In the Brahmanical tradition the teacher was revered as the guru, the source of all knowledge and therefore to be served and followed with almost the same devotion as the worship due to God. A student or shishya was expected to imbibe not only the learning of the guru but all the god-like qualities he—the guru was invariably male—embodied in his self. Maulana—the word used to show respect to a learned scholar and teacher in the Islamic tradition—literally means ‘our lord’ or ‘our master’ and, of course, we all know that while today most educational institutes have Deans or Rectors as senior administrators, these words were originally used to denote particular positions in the hierarchy of the Church administration.
In earlier times, educational institutes were not merely degree-production factories but rather spaces where knowledge contained within itself a moral scheme, a way of life and a philosophy of being. As knowledge became increasingly divorced from religion and secularised, education concentrated more on certification. In the modern schools and institutions, transmission of information became more important than what Rabindranath Tagore defined as the aim of education: "the laying of the foundation of human personality as a whole."
Father Frazer Mascarenhas, Principal, St Xavier’s College in Mumbai has with one letter addressed to the students in that college opened many debates about the role of the teacher in the life of today’s students. The letter ends with the advice to "Choose well," but only after making clear his personal opinion of how a wise voter should cast her/his vote. Emotionally charged phrases such as ‘freedom of expression" "coercion" and "abuse of power" are being shouted out loud in defence and disapproval of his action. On the obvious level, those who feel the Father’s points were in tune with their own, such as the NOMOre Campaigners, offer their support and believe this is "an important intervention," while those on the other side have claimed the letter has been a violation of the Code of Conduct laid down by the Election Commission. However, beyond this political divide one of the questions this furore has highlighted is about the difficulty of defining the boundary between the public and the private.
Private views vs public role?
Of course, no one questions the Father’s right to hold such opinions about the failure of the Gujarat model of development and express them as an individual; the problems arise when he uses his position as the Principal of an institution to express these opinions. By posting his letter on the official website of the college, the Father used his position to circulate his views. But where exactly do we draw the lines between the individual Father Mascarenhas and his role as Principal? Celebrities from the film world or the sports world are brought in to endorse political parties or candidates and that seems as acceptable to us as do their endless endorsements of consumer products. In such cases, the private and the public personae merge with no difficulties. Yet for a teacher or a Principal to do the same is seen as being somehow immoral.
Recently, there have been several attacks on educational institutions and faculty members which have raised the issue of the right of freedom of expression and the limits of such freedom. At the MS University at Baroda, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had attacked an art exhibition and the student who had painted the "offensive" canvas was arrested, the Dean of the Faculty was suspended for not following the Vice-Chancellor’s order to close down the exhibition and he was physically attacked. Professor Neeraj Hatekar was suspended for publicly criticising the administration of Mumbai University, Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University was arrested for forwarding an email which poked fun at the Chief Minister of West Bengal. And these are only the most celebrated cases. Critiques and criticism—two of the most important components of a true democracy—are almost routinely bullied into submission and acquiescence by intolerant mobs, institutions or state power. All around us we see attempts to tame and muzzle students and faculty; to ensure that uncomfortable questions are not asked. There seems to be an attempt to "depoliticise" campuses and to brook no dissent. Students are being asked to study and stay away from politics, and faculty to concentrate on amassing points which will lead to the next promotion.
Yet traditionally campuses across the world have been spaces which have nurtured the radical. This is only natural as educational institutions aim to teach their students to think independently and this will and should lead to questions, arguments, opinions and actions. And if we, as teachers, believe that one of the aims of the education system is to create active and critical citizens, then we need to lead by example. Tagore believed that true education can only take place when the teacher and the students live together. He argued that the student learns not only in the classroom and from books, but from the behaviour and the life of the teacher, so he set up his school and university as residential institutes. While the physical conditions of residential education may not be the dominant model of many contemporary academic spaces, new communication technologies have opened up new models of sharing opinions and life experiences.
Sharing in virtual world
Today, as teachers and students are ‘friends’ on Facebook and communicate through email, Twitter, WhatsApp or other means, the boundaries between the institutional persona and the private person are dissolving. Our notions of what is private and what is public or collective are also changing. We ‘share’ so much in our virtual world that nothing is really private or intimate any more. Remember the two girls who expressed their irritation at the shutdown of Mumbai for the funeral of Bal Thackeray? Little did they realise that a casual sharing of opinions with a friend could lead to their arrest. Not only is our private space dissolving into the public sphere, the public sphere enters our private space and time endlessly. We are inundated with messages from individuals, corporations, political parties and our bosses all the time. Our mobile phones, our personal computers and other devices are accessible to all kinds of people with various messages, most of which we may not want. In such cases, money power ensures the delivery of opinions, campaigns and exhortations.
In today’s communication-saturated world, individuals use media to express their opinions like never before. That is surely a positive trend for argumentative Indians. Because argument is part of what constitutes democratic practices, not the intolerant bullying and name-calling that has, unfortunately dominated the tone of this year’s election campaign. The Father seems to have combined traditional notions of the teacher as guru whose teachings were not confined to the four walls of the classroom with the contemporary technology-driven urge to communicate. He crossed the conventions that define the modern academic institution as a place where the public and the private are clearly separated. In today’s postmodern world there is an ongoing realignment of the categories of the private and the public and the debate unleashed by the Father’s letter seems to have demolished the ivory tower within which academics have long interred themselves and is blowing in the wind of the noisy, blustery, dusty arena of the political bazaar.
— The writer is Professor, Dept of English & former Director, School of Media Communication & Culture, Jadavpur University