The education of young people is one of the most basic functions of a social unit. So, it seems contradictory that, in a time of cleaving to the essentials of community life, the opening of schools and colleges is nevertheless being deferred, to the point of appearing quite unmanageable, unless the pandemic were to fully pass.

However, there are good reasons for this outcome. Much before the pandemic, Pope Francis had suggested that “the educational compact” between different societal institutions – families, governments, educational institutions – exists in “a state of breakdown”, wherein the shared responsibility of this enterprise has been abandoned. Formal education has therefore become a private attainment, esoteric, and credentialistic – i.e. for the building of cliques, not community.

We find, absurdly, that education as we know it can hardly be imagined in an era of careful social distancing. This certainly has various dimensions, which are beyond my remit. But I hope here to develop some understanding of what this entails with regard to colleges of higher education.

The college campus

Amid the pandemic, we may ask why it seems more irresponsible to resume college life than to re-open markets, malls, public transport or places of worship. I suggest that this has to do with the distinctive nature of the space. It is apparent that the uses of these other spaces, though they be crowded, are purposive and transient in nature. But the college campus offers a kind of continuous frenzy. This is not accidental, but the advertised essence of student life.

A college campus is seen as a world-unto-itself, boasting of every kind of stimulating activity – sports, cafes, films, theatre, talks, festivals and an all-round culture of events have become intrinsic to its identity. Infrastructure for these purposes and their administration has burgeoned as a matter of course.

This physical fattening of campuses has run alongside an intellectual boast, summed up by the phrase: “islands of excellence”. Behind these walls, the promise goes, is a kind of Shangri-la for the mind and body. In consequence, the barriers to entry have become formidable, whether in terms of fees or competition.

It is not possible, in this brief piece, to explore the mistakenness of this notion, but it is adverted to in the oxymoronism of that very phrase: “islands of excellence”. Intellectually, there can be no excellence that is not integrated into a wider reality.

Yet, this truth is so poorly understood – or so resented – that even our much-touted liberal education has merely become another kind of technical know-how, toward the membership of a special group. Hence the New Education Policy’s misconceived proposal to set up Indian Institutes of Liberal Education, precisely on the lines of the IITs. Incidentally, the pandemic has also shown the limits of such intelligence.

But let us return to the subject of space, since that lies at the root of this crisis. Colleges, then, have glorified the campus space, with all that it contains. But the glorification of space is the glorification of mere activity, because space has no other interests than to be filled. Space per se is non-human and mindless, and therefore turns such (potentially meaningful) matters as attendance, grades, publications, batch sizes, foot-falls and so on into mindless obsessions.

How does one, then, contemplate social distancing or remote working in such a situation? The default response would be a grudging espousal to the new mode of learning, without a fundamental change in mindset. Spaces will continue to be revered – with mourning of familiar sites, absurd ritualism, a fitful passion for “online” and wild hopes for technological salvation.

An all-round culture of events has become intrinsic to the identity of a college campus. Credit: Ashoka University via Facebook

Reimagining education

In all this, administrators of higher education would have failed to take the hint that the pandemic has let drop: glorification of space is and always was sickening. Instead, we have the opportunity to truly re-imagine education – in human terms. We may consider what this means.

Firstly, it means the primacy of persons. We recall that education is a human activity, which consists of human interactions. These must take place in suitable spaces, but the spaces exist in service of the interactions, and not vice-versa.

Secondly, it means the fluidity of spaces. Since it is the human communication that is decisive, and not the filling of particular spaces, the persons concerned ought to be empowered to make use of all manner of spaces, in campus and outside, including within homes, publicly, and online, as best suits their circumstances and their conversation.

Thirdly, it means the awareness of a wide educational community. Again, it is human communication that educates and since such communication transcends space and time, the educational institute must be consciously aware of – not pompously indifferent to – the fact that the student is also being educated but by various others, including family, peers, political and religious leaders, books and media.

Fourthly, it means guidance, not control. Since education happens in so many spaces and from so many quarters, the genius of the college must be to know how to guide, rather than to monopolise the student’s progress.

Fifthly, and in sum, it means education, not indoctrination. Let us understand that when spaces are worshipped, indoctrination necessarily follows. But when persons are put at the centre of education, then suppleness of thought, the workings of conscience, and one’s mysterious individual-cum-communitarian ontology become the foundation of knowledge acquired.

Immediate implications

Does this discussion seem to become too theoretical? But it is a response to a practical catastrophe. Certain practical implications of these suggestions are clear, while others must be worked out.

1. When no longer chained to a space, the educative capacity of teachers could be unleashed in spectacular ways. We would find teachers interacting with students, more and more in the midst of society, rather than necessarily walled-off from it.

2. Being empowered via dialogue, students could have a thorough-going say in their courses of study, rather than inevitably having to pick between “packages” being offered.

3. Educational institutes – as managers of persons – would play a supporting role to the essential human interactions of students and teachers, by offering facilities for use, and more importantly, by providing philosophical and intellectual guidance. The “brand” of the institute would come to depend, as it should, on its pedagogy, rather than manufactured glosses.

4. The liberalisation of education, including scientific and technical education, would also follow, in a reverse of the current situation, in which so-called liberal education has become rigidified and trivialised. For a liberal education is not essentially a matter of how many subjects a student is taught. It is rather a spirit that embraces the set of principles mentioned above.

5. The democratisation of education would at least be conceivable since we are no longer concerned with forcing persons into particular spaces, which are naturally resistant to them, but with fostering interactions between persons, wherever they may be.

All this may appear to some like the breakdown of the existing system of education. In fact, it leaves intact every element of that system, and whatever radical changes seem to follow are the consequence of a surely incontestable substitution, being proposed at its centre. Where spaces now dominate, we must have persons.

Moreover, if an event as radical as the pandemic were not to precipitate radical change, especially in areas like education which have proved inexcusably vulnerable to it, that would be the greater pity. And finally, we have already glimpsed the truth of these ideas in the shift to online education which many colleges have recently carried out. The point of that shift, however, is not to begin glorifying “online”, but to realise that, after all, it is human interactions that make up education. So why not go on from there?

Aditya Sudarshan is a novelist and manager of The Writing Centre at FLAME University, Pune.