The Politics of Education

Photo: Telegraph India

By Rupayan Mukherjee

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed exposits the subtle nuances that constitute the intrinsic and inherently political disposition of education. In his opinion, the political is manifested even in the most elementary and irreducible aspects of pedagogy such as the teacher-student exchange. For Freire, this exchange is marked by an inequilibrium where the teacher is the depositor and the student a vegetal depository. In this exchange turned imposition, the student turns into a learner who is filled with ‘nothing but facts’ by an instructor – facts that bear little relevance with the learner’s lived reality, facts that are far removed from the learner’s organic intimate everyday. Rabindranath Tagore’s critique of utilitarian education as a mode of repression and not of transcendence is only consolidated in Freire’s jading criticism of what he calls the Banking mode of Education. This mode of education, Freire opines, produces perfect adaptors who do not question or critique the prevalent state of existence but are parasites in search of prospects within the existing system of education.

Barring a few happy exceptions, the modern Indian system of education is nothing but profit-oriented and is considerably haunted by an ageless spectre called ‘prospect’. While prospect played a vital role in Macaulay’s 1836 ‘Minutes on Indian Education’, it has never ceased to be out of fashion. The Sciences as more prospective and the learners of science as more intelligent have now become a universally accepted fact in the Indian social imaginary. In an interview, Dipesh Chakrabarty, an eminent academician and a Professor of History at the University of Chicago, remonstrates that in his college days, there was a prevalent cultural assumption that students and scholars of Science were more intelligent than other scholars of various fields. Chakrabarty observes that the social incentive given to Science by Nehru’s India was more which informally put many of the best brains, without any rationale whatsoever, into the Science stream. The trend has continued to this day as parents and coaching centers, friends and fraternity, consistently aspire their ward to be more diligent and vigorous in their pursuance of Science. What is more intimidating is that a considerable segment of these parents and advisors are academics belonging to non-Science disciplines.

Yet, the political disposition of the system of education in India is not merely limited to the hierarchical differences in discipline. It is also imperceptibly entangled with the finer considerations of class, caste, privilege and a persistent urban-provincial divide. The last in the list is the fundamental essence/ essential core of the hierarchical design which segregates between ‘premiere’ glamorous centers and provincial institutes of learning, particularly in the context of higher education. In India (arguably also abroad), the culture of brand value is not exclusive to consumerism. It haunts the secular air of academia. It is understandable that most of the ‘branded’ institutes are, for due reason, recognized as formidable abodes of erudition. However, this culture of branding dismisses all other non-branded institutes as second class institutions meant for learners of lesser merit. Most often, the academic canon and their safeguards are profoundly skeptical and apprehensive of the merit of these learners who hail from these ‘other’ institutions. A friend of mine, who had applied for his Ph.D. at a premiere university in Calcutta, was deeply appreciated by one of the interview board members who expressed her astonishment at the fact that someone from a ‘Provincial University’ was ‘meritorious’ enough to conceptualise such a fertile and rich research proposal.

What is interesting, however, is that merit in itself is a profoundly political category. It is associated with the determining asset called cultural capital. In India, the capital of culture even to this day is urban middle-class oriented and the privilege of cultural capital is often inseparably associated to the more potent and material forms of capital. The question of culture and privilege is not just limited to the columns of arranged marriages or consenting to proposed coffee dates at Starbuck. It owes heavy on those who feel deprived of it. Like the teeth in the famous Bengali adage (daat thaaktey daater mormo bojha jay naa, you do not realize the value of your teeth until you lose them), it is best felt when one lacks it. The ‘fresh from the boat’ stereotype of a country bumpkin, bullied in the treacherous streets of the metropolis, is not merely limited to Restoration Theatre or the city comedy modeled spoof of Mosharraf Karim or Vijay Raj. It is also very relevant when one engages in a field study of the plight of the rural learner in the sacrosanct arenas of Premiere Institutes which are marked by a typical (often topographical as well) metropolitan climate. The provincial learner, hailing from the countryside and the non-metropolitan districts, are often welcomed by the city-bred inmates with a name (the age old strategy of colonization that has never been obsolete since the primordial imperialist Crusoe ‘named’ Friday). More often than not, these names are historically bound to a legacy and are indiscreetly applied to all learners who hail from a particular provincial locale. TUMPA for the native populace of Midnapore who come to Calcutta to pursue their higher studies can be a classic exemplar.

