A.R. Vasavi in her perceptive article, ‘Re-imagining Education’ (Seminar 565, September 2006) raises fundamental questions about the direction Indian civilization is heading towards. ‘What and which intellectual traditions must we subscribe to?’ The question has been raised in the context of the grip the market now exercises on the nature of education we are being forced to acclaim. Vasavi, owing to the constraints of space, does not go into the full implication of the question, possibly because she has to touch on a wide variety of issues involved in ‘re-imagining education’. Nevertheless, she rightly points out the ills and suggests remedies.
The question, in our prevailing socio-cultural situation, is tantalizing in its demand for a meaningful engagement, made more so by Vasavi’s insightful juxtaposition of it with the lament that ‘the mark of colonialism continues to be internalized…’ She rightly mourns the death of plurality of educational visions made more agonizing by ‘the absence of a strong and independent community of scholars and educators…’
It is by now clear that market forces have succeeded in robbing developing societies like India of their age-old strength of indigenous cultural moorings. A deadening uniformity of thinking about what is valuable in life has arrived in the wake of the march of what has come to be reiterated as a market-motored thought process. One comes across a crude celebration of this uniformity in the opinion of an American intellectual, ‘’Business leaders in Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Istanbul, Los Angeles, Mexico City, New Delhi, New York, Paris, Rome, Santiago, Seoul, Singapore, Tel Aviv and Tokyo all read the same newspapers, wear the same suits, drive the same cars, eat the same food, fly (in) the same airlines, stay in the same hotels, and listen to the same music’ (David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy, Summer 1997). This worthy does not just celebrate, he advises his country ‘to ensure that if… common values are being developed (in the world), they be values with which Americans are comfortable’ (ibid.). We know that these ‘common values’ constitute ‘the global common sense’ (Ashis Nandy’s term) in which the emergent Indian middle class is participating with enthusiasm and becoming role models for the classes which are yet not so fortunate.
In this context, the question of ‘which intellectual traditions we must subscribe to’ becomes inescapable for every concerned citizen. There are many implications of this question – from uprooting of native cultural norms and commoditization of art to effacement of day-to-day big and small traditional activities, or otherwise, if the right tradition is subscribed to. But the immediate fallout of the triumph of ‘the global common sense’ is that it has brought a very large number in India and similar societies under unnecessary stress, the stress of living life under the pressure of socially generated needs of commodities and more commodities. In these class-based and ad-dominated societies, the have-nots have been mercilessly thrown into the tyrannical binaries (constructed without their consent) of material destitution or subscription to market rules, traditional hardship or modern comfort, advanced technology or primitive tools, highly priced medicine or second-rate traditional health tips, finally congealing into ‘progress’ or ‘regress’.
The stress resulting from being systematically expected to choose between the binaries might have been avoided had the warmth of the largely respected native Indian attitude toward unmet material needs not been swamped by the triumph of hedonism, if the poverty versus pulchritude contest had not been so heavily tilted in favour of the latter. It was not always so. For a large majority of people the many lacks that are now listed as indicators of poverty were considered necessary for an inner enrichment. If to be poor did not mean destitution, it was because of a culture which taught that moral degeneration was the only form of destitution and indigence. As a natural corollary, the rich and the powerful, who fattened themselves on the fruits of others’ labour and rights, were seen as despicable creatures. This nurturing was a kind of intellectual tradition which manifested itself in mainly two forms – as the belief that material needs should be left unmet to meet one’s god, and as the popular idea that life of mind (writing and speaking good language, knowing about life and the world, making beautiful objects of art, singing songs, reciting poems, etc.) was richer than the life of the body hankering after consumer goods. ‘Wear old shirts and buy new books’ was serious and respected advice, because it had the force of a tested philosophy of living behind it.
The Iranian scholar-politician Majid Rahnema, employs the metaphor of ‘hammock’ to elucidate the value of a healthy belief system vis-à-vis the materialist sloganeering of the age, what he calls ‘modernized poverty’. He writes, ‘The destitute or the indigent are thus persons who have lost the social or the individual "bed" or "hammock" that prevented them from falling into destitution. In vernacular societies, the need to maintain and protect these poverty "beds" often helped the poor in transforming their lacks into assets or boons’ (Majid Rahnema, ‘Poverty’, in Vinay Lal and Ashis Nandy (ed.), The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the 21st Century. Penguin Viking, Delhi, 2005).
The question, which intellectual traditions we must subscribe to, is timely and pertinent because it can save one from stress and loneliness in a situation of widening socio-economic disparities between the well-off and the worse-off. The ‘hammock’ is necessary to avoid being bruised and wounded on the icy rack of rampant consumerism.
Assistant Professor of English