Giving values a bad name

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THE brutalization of our society has a myriad faces. One might even be tempted, after the fashion of Mrs Gandhi talking to women who complained to her about the shortage of basic necessities like water, to offer the consolation that it is a global phenomenon. But of course, it was no consolation, not then, not now.

Whether it is the murderer Veerappan whom the high and mighty are eager to placate and exonerate because he has them in a lethal blackmailing grip; or Thackeray, whom certain others are eager to placate and exonerate despite the fact that he is, confessedly and unapologetically, guilty as charged. Or still others, ensconced in high office, whose exultation over the destruction of a medieval monument and the terrorizing of thousands of helpless, poor people is a matter of public record – it is clear that this brutalization is far advanced.

It is no longer confined to those ordinary citizens who look the other way when confronted with manifest injustice and inhumanity, who seek the consolation of amnesia because in our society the deadliest forms of brutalization are openly backed by power, even state power. In such a situation, it is hardly surprising that persons of sensitivity and conscience should be alarmed by the ‘decline in values’, the relentless and catastrophic deadening of our collective humanity. So far so good – actually, so far so terrible – but let’s see where we go from here.

The first step would be to enquire into the causes of this present ‘decline’. Fairly early in our enquiry, we will come up with the fact of capitalism and the collapse of all evaluative criteria into a single one of economic ‘efficiency’. Obviously, such a regime has cultural and ideological consequences and corollaries – and in time we get a culture in which winning is all, in which losing is to become less than human, even though one must know that in any contest, there must be rather more losers than winners. The culture of individualism, me-first-ism, which inevitably reduces our collective existence to a zero-sum game in which one must trample upon others for fear of being trampled upon by them; the powerful ideology of managerialism which is, when all the platitudes and cliches have been recycled, all about manipulating other people in the service of a higher, indeed, the highest end of Profit: throw people out of work and call it ‘downsizing’, drive thousands to suicide and call it ‘restructuring’; the degradation and criminalisation of our political culture, often in the name of some or other form of ‘cultural nationalism’; and then, last but hardly least, our ‘culture’ itself, not the ‘heritage’ stuff but Channel V and MTV, the obscene celebration of a process that is already driving millions to destitution.

So, we talk about values. In a sense, of course, it is right to do so, and I hope to explain why. But first we must recognize that talking about values in such a situation is also the easiest thing to do – a cop-out even, as if there were some prior collapse of values that has led to the gloomy phenomena which are complacently accepted as ‘given’. Whereas the sad state of our values as a people is only an effect, a symptom, a consequence of those powerful underlying processes, our ‘degraded’ values are only another name for our ordinary, everyday accommodations with the situations in which we are forced to live. The systemic signals emerging from this brave new world, too, are unambiguous – you must adjust. Because, to put it bluntly, these ‘processes’ and ‘phenomena’ are happening at a level that is beyond the reach of imaginable intervention.

The sphere of values, on the other hand, appears amenable to intervention. And while the process of value-formation happens everywhere – out on the street, in the bosom of the family – it happens also in the educational apparatus. This is the faith that underlies the present initiative emanating from the MHRD, and must be welcomed, albeit with some caution. It is saddening, then, to note that the documents outlining this initiative incorporate no critique of the prevalent pattern of education. Values are, by and large, seen as an arithmetic, even cosmetic, addition to the existing pattern, rather than a fundamental critique aiming at transformation.

Teachers are, understandably, prone to the illusion that what happens in the education system is of great consequence. Still, I am disinclined to believe that education alone can counter the tide of the great global processes that are undermining the possibility of a civilized future. But the ways in which education has evolved over the past several decades – with our connivance, let us admit – has also contributed to the process of degradation. Education is far from being the whole problem; perhaps it is not even a very important part, considering that it hardly touches the lives of the vast majority – but it is a part of the problem, nonetheless. And our ambition, now, is to become a part of the solution. Again, not the whole solution, perhaps not even a very important part of it, but still, a part of the solution and not any longer a part of the problem.

Going by the early signs emanating from the MHRD, the outlook is not encouraging. Consider what has happened to our education over the past few decades. I am not thinking of those underfunded tat-patti institutions where the really important issues are whether or not ‘Saraswati Vandana’ will be sung in the morning. I am thinking of those elite institutions where, cutting across ideological and all other divides, the people who matter ensure for their progeny the kind of education that matters. Here, for decades now, the humane and social content of education has been systematically hollowed out.

