Who will Educate the Educators? Reflections on JNU today: Janaki Nair

Guest Post by JANAKI NAIR

 In an interview to the journal Frontline on February 16, 2016, just 11 days before he took over one of India’s most prestigious universities, Prof Jagadesh Kumar had this to say:

I am a defender of free expression of thought in a democratic set-up and students are free to question me or challenge my views. I believe in constructive criticism, and as long as it is done peacefully and within the boundaries of the law, there is no problem.

Declaring his  two top priorities, of which one was the redressal of  infrastructural shortcomings, he desired

to improve the learning environment by making it more student-centric. Some of the faculty are great researchers, but they do not have much understanding of teaching. What I want to do requires cooperation from faculty members.

These words, which Prof Kumar has thus far not refuted or denied, should be recalled today, more than three months after his takeover, the  most tumultous months the University has ever known.  It is too early to judge the VC on his infrastructure  promise, as some of us continue to make  bone rattling journeys on cycles over  the most rutted roads on the campus. 

But Professor Kumar has certainly attempted to redefine the very meaning of the University, and begun his task of “educating the educators”.

The new “understanding of teaching”  that Prof Kumar hoped to introduce is taking shape.   From his blog modestly entitled “About Myself” we learn about  how he has become an outstanding teacher of large classes:  powerpoints on multiple screens can enhance teaching,  along with biometric fingerprint devices,  punishments of late lateefs/lateefas by making them stand through a 90 minute lecture, running 10 quizzes and multiple tests in every course and other assorted inflictions.  Those at JNU  may not be quite convinced about the pedagogic effects of accosting and bringing back a truant student (another of his  teaching accomplishments).

But  we have had very instructive lessons from his actions over the past three months.

Consider the “takeaways” from some of his recent actions:

  1. The virtues of silence: A Vice Chanceller must remain COMPLETELY SILENT when faculty and students, the entire JNU community in short, have gained undeserved national notoriety through relentless and unsubstantiated charges made by politicians, media personnel, some fellow teachers and students themselves, and officials of the Ministry of Human Resource Development.
  2. The importance of stonewalling questions: Prof Kumar touts, quite rightly,  as a lively classroom method, the asking of questions to students, and answering theirs. But as a  Vice Chancellor  it is NOT necessary to answer a single one of the questions that teachers and students have been asking for the past three months.
  3. The necessity of infantilising students: It is important to INFANTILISE the student population by writing complaints to parents about their political activity on the campus. This cannot but be in continuation of the Honourable Minister for Education calling Rohith Vemula “a child.”
  4. The Imperative of being Unreliable: It is necessary to CONSTANTLY ALTER the commitments that you make, not only  to teachers and students, but above all to your own administration committees, preferably on an hourly basis.
  5. The urgency of ignoring/avoiding the Social Sciences: This  will impact not just JNU but the university system across the length and breadth of this country.   The Social Sciences and Humanities are AVOIDABLE KNOWLEDGE  for they encourage some of the most dangerous activities on the campus, namely critical thinking. Professor Kumar has thought fit not to invite a single teacher from the Social Sciences in his administrative appointments so far.

Are the  three School of Social Sciences buildings at JNU  a formidable Marxist redoubt, as is widely believed? Why is this a dangerously mistaken notion?  Professor Kumar need only trawl through course outlines and reading lists to realise that this school is defiantly diverse.  He will find, to his dismay and horror,  a very wide range of conflicting ideas and concepts, views and critiques that are introduced to students on a daily basis.  Classes and seminars encourage and treasure originality of thinking, new interpretations supported by rigorous evidence and sharp critique.   And yes, JNU teachers also attend to the  craft and passion  of fine writing and presenting  (it may be no coincidence that IIT, not JNU,  produced Chetan Bhagat!). There are teachers in JNU who are conceited and humble, innovative and hide bound,  draconian and compassionate, radical and conservative, but it is this heady and unpredictable mix that has earned JNU its pride of place in producing  diplomats, bureaucrats, economists, writers, journalists, politicians, and above all legions of teachers in universities and colleges across India.

The distrust of scientists and technologists for the methods and ways of social sciences and humanities (which have been seen as entirely dispensible in many parts of the country and the world) is legion. Within this larger setting,  Professor Kumar’s political masters train their  guns – quite literally, as everyone learned early on in this struggle — on  purported “card holders”, in order  to  transform them into “flag bearers” who will be worshipful:  profess love of country, obedience, discipline, vegetarianism, sexual continence and every other kind of ideal that is cherished by those who wish to push the social toothpaste back into the tube.  Not much will be gained by way of intellection.

