The profs are worried

2014-04-05

Ekantipur

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A few recent trends and modes of activism in the Nepali academic world trouble me. Discussions about future concerns, academic freedom and what is being said, “academic restructuring”, these days are the subjects of concern and anxiety for academics who have spent decades in education as pedagogues and freedom and security seekers.

The Panchayat polity tried to create the university in its own image — monolithic, controlled and strong. It demanded loyalty from those who were appointed by the order. The loyalists would see two doors open to them — continue to hang on as tenured teachers without taking up the cudgels as pedagogues or researchers, or remain hopeful for an any-time-call from the power centres controlled by the king and Panchayat power elite.

Critical thinking was not allowed. But the irony, as we see in retrospect, was/is that most of the critical theories and discourses of dissent emerged out of the same structure of ambivalence. Academic freedom always has a relationship with purpose. Those who do not have a purpose use academic freedom for converting it into “unfreedom”. Many did precisely achieve that “unfreedom”. The Panchayat polity looked at the professoriate with suspicion and hope. First, they were never sure of their total loyalty. Second, they looked at the professoriate as its think tank. Panchayat elitists were paid dividends on both scores.

The change in the political order from 1990 brought political activities to a more open ground. The monotheistic professoriate got ruptured. That structure chose to divide itself into loyalty groups. I did not find my space in the loyalty zodiac. I recall one incident from the mid-1990s. One politically vociferous teacher from a neighbouring department came to me and showed a memorandum signed by many colleagues of Kirtipur Campus. I saw the purpose was good. Signatures sprawled all the way down to the very edge of the somewhat informal paper. Some signatures at the bottom were covered by white correction fluid. The fellow wanted me to sign on that white embossed space.

I did so because the demand was simple, even naïve, to tell the truth. The next day, another fellow came and said, “Would you sign here once again?” He said someone had crossed out my signature saying I did not belong to that particular party group. But after a discussion it turned out that “you belong to our group after all”. I became very furious with him. I did not sign. That process of scrawling on the palimpsest continued more absurdly in the following days.

A process of identifying spheres in democracy and loyalty to parties became very strong. I quite appreciate that too. If your clientele, the student mass, is always very politically conscious and deciding the course of events, how can you remain indifferent to that? Political awareness of teachers is a very important factor in social change. The Maoist war started in 1995. That did not leave any direct impact on the binary of baame-daame, i.e., communist and Congress political structure at the educational institutions. It had become almost axiomatic then. The Maoists did not have their structure. The erstwhile Panchayat polity had some, albeit very small, space both within the teachers’ organisations and those of the students.

The politically conscious student mass and teachers played a very significant role in the uprising of the 1960s and the political change of 2006. The Maoists also became part of the process. They joined the bandwagon in university. Like they accepted the structure of party politics, they accepted the students’ political structure — the union format — hook, line and sinker. It worked. A strong social citizenship and students’ politics worked together very well.

But a few developments make us look with concern at the political identification of groups and loyalties and the impact of youths who work closely with parties and speak the language of corporate capitalism where money plays a central role. Whatever may be the ideological outlook of the group, a corporate structure appears to be the model. Naming of party loyalists to key posts reminds one of the appointments of CEOs in corporations. The polarisation of students has become more intense. As politicians became intensely engaged in power deals, dialogues and dyads, their loyalist bands developed their own forms of engagements.

Developments at the universities were by no means encouraging. I have seen talented young teachers selected by the service commission and endorsed by the public service commission visiting politicians asking not to be thrown into obscurity resulting in the loss of their meaningful academic engagements. Curiously, the indifferent attitude towards the tenure of teachers follows a corporate pattern. Tenured positions gave us then some academic freedom, and that rationality is not finished yet. But the blessings of parties and big bosses to acquire tenured positions means that you join a corporate model where you become not a free thinker but a corporate loyalist all your life.

The position of academics will be strongly influenced by such party patronisations. The intelligentsia will be emptied of critical sense and they will lose content. Losing content and critical perception by academics is a costly matter. Academics are given tenures or appointments so that they would challenge the norms, age-old beliefs and even political monolithic standards. By finishing that possibility and by emptying the critical content in scholarship, the polity and political parties will be doing a great disservice to this country.

It has almost become common knowledge that Nepali delegates who go for tricky negotiations with other countries cut a sorry figure and become overwhelmed by the bureaucrats of the other party. A few competent participants do not have clout here. I have heard people making derogatory remarks about academics and academic achievements at public programmes here. This will become worse if the present state of academic sauntering continues.

The other phenomenon that alarms me is the attitude of the youths towards education and the political structure of the country. Political parties have been making achievements, we must say. They have made peace deals and are plodding forward towards writing the constitution. At this stage, both protest and consent should work together. Youths who should be giving succour to the thought process are engaged in battles. Money is playing a role there. Bizarre confusion about corporate culture, the role of money and the trend of dismantling working structures seem to occupy the youths who should be sitting together discussing problems, holding seminars, discussing perceptions, putting their visions and giving to the committees and expert teams that have been formed recently. They should go one step ahead of their leaders and give them direction. But that is not happening.

One final caveat. I hear buzz words here and there about creating a defined structure of education and working pattern of universities. One word of caution is in order. If the present trend of according priority to parties over academic freedom becomes the norm, such a model — given the erosion of a sense of independence among academics and students — will be a recipe for disaster in terms of academic freedom and creating creative, free and creative thinkers in this country. The scale of the toll would be colossus.

(Source: The Kathmandu Post: Published on Dec. 7)