Language, it is beginning to be recognized, is a major casualty of this transformation. It is not that language and even literature are not ‘done’ after a fashion; nor even that the other humanities and social sciences have been banished altogether. They have of course been marginalized, even as the little suckers are encouraged to concentrate all their energies on crossing the magic threshold of the JEE and the PMT, to concentrate on the magic letters PCMB. Everything that does not conduce to that ultimate end is, in the eyes of ambitious parents and their poor obedient children, merely a distraction.

In the class and outside it, for arguably the most crucial years of their lives, these children – the candidate-elite, let us recognize, for they are already assuming positions of power – have been encouraged and even forced to cut themselves off from all those formal and informal learning environments in which they might encounter the messy and complex reality of the human condition.

Family life too is reduced to the relatively one-dimensional unit of the nuclear family: husband and wife and two children, leading anxious, shallow lives in a metropolitan flat, ricochetting between classes and ‘coaching’ until the magic moment when the great national lottery announces that they have earned a guaranteed future. Or not, as must happen in the great majority of cases.

But win or lose, they have all lost crucial years in which they might have become human and humane. Damaged individuals (exceptions, exceptions, there are always exceptions!), these are the success stories, the role models whose anomic self-obsession has, not surprisingly, a comprehensive demonstration effect that reverberates through society as a whole.

Let me repeat, it is not as if the humanities and social sciences, to use the bureaucratic formulation, have been banished altogether. But they have been retained in a bizarre form that misconstrues altogether the pedagogical function of these knowledges – which brings me back to the question of values. I am deeply sceptical about the possibility of teaching people moral rectitude. This seems to me to be particularly true in respect of canny children, who are in any case suspicious of their often hypocritical elders. Thus, children everywhere and always, have been given the ‘right’ kind of moral lessons, the standard sermons about being good, and so on. And yet, and yet – the world supervenes. People turn out good and bad as a function of other processes.

The most one can hope to do is not to implant moral rectitude, but rather to create moral sensitivity, to create an awareness of the complex world in which all our actions have consequences for known and unknown others. This simple fact, let us recognize, is the basis of morality anyway. And we are more and less moral to the extent that our minds, our imaginations, have been educated, enabled and encouraged to comprehend this ramifying interdependence. After all, why are ‘bad’ values bad? Because, to put it simply, they have undesirable consequences for others; because they affect known and unknown others in ways that would be unacceptable to us if we were to become aware of those consequences. Unless of course we are congenitally depraved, in which case sermons about being good will also have little efficacy.

The traditional pedagogical arena for this necessary education of the imagination has been the ‘humanities and social sciences’. It is here that the child can be enabled to enter into the lives and consciousnesses of people other than herself; to become aware of the subtle and nuanced ways in which, remembering Donne, we are all ‘part of the continent’; to earn for herself and himself the moral insight that Miller’s protagonist attains right at the end, that ‘you are all my sons’; to catch the infection of Nazir Akbarabadi’s Aadminama.

This pedagogical opportunity – which can work through educationally enabled acts of identification with real and imagined others, through history and sociology and drama and poetry – is lost if these too are reduced to bastard sciences. Because then, even here, one merely learns the ‘right’ answers in the manner propagated by the NCERT and the CBSE. While what needs really to be learnt must be learnt not as a form of words, but on the pulses, in the depths of one’s being through those repeated acts of identification with Yudhishthira and Karna and Draupadi is that there is no ‘right’ answer; there is only the human capacity to look for the right answer.

What such an education, rightly done, endows the child with is the existential strength to make oneself vulnerable to the insight that, in complex human affairs, in our multi-dimensional interactions with the social and the natural world, one may never know the right answer. But also that there is nothing more important than always to be in quest of the right answer. Which means, in effect, to always be conscious that one may be wrong, that one may be harming others in ways that would be unacceptable even to oneself. Because one has, at least at the level of the imagination, been there too, been the victim of bureaucratic high-handedness, been the ‘tribal’ who has had his world submerged and destroyed, been the child who has watched his mother beaten, been the mother who has fallen asleep weeping for the child who will never return. Becoming aware that other people are people too, that other creatures are creatures too – that, to me, is the foundation of moral being.

