by Adrian Schlegel
The COVID-19 pandemic, its political responses as well as their devastating social consequences have left me unsettled and weary. As for many students, this moment of total uncertainty has pushed my heart off a cliff while tying my head to the desk attempting to focus on classwork.
Currently based at Jawaharlal Nehru University I am thankful for conversations that nurture my struggle to deal with this crisis. While physical mobility is limited during this period of lockdown, the scholar-activist community has been fruitful ground for initiatives of solidarity responding to the dreadful precarity workers and students inside and outside the campus are facing. This soil seems equally nutritious fostering the slower seeds of social transformations thinking and planning beyond the current crisis. Their sprouts grow steadily not only from theoretical approaches and the networks of solidary activism. They also flourish vis-à-vis the remarkable revelation of dividing and marginalising experiences of rationalised education in this crisis.
Machines of Education, keep on rolling
While the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and its political responses threw many people into fatally precarious situations, educational institutions around the world quickly tried to roll on. They might have halted their machine for a second, only to restart it immediately with adapted mechanisms but without any reconfigurations of their collective goal. Detrimental for those students and teachers who are left alongside the process. Devastating for a shattered world that screams for anything but blind continuation. In many universities this was made possible by hierarchical decision-making, excluding student voices. A matter that has been strongly contested at the Jawaharlal Nehru University – both by students and teachers. Negotiations on non-exclusive modes of continuing learning processes as well as tenacious acts of solidarity among the affected communities have countered the vast implications of social and physical distance. The tools they have built exposed the flaws of the educational machine. What can we learn from their activism to transform education?
Resisting the Educational Machine
It was not long after social movements voiced demands of social justice in the late 1960s, that the philosopher Ivan Illich stated that universities serve to stabilise socio-economic hierarchies and marginalisation. Paradoxically, the same institutions from which anti-capitalist uprisings were organised, reproduced the very political ideas and social structures necessary for capitalism to survive. Aligned curricula prepare professionals for the labour army; resources available at the university shape and co-opt students from diverse backgrounds into consumerist role-models in society; criticality is channelled through mechanic teaching of criticality: A system producing labour and consumer supplies according to the proclaimed necessities of market and nationalist projects. The engine to such educational machine is what Illich termed the “ritualisation of progress”. Rationalised education has established a hierarchy of knowledge, whose steps the learner is supposed to climb, further and further up. To progress, knowledge must be accumulated. To hold their privileged position, the “knowing” elite has no interest to hand down knowledge that criticises the hierarchy, nor in letting too many ascend close to their position. Climbing thus becomes an individual process. According to Illich, such detaching of the learner from their sociality is fuelled by social insecurity and universalised expectations in the capitalist imaginary of a good life. A self-perpetuating system? The resistance of students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University against blindly continuing the current semester suggests otherwise, where a relational care and re-enchantment of knowledge creation have been two strong tools challenging the educational machine.
Care in Education, in and beyond Crisis
When the Indian government decided to pursue the politics of a strict lockdown, the administration of the Jawaharlal Nehru University closed down most facilities on the campus. They instructed faculty to continue with classes and to switch to online modes of education. At the same time students were voicing their concerns and struggles with the current situations in the many social media groups, their main means of self-organisation. No inner balance for concentration, no time for assignments, no space to focus, no devices to learn with, no stable access to internet. The university did not care. The machine had to continue. The students who could, tried their best to abide to the propositions. Those who couldn’t, couldn’t. However, this was soon put on hold by vocal student protests. Calling for the participation in the university’s decision making on pedagogical strategies, the student union stated that online teaching and evaluation are “exclusionary, bent towards those who are privileged”. Beyond the university’s confines a collective was formed amongst students of various educational institutes in Delhi to build a joint response towards the decisions of the Indian University Grant Commission pursuing digital learning. After exchanging on the various issues faced, students in various classes and institutes formulated their demands. In solidarity with those who could not take part, many groups decided on discontinuing any formal digital class engagement until physical seminars could continue. Assignments would only be submitted, when every student of the batch had equal opportunities to do so. Underlining the responsibility everyone has for each other and that learning processes are collective achievements pressure was relieved from those who were not able to work. While consequently, formal classes have been discontinued in many institutes, self-organisation of students brought diverse learning spaces into being for those who were able to engage with academic work, and who felt that it gave them meaning and stability in a moment of social insecurity. As of now it seems likely that physical classes will not take place any time soon, further negotiations with the faculty and university administration have started in a far more inclusive manner. Having learned from students’ resistance, the Teachers Association has urged faculty to “initiate a dialogue and discussion with their students to take stock of challenges faced” to find modes of continuing educational engagements that do not exclude anyone. Educational engagement is supposed to be structured along the needs of everyone involved. At the same time flexibility in reassessing the suitability of learning structures according to changing circumstances is recognised as essential. In every class I have attended ever since, students and teachers have at last a brief exchange on their well-being, discussed means to include those absent or acknowledged the inequal challenges faced in this crisis.
