Products of a factory system

Aishwarya Bhuta

The COVID-19 pandemic established many new normals. For one, classrooms and offices went online. Although some state governments have gradually begun opening schools and colleges, a larger proportion of students are still at home than at school. Considered as the last resort for sustaining the teaching-learning process and minimizing the academic loss of students, the online mode has done more harm than good. What awaits students when they return to their schools and universities? Will we begin from scratch and herald a new era in education? Will we ever be able to shed the logic of online learning?

The digital mode has reduced the meaningful process of education to a mere ritualistic exercise of syllabus completion and evaluation. As a young student of one of the premier universities in the country, I am agonized by the disenchantment of online lectures and the meaninglessness  of the assessment that follows. I see Marx’s theories come to life when I experience alienation in the virtual classroom. My university has degenerated into a factory; and each student into a commodity that the former is manufacturing in thousands every year. The lively classroom and university experience is a thing of the past. The spirit of learning earlier being crushed underneath the burden of the school bag is now flattening under the mounting pile of online quizzes and tests, assignments, and examinations. This race against time is taking us towards a dystopian future.

Our education system was flawed enough in the pre-pandemic era. Schools were producing conformists instead of curious youth; coaching classes were churning out rote machines, and  colleges were manufacturing unemployable graduates. Degrees were being auctioned and sold for hefty prices in the garb of tuition fees. The approach was faulty at each level – exam-oriented at the school level and package-oriented at the university level. The stark differences in public and private educational institutions were reproducing caste and class inequalities among many others. The online mode, far from acknowledging these inequalities, fosters another inequality in the form of a digital divide where students with disabilities and/or underprivileged backgrounds have much more to lose than marks and ranking. For female students in rural areas or children of migrant workers, the closing of educational institutions could imply dropping out and never going back. They have been unable to access online classes for months, and might never see the real-world classroom ever again.

What the online mode will do is to produce more Chatur Ramalingams who can think of little beyond marks and will only develop their abilities of rote learning than critical thinking. On the contrary, the global crisis has necessitated more Ranchos who can devise alternatives and sustainable solutions in the face of adversity and lack of resources, in order to rebuild a world marred by disease, death and despair. We shall soon find the eyes of the young exam warrior glued to the screen, but shut to creativity, the spirit of sport, the aesthetics of art, the music of poetry, and the poetry of music. She/he will embody the ideal conformist of the future – the young student at IIT only considered with a fat package and never agitated by the low number of female students in the classroom, or the unrebelling employee working for endless hours under ‘work-from-home’ regimes. The door for questioning the status quo is being locked from all sides – by doing away with the question hour in the parliament, and by preventing the youth from being exposed to the culture of dissent and debate lest they become anti-national. Which model follows the one-sided top-bottom flow of information better than online lecturing? How easy it is to mute all participants (citizens) and allow only the host (or supreme leader?) to speak.

How many more Aishwarya Reddys would be driven to end their lives before we understand that the digital shift cannot occur without adequate infrastructural support in an unequal country such as ours? The pandemic was not her fault, but she suffered for her lack of resources. What did we do to bridge the digital divide after the tragic incident? We did not open our universities to allow the disadvantaged students access otherwise unaffordable academic resources. Students continue to wait for their fellowships long due. All our educational institutions have failed us. Our losses are neither quantifiable nor compensable. Once the academic year ends, millions of finished ‘products’ will enter the labour market with degrees, but no knowledge, skills, or ideas and hopes for a better tomorrow. Students of this generation await a fate worse than anybody has seen.

But as a young woman with dreams and hope in infinite possibilities, I do not believe that we are doomed. Transcending this crisis calls for a rejection of digital learning as a new normal. It can be a makeshift but cannot become the order of the day. Further, we must reclaim our classrooms and universities as inclusive and democratic spaces promoting collaborative learning and the spirit of inquiry. The youth, with their immense capabilities and potential, deserve more than virtual lectures and examinations. The development of their inner selves and consciousness is only possible with real freedom from the factory system producing toppers and graduates.

feb 24, 2021

Aishwarya Bhuta

Your Comment if any