When one looks at the prescriptive part of the present MHRD values initiative, one finds that it replicates all the pedagogical evils that have helped to bring us to this present sorry pass. Not surprisingly, because it reveals no awareness of what is wrong with the present neglect of the imagination in the school system and the substitution thereof by a regime of barren ‘rectitude’ sponsored by the NCERT and the CBSE. The ‘values’ that it proposes to inculcate, too, emanate from something called a ‘science of spirituality’. ‘Cosmic consciousness’ and ‘flowing with the total’ in order to move ‘from unconsciousness to sub-consciousness to uni-consciousness to consciousness to superconsciousness and finally to cosmic consciousness’ (M.K. Kaw, Secretary, MHRD, Giving Value Education a Stable Infrastructure) isn’t quite exact science, but the ambition is clear.

It is not one of creating moral sensitivity and openness but rather of endowing its beneficiaries with moral certainties, with preferred forms of dogmatism. These certainties, not surprisingly, derive from the kind of eclectic ‘pop religion’ that is such an irresistible cocktail for so many people. The suggested list of contributing ‘religio-spiritual’ institutions has some surprising, and alas unsurprising, omissions – no Islam, no Sikhism – but making up those omissions will still not compensate for what is, on my account, the crucial deficit.

This unimaginative diet of ‘rectitude’ will at best provoke only apathy and contempt, and serve only to give the wholly honourable concern with values a bad name. The fact that the JNU and NCERT and UGC, among others, have apparently already committed themselves to setting up institutions to further this laudable but wrong-headed initiative emanating from the powers-that-be speaks volumes about the real ‘values’ that are operative at the highest levels of our supposedly academic institutions.

Alok Rai


Industry at the crossroads

WE see them everyday on our way to work and on our way back home: children begging at traffic lights. What seems new and different in Delhi is the deployment of a large number of physically disabled children. ‘Deployment’ is perhaps correct as so many young children could scarcely be operating on their own and some agency would be required to take care of their comings and goings. The disablement varies – it could be polio or an accidental loss of a limb or two and yet a look or a smile of gratitude from many of them shows an alert and keen mind, quite a shade keener maybe than the ones behind the steering wheels.

So is this another Sunday magazine piece on what should be done for these children, why the government is not doing enough, what the World Bank could do to help? Not at all. The limited question that we examine here is how to maximise income from such an operation.

Why do we see so many disabled children? Is physical disability an advantage? It is obviously a disadvantage so far as mobility is concerned. Even perfectly able-bodied pedestrians survive Delhi traffic mainly by luck. If your entire working day has to be spent on the roads, should you not be athletic in body and mind? How do you earn, if you do not live? On the other hand, does disability evoke sympathy and kindness along with guilt and anger and thereby increase the per capita contribution? These are questions for the applied social sciences, that only further research can clear up. Of course, the explanation could be simple and entirely consistent with the observed and imagined gains of liberalisation – all the disabled adults who could be begging, already have office jobs.

Should a child be posted at a particular intersection everyday or should the workstation change? Changes make for job enrichment that usually motivates people to work harder. The advantage in sticking to a place is that more or less the same people come across you everyday and many of them could come to ‘own’ or ‘adopt’ you and save up little bits of their lunch to give you on their way back home. This seems to be recognised in the trade and ‘possession’ of a good spot is retained by means fair or foul.

Not all drivers are the same and there would be many who dismiss you as soon as you approach. The majestic flick of the wrist Geoffrey Morehouse perceptively observed in his book on Calcutta, not only discourages the most determined toucher but absolves the driver of all responsibility in what is purely a matter for the state to worry about. What do you do? Do you persist, or go to the next car? Over the years, there has been a definite change in the strategy. One sees few of those persistent types who used to hang on and refuse to let go even when one started moving. Today, our friend will move swiftly on. Sometimes we suddenly spot a soiled one rupee note which we don’t so much mind parting with and look around for him, only to find that he is gone.

What has caused this change? One reason certainly is that the number of vehicles on the roads has increased such a lot that it is not worth investing too much time on any one of them. Another could be that the younger lot is more conscious of the need to get along and that a resurgent India has infected even the temporarily dispossessed with the music of movement.

Is this Ragtime?

Ardhendu Sen