The role of the teacher in Indian culture is one of utmost importance. They are considered to be the ones who impart not only worldly but also spiritual knowledge. This is the ancient Vedic tradition of the ‘Guru Shishya Parampara’ which forms the cornerstone of the traditional Hindu society.
While it has been defined by values such as obedience and submissiveness, like any social relationship, it has been conditioned by factors such as gender and caste. However, times have changed and so has our system of education.
While gurukuls focused on spiritual knowledge and study of the Vedas and other religious texts, modern-day education focuses on a variety of subjects like Math, Science, English, History etc.
The advent of the British has seen a shift from a spiritual education to secular education, one that is based on the modern-day principles of integrity of knowledge, objectivity and honesty.
Historically, the ‘Guru Shishya Parampara’ has not been accessible by everyone and was reserved exclusively for men from the Brahmin and Kshatriya castes. Thus, it relied on the systemic exclusion of women, people from the marginalized castes and Dalits.
While we may not learn in gurukuls now, things have not changed much.
47.78% of the children out of school are girls and the dropout rate among Dalits in India is 44.27%. Even with Dalit children learning in school, abusive practices are rampant with a Special Rapporteur on the right to education noting that “teachers have been known to declare that Dalit pupils cannot learn unless they are beaten.”
Girls also dropout due to the lack of clean sanitation in schools, lack of female teachers and financial difficulties.
In the 21st century India, we may learn from standardised textbooks but blind obedience and discipline is still the norm when it comes to teacher-student relationships. This imbalanced dynamic of power inequality between teachers and students leaves a vast playground for all kinds of abuse and discrimination.
Teachers wield an unimaginable amount of power in classrooms where every minor action is subject to approval, from using the bathroom to drinking water and eating. Thus, from a young age, children lose their sense of autonomy and self-determination, constantly waiting for someone else’s approval in order to carry out an action.
Complete obedience is ingrained into us by a continuous system of reward and punishment. If you are submissive and don’t question what the teacher says, you will automatically get rewarded by receiving good grades and maybe even a position on the student council.
On the other hand, if you question things taught in class or try to correct your teacher, you will be punished. Corporal punishment, admonishments and other forms of reprimands are often caste-based or gendered or both in nature.
This means that any child who doesn’t conform to the rules of the classroom is automatically put down, made to feel less and sidelined while the children who conform are catapulted to the top of the school hierarchy.
Conformity in schools is actively taught. Yet, it is hard to realise when we pick it up and start implementing that same submissiveness into different parts of our lives. Think of it as a sort of Pavlov’s dog experiment.
Our entire lives and inherent senses have been trained to remember that playing by the rules set by an authority figure is going to result in a reward.
Therefore, even in the larger society, we find ourselves blindly following rules set down by authority figures without questioning them.
Standing up against systems of injustice and inequality has never been taught. It is not surprising then that we see student-led movements and voicing dissent mainly in liberal schools like JNU which foster an inclusive environment and non-hierarchical ethos focused on critical learning.
It runs counter to engineering and science-focused institutes like IIT which are more management driven. Thus, children studying in student-driven campuses are more likely to stimulate dissent outside as well on larger political and social scales.
The power dynamic between a teacher and a student in today’s classroom has gone far beyond what a healthy relationship should be. While respect for any teacher entering your classroom is important, we’ve glorified the role into one where there is no place left for accountability or even improvement.
Students should be actively taught to question things, discuss their opinions and thoughts in a healthy manner and the teacher must be actively involved in order to make sure the child is a well-rounded individual.
Not only should dissent be tolerated but also encouraged so that children feel comfortable standing up to their teachers and correcting them. This will automatically translate into other sections of their lives making them more comfortable standing up to abuse, oppression and authoritarian figures all around their social circles.