Is authentic learning possible in the heady atmosphere of an elite university, or is the race for degrees and prestigious jobs too overwhelming? As a student in Delhi University during the 1980s I found learning possible, despite indifferent teaching, an examinationoriented system, and an ethos that was often pretentious. Of course, a great deal of learning took place outside the classroom, where I was fortunate to find infinitely varied learning opportunities.

After completing a Ph.D. in the early 1990s, I chose to work at research and writing projects linked to grassroots action for social change, rather than join the university system. University seemed to be an ivory tower, fundamentally alienated from people’s lives and concerns, disengaged from grassroots action and wider realities. A decade later, I agreed to teach one course, Gender and Schooling, to teacher trainees (final year students of the four-year B.El.Ed. programme) in an undergraduate college. The course theme allowed for an extension of concerns I was already involved with, and offered scope for sharing some of these in-depth with younger people.

Teaching turned out to be an amazing experience. Over the next nine years I taught diverse courses as guest faculty, across the disciplines of education, journalism, peace/conflict studies, political science and philosophy. Interacting with students proved to be immensely fruitful and mutually enriching; however, many questions remain in my mind regarding institutionalized higher education.

Framing the challenge

Is real education possible in a highly competitive, examination-oriented system, where students are required to go through standardized syllabi, imbibe and reproduce knowledge bytes? Does a bureaucratic system, with its in-built rigidities and limitations, allow space for authentic learning? What about individual life concerns and meaningful inquiry?

Our universities are basically designed to prepare young persons to fit into the higher rungs of a competitive, consumerist economic system. Despite this, is it possible to encourage and empower students to swim against the current? Can a university classroom allow deeper questioning? Can it embody living, breathing space and spark off inquiry, awareness and insights? Do committed teachers—of whom there are several— make a vital difference to students?

The answers are provisional and mixed: both yes and no. It is possible to work within contradictions. Young people come in thirsty for authentic learning, for authentic life. It is possible for teachers to use the space of the classroom in creative ways that touch hearts and minds, inspiring explorations into unknown places. Yet the system sets severe limits; all the contradictions do not melt away. Students are also driven to pass examinations and head for careers. They need help to figure out how to keep alive a spirit of inquiry and respond creatively to the burning issues of the present age, even as they manage practical concerns.

Exploring possibilities

Within the broad parameters of course, syllabus and examinations, it isn’t easy to make space for authentic learning. Initially unsure about handling examinationoriented teaching, I stuck to the syllabus, prepared and delivered lectures. The second year, with more confidence, I took up the preset themes and topics in a different order, which flowed more organically, and elicited students’ views, inviting far more participation. I relaxed, allowing the atmosphere to be freer, conversations to flow more naturally. I found this did not interfere with students’ performance in assignments and examinations. The classroom became a lively place, a place for play, dialogue and insightful sharing. Fears receded into the background—our mutual fear of examinations, and apprehensions about each other.

I was grateful to be teaching in new and demanding departments, with responsive students and several sensitive colleagues. Indeed it is a privilege to have students whom one can meet regularly through a whole year. Teachers influence, and can deeply affect, the lives of students. A classroom can become a subversive space: a place for reflection, thought, awareness, and attentive mutual listening.

But often, differences cropped up with authorities over routine matters such as enforced attendance, strict assignment schedules and rigid assessment methods. These procedures seemed to be guided by an overall disciplinarian mentality and authoritarian ethos. Enormous energy flows into such dead-ends, whereas we could easily be more flexible, benefiting all concerned, bringing the same energy to bear on things that matter far more. Individual students need more attention that is affectionate and understanding, rather than judgemental and supervisory. Intellectual aspects too need more attention, if we are to live up to our responsibility of educating.

As I lived through our classes, some things became clear. Young people are thirsty for meaning and direction. If they detect hypocrisy, disinterest or shallowness, they can be rude and dismissive. They are curious about the teacher: the particular human being she is, what she believes in, whether she lives as she believes. Honesty is appreciated, even if it shows up vulnerabilities, shortcomings and frustrations.

A teacher’s openness and sharing go a long way towards building a relationship. Sharing one’s life, thoughts and feelings with students is a natural process of reaching out with trust, and it is reciprocated. A teacher need not be fully sorted out. Even more important, she need not pretend to be sorted out. It makes sense that she leave space for her own growth, and for students to approach and help her clarify her own understanding. A relationship requires mutual respect and trust. As one learner among many, the teacher need have no pretensions to knowing everything.

