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Why An Education Without Politics Is Incomplete

02/04/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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After the outrage at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) earlier this year, a columnist wrote an essay titled 'Education is always political'. The columnist is Anurag Behar, the vice-chancellor of Azim Premji University where I currently teach. I reproduce his concluding paragraph:

We need education that energizes our democracy and builds an India as envisioned in the Constitution by developing the abilities of students to think and contribute as autonomous individuals; this education is certainly political. One way or the other, all education is political.

Yes, a resounding YES to the above view of education. Education in its deepest sense is about transformation. The transformation may be of the self or of the ways of interpreting and understanding society.

[I]t is imperative that all students learn about the current socioeconomic conditions as well as possible ways of eradicating discriminatory arrangements arising from caste and gender.

I received my economics education from the Universities of Madras, Hyderabad and Sydney. At the University of Hyderabad (UoH), I learnt not only economics but I also started to develop an understanding of the social realities of India. This, I learnt mainly through critical discussions I had with friends. They were from different castes, genders, regions and religions. This sort of learning, I believe, can never be solely obtained from any textbook or course.

As an alumnus of UoH, I was surprised to read the hollow appeals made by the vice-chancellor of UoH on 27 March to the students:

The students should think only about their career, studies, classes, minor examinations and semester examinations, and should not be deterred by any advice or persuasion to the contrary.

Then on 28 March:

Universities are drivers of academic leadership, entrepreneurship, professionalism and hence add great value to the Gross Domestic Product [GDP] of a nation directly and indirectly.

The above statements clearly indicate the narrow conception of education possessed by the vice-chancellor of UoH. That the students should think only about their ultra-short-term individual needs and not concern themselves with intra-university issues relating to caste and gender discrimination undermines the vision and mission of any university, and more so, of a public university in India. Yes, universities skill people and add to the human capital of a country which have positive effects on the GDP. However, if this is the primary purpose, please don't call them universities, call them coaching centres. Education, as I noted before, is, fundamentally equivalent to transformation, and this warrants a critical attitude towards existing forms of knowledge and extant societal arrangements. I, therefore, believe that universities cannot be reduced to places that only impart skills.

[A] university ought to be at the frontiers of not only... research but also of transformative politics. After all, transformative politics is nothing but applied education.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online defines politics as "the activities of the government, members of law-making organizations, or people who try to influence the way a country is governed."

It is fundamental to democratic countries like India that people try to influence the way a country is governed. Therefore, it is imperative that all students--of sciences, social sciences and humanities--learn about the current socioeconomic conditions as well as possible ways of eradicating discriminatory arrangements arising from caste and gender. Politics is about social change. The change may occur within different units of the society--family, university, locality, neighbourhoods, economy, etc. Thus, a university ought to be at the frontiers of not only scientific and social scientific research but also of transformative politics. After all, transformative politics is nothing but applied education.

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