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Mourning for the Teacher

Why the Adulation of APJ Abdul Kalam is Misleading

Rajesh Sharma (sharajesh@gmail.com) teaches at the Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala.

Behind the opulence of institutions and the grandstanding of politicians towards teachers lies the real truth—they are among the most undervalued professionals in India. 

India mourned its former president APJ Abdul Kalam’s death with grateful remembrance. The spectacle was elevating, and it prompted remembrances of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Both had earned people’s love and admiration essentially as the nation’s teachers. In Kalam’s case, however, the surge of sentiment was on a far greater scale. Perhaps social media was an important reason. But it certainly could not have been the sole reason.

I suspect that in mourning so generously for one symbolic teacher, we, as a nation, were hiding from ourselves our failure to mourn for the countless teachers who have been, over two decades now, systematically pauperised. Nobody wants to even acknowledge that the swelling ranks of India’s new precariat include a majority of its teachers. A failure to mourn is the result of a disavowal of reality—we know, but we do not want to accept that we know. So we put up one huge public mourning as a large billboard under which to bury our guilt.

Neither would it do to blame the rulers. A deep affinity binds the subjects to their rulers. We give ourselves the rulers we need.

Libraries, not Memorials

They give us spectacular memorials because we do not want to remember—memorials are really machines of forgetting. We do not need to remember because there are memorials to do the remembering for us. The sanitised, politically correct remembering. We probably need more libraries, but they will give us more memorials. The former nourish memory and reflection and provoke inquiry; the latter encourage ardent amazement and humble acceptance.

What resources does a village library need that a government cannot arrange although it may foot its ministers’ medical and other bills running into crores? One room, a loo, tap water (a pitcher will do), books and some almirahs to house them, and a book-loving person. You can probably better fight the menace of drugs and despair with a few more libraries. With every single drug rehabilitation centre, you could also open four small libraries. One memorial less could give you a thousand more libraries. Or a few hundred schools.

I know someone will say, “But who in a village will go to a library? No one is interested.” Give them great books to read. Give them a chance, and you will see. Do not judge them prematurely. I have some idea of Punjab’s readership. The fact is more books are read in the villages than in the cities of Punjab.

Compromising Future

The other day two of my research scholars, keen to plunge into teaching as soon as they complete their MPhil theses, told me they had been “selected” to teach a semester in a prestigious government college. They are not yet eligible to teach, though. The college has offered them Rs 8000  as salary from its PTA funds. Rent, fares, food, clothes, books, and some savings—they are expected to miraculously manage all in that paltry amount.

How can a college recommend a degree for its students who have been taught, often exclusively, by persons not even eligible to teach? Can governments violate the rule of law and the principle of justice because they are governments?

Getting ineligible, underpaid, overworked young and not so young persons to teach not only compromises the future of those they will teach, it also destroys, sooner than later, the teachers themselves. They learn to submit to exploitation, to be silent and dead-souled, as shred after shred of their self-respect and of faith in a just and liberal socio-political order is torn off. You cannot blame them if they die as torch-bearers of hope and are reborn as eternal cynics. They could have become great teachers. They were never allowed to. They will produce sulking armies of the unemployable because they were themselves irredeemably unemployable. Vested interests that see education as a quick profit-churning machine never allowed them to cultivate employability in themselves or in others.

The scene of education, read closely, discloses a hidden script. The poorer the teacher is getting, the greater is the opulence of the institutions of private education. And the coffers of their investors get richer. Whatever the Supreme Court’s noble directive, education has become a profit-making enterprise. And those in authority should know. The fact, unfortunately, is that when education was opened to the market, an expanding demand was treated as a sufficient reason. Those who saw an invitation in this to make quick profits jumped in. They knew that it takes a decade or two to be found out. Now we are finding out that both students and parents were systematically duped: that education never transpired in most of these institutions, and still does not.

But they still blame the young—that they are unemployable. And they continue to employ “unemployable” teachers. And the cycle goes on, fuelled relentlessly.

Limited Vision

When the elected suffer, profitably, from moral cataract and will not see beyond their limited days in office, even an ancient civilisation will fumble and rot without a vision. It is even worse when regimes worry only about keeping the dreaming young somehow occupied, without any thought to spare either for their or the country’s future.

The script seems to add up. The fictionally-minded will be tempted to read plots. But can they be blamed? You have regulators for the stock market. Why not for education? Institution after institution is dispensing degrees and diplomas that the deluded beneficiaries term as “non-attending” because the mandatory attendance requirements are met, for a flexible price range, through forgery. And everyone knows. It is a gigantic complicity.

In another time, teachers would have protested. Reduced to fear-stricken, future-robbed precariat, they dare not. And the symbolic celebration of teachers continues.

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