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Sense and sensitivity

In an increasingly alienated world, care and empathy matter more on campuses

Sense and sensitivity

Breaking Myth: Students, teachers have more concerns than just the syllabus.

Avijit Pathak


Yet another suicide, a tragic tale of a victim of our collective insanity, implicit in the dehumanisation of our educational system! And this time, Aishwarya Reddy — a young student of Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College — could not bear it anymore, and chose to end her life. Despite the glitz and glamour that characterises some of our branded metropolitan institutions, the harsh reality is that it is a terribly unequal world, and the idea of smooth transaction of knowledge through online teaching is a myth, and there are many who are alienated, wounded and broken. Think of it, Aishwarya’s family could not afford a laptop for her to attend online classes; and the fact that during the pandemic, she was forced to vacate the college hostel, further intensified her psychic stress. As a teacher, I feel guilty, and I do not know how to respond to her suicide note: “Because of me, my family is facing many financial problems. My education is a burden. If I can’t study, I can’t live.”

Aishwarya’s suicide note reveals once again that the ‘digital divide’ amid the pandemic is real, and it’s not a student’s excuse to abstain from classes.

It is not just about Aishwarya or a particular college. As a matter of fact, there is something pathological about the learning machine. It further reproduces the existing culture of social Darwinism or the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’. ‘Perform, compete and be a topper: this dominant common sense’ that characterises the meaning of being a ‘good’ student, renews its life through the ritualisation of weekly/monthly tests, tutorial assignments and mindless accumulation of monologist explanations of the ‘texts’ offered by teachers. Even though one is persuaded to believe in the ideology of a ‘free and fair competition’, the uneven distribution of social/cultural/economic capital in this fractured and stratified society makes it clear that the ‘equality of opportunity’ is a myth. And in the post-pandemic world, when ‘online teaching’ is almost normalised, the myth of equality is further sharpened. Aishwarya’s suicide note reveals once again that the ‘digital divide’ is real, and it is not a student’s excuse to abstain from classes. But then, the bureaucracy, with its ‘law of uniformity’, would not be able to understand the tales of this pain, wound and marginalisation.

Yes, as a university professor, I too engage in online classes. And one thing that I realise every morning is that it is an alienating experience. We should not forget that there is something more in the life of a student or a teacher beyond the official task of completing the syllabus. We learn and unlearn, and evolve and expand our horizons through a living, humane, non-virtual garland of relationships. Hence, the library, the cafeteria, the film society, or a direct face-to-face non-utilitarian dialogue characterise the campus life, and play a therapeutic role. And today— that too with the fluctuating internet connectivity— we meet only on the screen. We are in a hurry because the lecture has to be delivered or the syllabus has to be completed. Seldom do we find a relaxed environment that nurtures the spirit of communion. There is no ecstasy; there is no healing touch. Instead, we receive only a set of circulars issued by the Kafkaesque bureaucracy: date of examination, assignment submission technicalities, modes of writing online examinations and maintenance of the attendance registrar. Possibly, Aishwarya wanted to be understood, and listened to. Possibly, she was expecting empathy from us. But then, we only complete the syllabus and evaluate their performance. Where is the time to cultivate the art of listening, and discuss something beyond class notes, attendance, exams and grades? All of us are alienated today.

The academic bureaucracy acts like a soulless machine. And there are two reasons for this. First, educators have been replaced by techno-managers. And they dislike subjectivity, human emotions and qualitative experiences. And hence, everything has to be measured, quantified and documented as a necessary ‘data’ for selling the product. A student, in the eyes of a techno-manager, is nothing but her attendance record or the grade she gets in the exam. Likewise, a teacher is primarily her CV: the list of publications, the lectures delivered, the seminars attended, or the identifiable utility of the courses offered. What is immeasurable is beyond their grasp as the fetish of ‘ranking’ is about the instrumental presentation and manipulation of this ‘data’. Second, as everything becomes a technological riddle, biometric or the CCTV camera, it would be asserted, is the only way to ‘discipline’ us. In a way, we are all caught into the vicious cycle of surveillance. Trust or spontaneity is a bad word these days. In the age of surveillance, we begin to lose what really matters: the spirit of communion, faith and relationships. The principal or the vice-chancellor suspects the faculty; the teacher suspects her students; and eventually, students begin to mistrust one another. Is it that Aishwarya’s suicide can be seen as the consequence of a system that has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, or no heart to feel?

Is there a way out? It is not easy. As we find ourselves in an increasingly alienated world — or a world characterised by the ‘lonely crowd’, neurosis, phobia and anxiety are bound to rise. Furthermore, the rat race that the neoliberal market intensifies, is likely to transform young minds into reckless competitors — not friends, but strangers to one another. I am not very sure whether in the branded college in Delhi, Aishwarya ever found a friend who understands and cares. Or did 0she ever acquire the confidence to believe that some teacher would understand her agony? As a teacher, I often ask myself: Is it that as teachers, we too have become terribly insensitive?

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