wells, it is also an apt reminder that human history is a race between education and catastrophe. At the same time, we must also remember that histories are accounts of beginnings, and not the future. The teachers and the students in Ramjas, today’s flag bearers of the public realm, are the future. For they are not blind to histories, and they are not silent when they come together. In their plurality and voices lie the hopes of the unspoken, the unheard and the distant. I invite you, dear reader, to join their conversation.
Pratim Sengupta is Research Chair of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education at the University of Calgary, Canada. His research is at the intersection of public education and open science.