Contesting Rationalised Education
What do these reactions to the crisis imply for a critical engagement with rationalised education? Which perspectives emerge towards an emancipatory transformation of education beyond the current moment? I would like to start by pointing at the fallacy of equity in formalised education. The promise of an equal access to education has been heavily challenged in this crisis. In universities’ pursuits to continue the academic cycle through digital means especially those already marginalised by society have been ignored and excluded. Those from financially weak or socially instable households to a great extent find themselves in big material precarity and struggle with performing their academic work. Those from rural areas might face problems with access to the necessary digital infrastructure. When at home, especially women might be pushed into responsibility for care-work, leaving few or no time to engage with possible assignments. Those who are already discriminated against by society along mental and physical issues might struggle even harder with mobilizing capacities to work in the crisis. A mechanical educational institution can hardly be sensitive to such diverse needs. To keep up with the requirements, teachers feel the need to abide certain rules. Several teachers confessed that they personally also struggled with the situation. However, some insisted that some kind of learning progress had to be made nevertheless. Rationalised education systems rarely leave space for reciprocal care, which in this case only the extensive exchange between students and teachers on their personal challenges seemed to establish, at least temporarily. This resonates with various critical work on education. The pedagogues Paulo Freire and Jiddu Krishnamurti for instance are only two amongst many other revolutionary thinkers and practitioners in the field. According to them, persisting hierarchies between teachers and students only aggravate inequalities. They create an atmosphere of fear and attribute a supposed fixity to reality. Both phenomena do not only undermine the relation between teachers and students. They also hinder an emancipatory learning process and – as with Illich’s “ritualisation of progress” – reproduce existing social inequality. To overcome this, Freire and Krishnamurti suggest that a relational idea of freedom must be central to pedagogy. Freedom in their sense is not rooted in the individual’s independence, but in the intimate connection to their environment. Reflecting on the students’ solidarity, it is precisely the relationality transgressing diverging experiences and reciprocal trust they create that makes them free of the social insecurities that otherwise might have driven them to detaching themselves from the group and individually trying to climb the ladder proposed by a continuation of the semester. At the same time, students’ initiatives for collective education free from pressure and balanced through reciprocal care created spaces where knowledge is co-produced through conversation. Instead of understanding learning as unilinear knowledge transfer top-down from the teacher to the student, such structure facilitates encounters on eye-level. Through common reflection it embraces learning as knowledge exchange, or – as Freire would term it – a constant “re-creation of knowledge”. The students’ engagement with their teachers in this moment of crisis illustrated the imperative for processes of learning to be sensitive and flexible to the complex needs of all. The awareness of and the need to address persisting social inequalities and other struggles of existence therefore necessarily remains at the centre of the discourse. Ideally educational structures become more inclusive through their flexible outlines and caring atmosphere. At the same time, their discursive practice is deeply rooted in the challenges of the social reality of the present. In a context of crisis, when intellectual engagement depends on the physical well-being and vice-versa, learning becomes re-enchanted with the embodied experience of life.
The achievements of students to create collective and caring learning structures with their teachers can be an inspiration to the realisation of another kind of education. Instead of recalibrating universities and schools to continue as before, could we not deconstruct our educational machines and grow caring educational organisms together? Isn’t this what this crisis is screaming for?
Adrian Schlegel is studying Global Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the University of Pretoria and Humboldt University Berlin, focussing on decolonial perspectives on international cooperation and global climate politics. Reflecting on different collective learning experiences, he has recently become very interested in critical pedagogy as a practice of socio-ecological transformation.