Ashoka University showed extraordinary courage to do something as ordinary as supporting the autonomy of teachers.
A relatively new Ashoka University is doing what the University of Delhi with all its gravitas and age could not do. Ashoka University has decided to stand by the decision of Aparna Vaidik, an associate professor, to teach the graphic novel Gardener in the Wasteland by Srividya Natarajan in her ‘Great Books’ course. They said that teachers have the right to decide their own course and teaching materials. Right-wing trolls and activists said the book was ‘anti-Brahmin’ and ‘anti-Hindu’.
The question we must ask is: Why Ashoka University, already located in a BJP-ruled state, putting itself at serious risk, given the present political atmosphere? Why did it not simply ask the teacher to drop the book in question and replace it with another ‘non-controversial’ book? After all, that is what even universities like the Delhi University (DU) has done and continues to do to buy peace.
In 2011, the academic council of DU decided to withdraw Three Hundred Ramayanas, an essay by A.K. Ramanujan on the Ram kathas, because of its potential to hurt ‘Hindu sentiments’. Disregarding the view of the department concerned, the council discarded the essay. More recently, the university was again in the news after its academic committee sought the removal of books by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd from the political science syllabus for their ‘controversial’ content. Earlier, books by Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad were sought to be removed for they ‘glorified Naxalism’ and ‘promoted religious conversion’. In both the cases, it is now for the academic council to take a decision. One can only hope that it does not repeat the shameful act of 2011 and instead follow the example of Ashoka University.
When such controversies arise, we often fall in the trap of the objectors and start a debate on the merit of the book or the course concerned – as we did for Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd or Ramanujan. This is a wrong approach to take.
The simple principle to follow should be that it is the right of the teacher to select her teaching material and no, not even the vice-chancellor can tell her what to teach, and more importantly, what not to. As Ashoka University said, “The university faculty are free to use a diverse range of materials to catalyze thinking.”
Teachers should, after all, be good catalysts.
When I teach a book, I don’t tell my students how great the book is. I teach it with a clear objective in my mind that the students should be able to look at it analytically and critically. Is Premchand beyond the pale of criticism or do students feel encouraged to ask questions about his portrayal of women characters or his attitude towards caste? I have often heard students disagreeing with novelist Jainendra Kumar for allowing his protagonist Mrinal in Tyagpatra to waste herself.
Defenders of faith and the nation argue that students are of an impressionable age and they can get swayed by such ‘dangerous’ material. But classrooms function not only as sites of transferring existing, ‘correct’ knowledge from previous eras but also as a living space where new knowledge is created through the interaction between the teachers and the students. The classroom is not a place for propagating ideologies, but a space for dissecting them. The student and teacher should feel safe enough to talk about things that challenge the ‘common sense’ of their time. Or, even the established notions about the boundaries of disciplines and pedagogy. It would be useful to recall a discussion about the selection of material for schools.
The NCERT, under the leadership of Krishna Kumar, was overhauling the syllabi of all subjects in 2004. New textbooks were being written. Books by authors and historians like Romila Thapar, Ram Sharan Sharma, Bipan Chandra, Irfan Habib were being replaced by books prepared by a team of historians who were very different in their historiography than these doyens. There was a lot of disquiet and anger about this step. A fear was expressed that the children could get confused and de-secularised. A virulent campaign was launched by the Left group against the new syllabus and books. The fact that then minister in charge, Arjun Singh, despite his known friendship with the Left intelligentsia stood firmly behind the NCERT and defended its autonomy, has not been talked about much.
Historian Ram Sharan Sharma was the only one who did not make an issue out of it. I had gone to see him when he was recuperating from a surgery in a Delhi hospital. There, an angry historian complained that the NCERT was now trying to teach history through cricket. He was obviously referring to the inclusion of Ramachandra Guha’s article. Professor Sharma, with his mischievous smile, said, “In our shastras it is said that when the child attains a certain age, she should be treated as equal.”
“Aaj bacche jaldi bade ho jata hai (Children grow up fast these days). Let her read many books, don’t constrain her vision by your prescription,” he said.
It should be for the teacher to decide what is teachable.
I remember when a Left leader jubilantly told me that the name of a particularly respected scholar had been effectively blocked from the shortlist for the post of vice-chancellor of a central university. I asked why. She asked how the teacher could be trusted after she had included Savarkar as a part of the syllabus! I was left dumbfounded. What would be the fate of the teacher who uses Mein Kampf as part of the course on the Holocaust?
By defending the autonomy of teachers, we create a space for students to think on their own and develop their voices. This is what the Ashoka University has done and we must applaud the institution for having the extraordinary courage to establish an ordinary principle: The freedom of the teacher is paramount for a university to call itself a university.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.