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Our republic’s future hinges on democratic education

The cultivation of the faculty of critical thinking is immensely important for democratic education.

Our republic’s future hinges on democratic education

PARTICIPATION: There is more to democracy than the ritualisation of periodic elections. Tribune photo



Avijit Pathak

Sociologist

AS a teacher/educator, I have always felt that there is something more to democracy than the ritualisation of periodic elections. Of course, these elections are important and we must reflect on the ever-changing nature of power equations, the formation of new political alliances and the questions relating to ideology, politics and governance. But then, amid this intense debate on whether Narendra Modi’s popularity has somewhat eroded or whether Rahul Gandhi is emerging as a new icon in Indian politics, I experience the absence of what I would regard as the most important concern: Are our youngsters — the new generation that will shape the destiny of India — getting the kind of education that truly empowers them and makes them capable of sustaining, nurturing and living with the fundamental spirit of democracy?

In order to find a meaningful answer to this important question, let me identify three fundamental features of democratic education, and then enquire whether the prevalent practice of education is in tune with this spirit. First, the capacity to engage in a meaningful dialogue is a distinctive feature of democratic education. After all, democracy is not the assertion of a monologue — even the monologue of our ‘supreme leader’. Democracy is not the cult of majoritarianism, even if the mathematics of numbers tends to sanctify it. Instead, democracy means the acknowledgement of diverse, plural, subaltern and even conflicting perspectives. In other words, it requires the cultivated skill that sharpens the faculty of mindful observation, promotes the delicate art of listening, and encourages the elasticity of consciousness needed for expanding one’s mental horizon, or becoming empathic to others. Although this sort of dialogue does not necessarily guarantee a consensus, it means humility, or the courage to change and amend one’s position, if one is convinced by counter arguments. In fact, authoritarian masters all over the world demand ‘certainty’ or ‘homogeneity’; they are afraid of differences, plurality and ambiguities. The subtlety of dialogic education, it has to be realised, is an antithesis of all sorts of authoritarianism.

Second, the cultivation of the faculty of critical thinking is immensely important for democratic education. And critical thinking is not merely about solving a mathematics riddle or a physics numerical; it is essentially about the ability to pose new questions, see beyond the ‘taken-for-granted’ world, celebrate what Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire would have regarded as a ‘problem-posing education’, and interrogate, say, the normalisation of patriarchy, caste hierarchy, religious bigotry and heightened economic inequality. The question is whether we are really prepared to accept the spirit of critical pedagogy in our classrooms in order to create intellectually alert, active and awakened citizens — not merely a set of ‘toppers’ or ‘products’ with fancy salary packages.

Third, it is impossible to sow the seeds of active and participatory democracy without encouraging the kind of education that nurtures the ethic of care. As hyper-competitiveness is becoming the order of the day, we tend to worship aggressive, self-possessive and narcissistic warriors — not compassionate citizens filled with the ethic of love, compassion and egalitarian/democratic living. It is sad that even the educational arena has begun to look like a battlefield — ‘exam warriors’ running neurotically after mythical ‘success’! Can we learn a couple of lessons from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and American feminist pedagogue bell hooks, and initiate a movement to save education from the virus of the recklessly aggressive culture that keeps reproducing patriarchy, casteism and racism?

These three ideals indicate that a truly libertarian/democratic education ought to free itself from the discourses of neoliberal market fundamentalism as well as religious fundamentalism implicit in the ideology of hyper-nationalism. If we equate education solely with the acquisition of a set of technical skills the market demands; or, for that matter, if we think that the primary objective of education is to manufacture a brigade of hyper-masculine ‘nationalists’ intoxicated with the zeal to eradicate the cleverly constructed ‘enemies’ of the nation, we will end up negating the very purpose of a life-affirming and emancipatory education.

Well, these days, political pundits are continually debating and reflecting on the implications of the results of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections — the dialectic of the ‘NDA vs INDIA’ politics. But then, these debates miss what really matters — the realisation that unless the new generation evolves as truly alert and awakened citizens with the vibrancy of democratic education, the future of the republic will be in danger. In fact, if there is democratic education, the new generation will not remain content merely with the ritualistic act of casting their votes and choosing the ‘lesser evil’ every five years; nor will they transform their representatives into their ‘masters’. Instead, they will remain perpetually alert and active; and succeed in making their ‘representatives’ accountable. Yes, they will refuse to be just passive spectators of the dramaturgical performances of the political bosses; they will not be hypnotised by the propaganda machinery; they will come to the street and ask them many difficult questions — can India really become a vishwaguru, particularly when its rank on the Global Hunger Index is 111 out of 125 countries? Is the set of ‘fundamental rights’ our Constitution prescribes in tune with our lived experiences, and that too at a time when India’s score on the World Press Freedom Index is far from satisfactory? Is there reason to be proud of the prevalent political culture when the latest report released by the Association for Democratic Reforms reveals that 251 of the 543 newly elected Lok Sabha MPs have criminal cases registered against them?

Is anybody listening? 

#Democracy


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