Professor Kumar could have begun with greater  humility:  to learn from, as much as he wanted to teach, the 600 plus teachers of JNU. He could have learned that a book discussion cannot be done with PowerPoint; that ideas take root in constant but non judgmental feedback of teacher to student; that despite attendance not being compulsory in JNU, the classes of most teachers are well attended; that tutorial systems and synopsis presentations with enhanced face-time are enabled because of lower teacher-student ratios. He could have revelled in a culture of teaching/learning that is reproduceable.

Instead, his actions have belied his words. As a result, the relationship between his administration and the two most important constituents of any university, teachers and students, has more or less broken down.

His words on abiding by the law are unexceptionable: his actions reveal how he has conveniently shrunk the “lawful” so  as to place everything he does not agree with beyond its limits and everything else within it. Thus, to go on hunger strike is unlawful, but to malign the teaching/student body in public forums and in dossiers, and call publicly for teachers to be condemned as “Pakistani agents” remains legally acceptable.

Did Professor Kumar  seriously misjudge the capacity of the JNU community to resist this onslaught? The unfortunate chain of events has led to the most creative flowering of  new repertoires of protest and resistance, from art and music, to writing and performing,  with newly forged solidarities within and beyond India that have given the students and faculty of JNU the strength with which to address the crisis.

For Professor Kumar, the courageous and unprecedented collective struggle of the JNU students and teachers is no more than an auditory and visual nuisance. But even a highly decorated teacher such as Professor Kumar will be hard pressed to explain  the pedagogic value of retaining on the website for nearly three months the photograph of retired Indian generals who met him in February. An education, or a warning?

Janaki Nair is Professor at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.

4 thoughts on “Who will Educate the Educators? Reflections on JNU today: Janaki Nair

  1. K SHESYU BABU

    Some words and phrases like ‘ within the boundaries of law’ , ‘free expression’ , ‘responsibilities of students’ , etc., are ambiguous to say the least. When some one speaks about Pakistan positively, the person is treated as exceeding the ‘ boundaries of freedom of speech’ but when someone speaks that one who does not follow Hindu religion should go to Pakistan, the speech ‘ does not fall within boundaries of freedom of speech’. Also, when one shouts ‘ Azad kashmir’ , he is illegal, but when one shouts’ jootey maroo’ or even derogatory phrases laden with obscenity, he is legal.
    Since speech has no physical harm, demarcation is difficult. Hence, there is no harm in allowing whatever one wants to speak. Criticism will automatically show the weakness of a particular statement.
    VC of JNU is just contradictory. His interview is utopian but practically authoritarian. He is in tune with the government double standards. He stans exposed. Sooner or later, he must realise that ‘ if law is too stringent, it breaks itself’ (Emerson). The great dictum ‘ let thousand flowers blossom, let hundred schools of thought contend’ to follow is easy to say but difficult to practice.
    This is the education that must be followed by educators before educating others.

  2. Ms. Nair, maybe these words would be appropriate here (even though written by a master of his art, he did go to the other side in the end, sadly):
    “…. koTTevido veeLeyanu
    nimmellaranu toDedu, nimma masaNada mele
    kaTTuvevu hosa naaDondanu
    sukhada beeDondanu….”
    It is ironic that the man who wrote these lines, probably a greater master of the art than your beloved KuVemPu, wrote this in times which are similar to what we see today…. and yet lost his way in the end. But, thank you also for being the staunchest defender of JNU and for the wonderful lecture series.

  3. Paresh Malakar

    Prof. Yash Pal once said: ” When the Babri Masjid was demolished, the topic was a taboo in schools lest it created communal flare up. But, in my opinion that was the right time to discuss the issue and educate the children about the vices of communalism.” Education is not only about classroom learning and trying to understand the text. Its scope is much beyond that. It is about getting involved in life, world outside the classroom and the campus and take a stance on right and wrong and make a sense of it. The recent JNU developments are new experiments in university education. They have expanded the meaning of a university.

  4. Hartman de Souza

    Bravo!!! Super piece, you’ve whacked him nice and hard! Now if he would only read your piece and do the right thing, and run away from JNU as fast as possible…

    Maybe that would be fitting protest. Meet his car every morning as he drives to his office, point your finger at it, and laugh as if you are going to burst. We should not be frightened by these right-wing embedded ‘educationists’ – we should just laugh at them…

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