Fuss over academic ‘standard’

We are beating the trodden path and not encouraging authentic reflection

Fuss over academic ‘standard’

Burdened: The spirit of studentship is destroyed as a student is transformed into a machine. Tribune photo

Avijit Pathak

Sociologist

We are all broken and wounded. There is hardly any family that has not been affected in some way or other by the pandemic. Yet, the academic bureaucracy with its characteristic insensitivity is obsessed with the ‘academic standard’; and students and teachers, despite the psychic and existential trauma they are passing through, are instructed to retain the ‘quality’ of education. Before we acquire the moral/pedagogic courage to laugh at this ‘standard’, let us explore what it actually means in the everyday practice of a student or a teacher.

Any alert insider from our ‘top’ colleges/universities would concede that this obsession with ‘standard’ means essentially three things: the act of bombarding students with a ceaseless flow of assignments, creating a notion of ‘productivity’ by putting enormous pressure on them to ‘perform’, and above all, the one-dimensional emphasis on grading and hierarchising. As there is no other imagination of meaningful and emancipatory education, and the academic bureaucracy seeks to reduce a college/university into a soulless machine, even the pandemic has failed to move our principals and vice-chancellors. And teachers as mere cogs are required to follow the guidelines issued by these techno-managers. The irony is that even after such mental agony, death and pain, these institutions will publish their annual reports and showcase their ‘success stories’: the number of gold medallists, the webinars organised, the lectures delivered, and the papers published.

As a teacher, I feel we should question this fetish of ‘standard’. My first critique is that every year it is killing the spirit of young minds. One can learn and unlearn only when one is a seeker with a deconditioned, dialogic and relaxed mind. However, this spirit of studentship is destroyed as a student is transformed into a machine—a machine that ceaselessly produces or manufactures seminar papers, assignments and book reviews; or a machine that reproduces bookish answers in the exams. One term paper leads to another; and there seems to be no end to exams. Hence, even at this time of the pandemic, where is the time to reflect on the meaning of existence when death is statistics, and news is nothing but yet another tale of human bodies floating in the ‘sacred’ river? A student has lost her mother; or she is somehow surviving in a hospital with oxygen support. But then, she must submit a 5,000-word seminar paper, and the university asks her to follow the deadline strictly. Let friends, loved ones and people around suffer and die. But the ‘standard’ must be retained; and, to take a simple illustration from my own discipline, students must master the technique of making a presentation on French postmodern thinkers. I call it absurd. This kills sensitivity and reflexivity.

My second critique is that even, under normal circumstances, this sort of academic productivity kills originality, authentic expression, and unique and independent analysis. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the root of plagiarism lies in this practice. Even when technically one’s bibliography and references are in order, and the software certifies it as a ‘non-plagiarised’ document, one is not necessarily original and authentic. The reason is that students have been reduced to consumers; their professors keep asking them to consume all sorts of bookish knowledge. It doesn’t matter even if this consumed knowledge is trendy, fashionable and sanctified by Euro-American scholars. The fact is that seldom are our students and teachers encouraged to think and redefine the world in their own ways. Hence, I find no reason to celebrate when our sociology ‘toppers’— almost like parrots —are repeating the scriptures written by Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. Plagiarism is plagiarism, no matter whether you are borrowing from guide books, or you are smartly quoting the fancy thinkers without any authentic reflection on your part. It is sad that even our teaching is not free from plagiarism. This has become abundantly clear at the time of the pandemic. As a sociology professor, I often ask myself: Should I continue to teach Emile Durkheim’s notion of the ‘social’ when ‘distancing’ is the new normal? Or should I continue to teach what MN Srinivas saw in Indian villages in his time—particularly, at this moment when the journey of migrant workers, the spectre of joblessness, and the new form of stigmatisation or untouchability have altered the social landscape of our villages?

I am not saying that we should only cry and take anti-depressant drugs; nor am I saying that our colleges and universities should stop teaching history and accountancy, biology and management, or Plato and Aristotle. I admit that even online classes, despite their limitations, have a role to play. However, it ought to be realised that ‘academic standard’ has no meaning if it exists as merely a measurable index—the number of papers teachers have published in journals with high ‘impact factor’, or the international fellowships students have availed. In fact, the only standard that matters is whether as learners we are sensitive and empathic (not restless competitors), and compassionate and dialogic (not egoists intoxicated with degrees and certificates). Believe it, our ‘top-ranking’ universities will not be able to serve humanity if knowledge is dissociated from ethics, ‘skills’ from social responsibility, and science from spirituality. What do we do with ‘specialists’ without conscience, books without life-affirming vibrations, and ‘toppers’ without empathy? This is like echoing with TS Eliot: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’

Should our academic bureaucrats think of it?

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