Education is linked to life, to particular lives. Subjects (every subject) can be taught in ways that make classroom learning relevant. Teachers can bring different perspectives to the attention of students through their words and thoughts, as well as by encouraging each student to think, speak and research. A vibrant atmosphere builds up when many more people question, speak, inform, purely lecture mode.

The teacher needs to be aware of the atmosphere in class. It is possible to be flexible rather than rigidly adhering to a pre-decided schedule. For instance, if students one day seem to be exhausted, unhappy and under-slept, why carry on with a theme that they can hardly absorb? Instead, we could build conversations around their current concerns, linking these where possible to subject matter— be it sociology, philosophy, psychology or education.

Teachers lay down certain ground rules. These may not coincide perfectly with the rules of the institution. For instance, there may be teachers who do not believe in imposing attendance or arbitrary hierarchies. Taking a stand, even if it goes against the ruling orthodoxy, can help stimulate students to think and form their own judgements.

A teacher helps bring out students: the silent one, the angry one, the one with strong prejudices, the thoughtful one…. As an atmosphere of trust builds up, class becomes a non-threatening zone, providing collective support to students to think through issues, even take difficult decisions. The classroom can nurture personal transformation and courage, aid in moving beyond family and social norms, beyond helplessness and despair. Students may become confident, assertive and mature enough to tackle difficult situations in creative ways.

Teachers need to model non-violent conflict resolution and demonstrate ways to deal with anger. A colleague describes her challenge with a group of journalism students who constantly disturbed others with impatient remarks, fidgeting and outbursts. Although they troubled her a great deal during the year she taught them developmental communication, she remained patient but firm. Three years later, she happened to meet Jyoti, the erstwhile gang leader, who spontaneously apologized: ‘I should have paid more attention in class, ma’am!’ Despite her earlier inattention, something had seeped in, for Jyoti now came across as a very thoughtful person, a good listener, working with a developmental organization!

Students learn subtle lessons in class. Smriti invariably had her hand up in class, and was angry and hurt whenever the teacher didn’t immediately ask her to speak. The teacher explained that several students in class were less vocal, habitually silent, so she preferred to ask them to speak first, to draw them out. Although initially unconvinced, Smriti finally understood. A year after completing her B.El.Ed. she came into college one day, sought out the same teacher’s class, gently knocked, asked permission and sat at the back of the class, quietly. She explained, ‘I miss this class so much. I never get to ask questions or give my opinion now!’ (She was pursuing a post-graduate degree.)

Teachers can play a significant role by helping channel anger and unhappiness in constructive directions. I recall students angry about curfew timings for girls while their own brothers could be out till much later; one whose grandfather never spoke to her all his life because she was a girl; another who was expected to regularly help her mother cook while her brother studied; one whose younger brother was sent out with her to market to protect her; others being pushed into marriages they didn’t want; one who was refused by a prospective groom on grounds of dowry; another who challenged property being given only to her brother; others angry about sexual harassment on buses and roads; one who suffered sexual abuse during childhood by an uncle; and so on. When they are helped and enabled to articulate, critically analyse and place individual situations within wider social perspectives, thinking clarifies and understanding develops. This releases their energies to make constructive moves. They seek help to come to terms and resolve pressing issues. They begin seeing even their parents as people who need help to reflect and change. They realize that parental restrictions are often born out of fear and anxiety, and they can initiate meaningful dialogue on those issues. Once parents see their daughter’s capacity to handle matters in a mature way, often they relax and loosen restrictions. Often they begin seeking her advice on important issues. A student, Dharini, said that her parents look to her for advice regarding her younger siblings. Vartika’s parents sent her to the B.El.Ed programme because they thought teaching was the ideal profession for women, since they could be home by afternoon and look after the kids. By the fourth year of her course, they realized something quite different had happened to their daughter. As she observed, ‘They realize I have become a critical thinker!’ They were worried about, yet also rather proud of, the change in her.

College can be a centre, a base from which students branch out into the world, returning to share and discuss what they have seen and experienced. For instance, students of journalism went to Jantar Mantar, the quintessential spot for protests, where those ousted by the Narmada Dam project and the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy were staging a satyagraha; each student sat with one person and tried to understand her/his reasons for being there. This was a lifealtering exposure for some students. Later, they discussed what they had learnt and were motivated to go deeper into the issues, to research and write.

