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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 23, New Delhi, May 23, 2020

The Pandemic and the Absurdity of ‘Online Teaching’

Saturday 23 May 2020, by Avijit Pathak

What saddens me is that as teachers and educationists we have failed miserably at this crucial juncture when the coronavirus has shattered the ‘taken-for-granted’ world, and caused widespread psychic anxiety and existential uncertainty. Instead of rethinking the meaning and purpose of education at this puzzling moment, we seem to be concerned only with the technical question: how to use the appropriate apps for ‘online teaching’, and conquer the barriers of ‘social distancing’. It is like artificially introducing ‘normalcy’, pretending that nothing fundamentally has changed in our lives, and hence, we can go ahead with the same textbooks, the same syllabus, the same monologue, and the same exams and assignments—but this time through the miraculous techno- power of ‘online teaching’.

Feel the psychic absorption of Covid- related crisis. Death, one tends to feel, is no longer a statistical abstraction. It is real; it is here; the virus can enter even our gated communities at any moment, and we may find ourselves coughing and breathing with great difficulty. But then, a college student—worried and frightened— opens her laptop, and finds her sociology professor teaching ‘snowball sampling’ and ‘techniques’ of social research! Isn’t it absurd? Or for that matter, because of the lockdown, a twelve year old boy in a lower middle class family feels restless and claustrophobic in a small room. Yet, he has to borrow the only smartphone available in the family from his father because ‘online teaching’ must go on, and then finds his mathematics teacher completing the life-negating chapter on ‘percentage’ or ‘profit and loss’! Yes, this is absurd. This is insensitive. And this is nothing but violence.

 If education is truly life-affirming, it must awaken these young minds, touch the deeper layers of their consciousness, and give them the psychic/spiritual strength to deal with the crisis that Covid-19 has led to. And teachers must establish the spirit of rhythmic communication with them, understand their worries and doubts, and work together to redefine the relationship between the self and the world at a time when fear is normal, victims are stigmatized, and ‘distancing’ is the new discourse. Hence, even if right now school students do not learn how to calculate the volume of a trapezium, or do not memorize the ten reasons for the downfall of the Mughal Empire, no harm would be done. Instead, what really matters is a healing touch, not the burden of ‘uploading’ the home assignments and project works. Likewise, even if college/university professors do not give a couple of routinized lectures on, say, the ‘structuralism’ of Claude Levi- Strauss, or theories of thermodynamics, no damage would be done to human intelligence. In fact, the need of the hour is a mix of awakened intelligence, deep religiosity and profound sensitivity. As teachers, can we take part in this process, and see beyond the official curriculum?

It is in this context that I wish to make three points. First, we ought to understand that the coronavirus has demolished the self-perception of modernity—its notion of human supremacy over nature, its narcissistic belief in unlimited ‘progress’ through the oracle of techno-science, and its power to predict, control and establish order. Hence, if we are reflexive and perceptive, we have to confront new questions. For instance, how do we learn to live as humble wanderers, not proud conquerors? How do we renew our organic connectedness with the larger eco-system? Or, for that matter, how do we come to terms with the fact that the power we worship—the power of nuclear weapons, space research, mega hospitals and artificial intelligence— is illusory, and the invisible virus can shatter the confidence of even the ‘mighty’ USA? In other words, how do we unlearn modernity in search for a new world?

Second, the coronavirus or associated lockdown has compelled us to come to terms with our inner selves. And it is not easy because in the age of modernity we have concentrated primarily on the ‘outer’ realm; we have mastered the technical skills to work in the world out there; and as a result, many of us have lost the art of understanding the dynamics of the inner world: our fear and anger, our egos and aggression, our pain and longing, or our dreams and prayers. In fact, our ‘outer-directed’ consciousness is incapable of dealing with the inner realm. No wonder, throughout the world we see the recurrence of psychic nausea, boredom, meaninglessness and domestic violence. Hence, the question is how we nurture our inner selves, evolve endurance and patience, appreciate the intensity of silence, and allow our hidden possibilities to unfold—the way Ernest Hemingway showed in The Old Man and the Sea, and transform even this moment of crisis into a moment of life-affirmation.

Third, ‘distancing’ or obsessive fear has crippled us, and made us unsure of what really matters for our collective sanity—the enchanting power of love, trust and human touch. The danger is that this very crisis can further stimulate the authoritarian regimes to enhance their surveillance machineries, and further spread the psychology of doubt and suspicion. Should we then survive only biologically and strategically without the ecstasy of the human company—a living classroom with fifty co-travellers, a protest march with thousands of creative souls, or a coffee house adda with boundless laughter? Can we restore the power of love and human company in the new world? Yes, as school children or university students find themselves confined and insulated, a question of this kind is confronting them.

If as teachers and educators we fail to bring our educational practices closer to these existential questions and issues, we would prove to be utterly callous and insensitive. Meaningful education, it ought to be realized, is not a debate over the pros and cons of Zoom; nor is it about completing the syllabus at the ‘right’ time; it is essentially about the nuanced art of living when the ‘known’ world has collapsed, and bookish knowledges have proved to be futile.

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU

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