The lack of cultural capital does not just haunt the learner. It is also significantly felt by faculties who are not city-bred and lack the sophistication that is otherwise expected in an educator at a ‘Premiere’ institute. One only needs to revert a few years back to Presidency University to realize the ugly form that the consciousness of cultural capital and its lurking shadow in academia might take. In an article titled “Dalits and the Dogs: An Autobiographical Note” Dr. Mahitosh Mandal records, what he calls, “a history of humiliation.” Dr. Mandal’s humiliation in the so called aorta of Bengal Renaissance is a signature testimony of the politics of privilege where academics hailing from underprivileged backgrounds often suffer due to a prevailing “cultural disease at the heart of Bengal.” In the Professor’s own words, “this disease can rightly be given three different but related names: elitism, ageism, and casteism.” While belonging to a reserved category only adds a perfect icing to the cake, the moot point possibly is, to quote Dr. Mandal again, “Mahitosh Mandal does not really fit into the idea of a professor in an urban institution. He hails from the remotest rural areas of Bengal. He has not sufficiently picked up the urban manners. Hence he is an outsider.”

This, unfortunately, is the state of many non-urban academics in a pedagogy system that is obsessed with performance over essence and sophistication over wisdom. The credential of a Teacher is often determined by what, borrowing Erving Goffman, we can call “the performance of the self.” This performance is often extraneous to one’s academic proficiency. Among other things, it is more pertinently associated with accent, dressing sense, apparent sophistication and an impromptu flamboyance or ready wit. Needless to say, in a country that is still failingly trying to unburden itself of the colonial hangover, English language proficiency is one of the elementary categories which determines the academic worth of a Teacher.

In an informal conversation with me, the celebrated writer and academic Sumana Roy observed that we often have a foreunderstanding in matters pertaining to academia. The institutes we choose to study in, the authors we read, the thinkers we quote, the resource persons we invite, are often decided by this prism of foreunderstanding that has a profoundly political disposition. It is much like class or caste consciousness, so very integral to our being that we often tend to disregard or deny its existence. To realise the profound truth of Roy’s observation, one needs only to take into consideration the conference culture in Academia. The reputation of a conference is often directly proportional to the number of celebrity academics, affiliated to high brand institutes and armed with a formidable list of publications, who have been invited as resource persons. The greater the number, the more glamorous the event, the more appraisals for organisers who ‘single handedly’ manage to organise such feasts of wisdom. Wisdom ceases to exist beyond the immanence of affiliation. The white haired Professor who is unfamiliar to this rat race of academic performance and who has exhausted his age in teaching young but sensitive minds the metaphysical poetry of John Donne is never recognised as ‘the intellectual’ in this performance of wisdom. He is not wise enough for he lacks affiliation and international publication. For academia, he is a good teacher, but only just.

Knowledge, like modernity, is still travelling from the West to the East, from the City to Country, from the privileged to the ordinary and from the glamorous to the mundane. What is this knowledge, if not Political?

Rupayan Mukherjee is a Ph.D. scholar at the Dept. of English, University of North Bengal. He is the co-editor of Partition Literature and Cinema: A Critical Introduction (Routledge UK, 2020).


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2 thoughts

  1. “For Freire, this exchange is marked by an inequilibrium” – is “inequilibrium” even a word? couldn’t find it.


    1. In all possibilities, the word has not been coined by the author. Although rarely used (the more popular being disequilibrium), the word is popular among writers and critics of Political and Ecological Theory. You could find abundant usage of the word in books like Interdisciplinary Perspectives of Political theory or even in translations of Foucault. The word is often used to signify an intricate imbalance that is not conveyed satisfactorily in the popularly used antonym ‘disequilibrium’. While the latter suggests a discord, the former often carries the sense of a structure that is marked by a concord in discord. The author has deliberately used the word to signify how the structure of pedagogy, although marked by an imbalance, is often inclined to mask it under the rubric of balance and harmony. Hope that explains. If you are further interested in evidence, I will forward to you sample uses of the word that will definitely testify that it is indeed ‘a word’.


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