Going out of one’s way to engage students’ deeper interests can yield significant results. Teachers may observe and notice big things and small. It is worthwhile to never give up on a student, however hopeless her case may seem. A student of journalism just wouldn’t write her first assignment, which was simply to write a page about anything. Two or three weeks past the deadline, enquiries revealed that she was interested only in fashion. She was encouraged to write on this and she did! By the end of the year, she was interested in much more. She seriously researched water as a developmental issue and the class gave a standing ovation to her presentation on the theme!

Often young people amaze us with their courage and inventiveness, taking steps beyond what we could ever imagine. Arpita, a bright student, looked sad and upset one day, her arm in a bandage. Outside the class, she explained that her father came home drunk as usual the previous night, and started shouting at her mother; Arpita intervened, and he hit her. He was an engineer, worked at his job all day, and drank in the evening before returning home. Among several things we discussed that day, I explained that alcoholism is a disease and requires appropriate treatment. A few weeks later (after the vacation) Arpita looked pleased. She informed the entire class that her sister and she had locked their father in a room at home, slipping in food at mealtimes. They explained to him their reasons for this action, but refused to open the door for several days. It worked! He remained sober and well behaved through the year. Arpita, meanwhile, completed her course, took up a job as a teacher, and continued studying part-time.

Effective action such as Arpita’s is in no way divorced from education. During the same year, we were studying social and political theory, as well as feminist theories, and such learning actually grew nuanced and interconnected, took on flesh and blood, in intersection with lived concerns. Clearly, it makes sense to integrate theory and practice, in a dialectical relationship, building understanding from the ground up.

Teaching and knowledge continue to be basically conceived within narrow disciplinary boundaries. Multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary have become catchwords without anyone quite appreciating why or how. They seem to be more a fashion than a conviction.

Contining concerns

No system can ensure intellectual vigour or for that matter moral fibre; however, it is possible for a system to ensure the opposite! Many of our educational institutions are socially and politically disengaged, unrelated to students’ lifeworlds, as well as intellectually sterile.

Professors hardly expend as much energy in reading as they do in playing power games, vying for jobs and perks, promoting favourite students, and setting up personal fiefdoms. Surely students learn something from all this: manipulation, opportunism, compromise and mediocrity. The common notion that ‘these are the ways of the world’ gets confirmed. Universities are part of the general rot we see in society, although they claim to be leaders in the advancement of human knowledge and consciousness. They seem to have lost track of the original rationale for their existence: as spaces for free inquiry; nurturing excellence, originality and resources for learning; expanding knowledge for the benefit of the wider world. Instead, they exist in a moral vacuum, with little social purpose and uncertain quality.

The university system in India generally has no way of ensuring that a teacher teaches. There is no way of tracking what happens in class, whether a teacher keeps abreast of her subject, has an understanding of education, or even whether she takes classes regularly. Although some teachers are highly committed, surely there is need for a far greater degree of transparency and accountability. Within a system where the remuneration is fairly high, much of it paid out of the public exchequer, it ought to be everybody’s fundamental right to know what kind of teaching takes place in our universities. Tragically, there is no forum for students to voice their discomfort with teachers, or insist on quality.

The lecture method reigns supreme in university settings, despite its limitations being increasingly acknowledged in the realm of school education. At university level, it is taken for granted that knowledge is a fixed body, transmitted in top-down fashion. Construction of knowledge by learners, recognized today as key to relevant education, is somehow missing in the sphere of higher education. This lack leads to students graduating with limited academic capabilities. It follows that research is mediocre, and university teaching more or less the same dull, repetitive, uninspired process.

On the whole, the system as it exists whittles down the teacher’s initiative and damages the student’s spirit. Yet, given that there are students who want to learn and teachers who are committed, can we not imagine and make better alternatives? Can a university nurture excellence consciously, respecting individuals, honouring worth, engaging creatively with the realities of our times? Or will students and teachers who are passionate about education and learning have to look outside for more conducive spaces? It is true that we have several new universities today, which are possibly creating different kinds of spaces for meaningful education. Some of the old dilemmas and contradictions may get reproduced, but there is hope, as well, that a wholly different ethos may develop.