Class is important, not the uniform

I write as a teacher who for many years taught students in Mangalore, a highly polarized region of Karnataka that sees bitter clashes over a dress code in educational institutions. My students come from different religions, castes and nations. They spoke different native languages, ate different kinds of food, and wore different kinds of clothes and ornaments. Some wore the markers of their married status, some wore the habit of their religious order, some wore the clothing that denoted their geo-cultural location, some wore the symbols of their religion and caste, and all adhered to gender protocols. These differences in appearance, beliefs and practices of thought, speech, food and appearance have never disturbed our sense of belonging to a class community.

In many ways, the classroom of a government educational institution is truly representative of the society in which it is established, as it provides democratic access to students from all walks of life. Additionally, it recognizes that our society is hierarchical and that children from marginalized communities need extra support and privileged access to the classroom and social capital of education. The meeting of many social worlds within these classes makes it a place of perpetual epistemological upheaval. Here, learning occurs not only through the protocols of institutionalized pedagogy, but also through the many ways in which we wander off, engaging with that stranger who is a classmate, a student, a teacher, and who becomes little by little member of a classy community that we are building together. And how we structure and inhabit this community will inform all of our future possibilities for living together as social groups.

This inclusive nature of the classroom space is one of its greatest contributions to the learning process. It is this accommodation of the variety of social places from which our students come that has contributed to the civil discussions, debates and conversations through which the process of reflection is initiated. It is these conversations that take place across the lines of gender and caste and religion and nationality that initiate the process of critical questioning. Learning, as an inherently disruptive process, always strays from the labels of academia. Classroom conversations can reposition participants in a radically egalitarian speaking practice. Such a conversation requires a difficult translation of social ontologies, a disorientation of knowledge, a process of self-unconsciousness. It is through such conversations that education becomes a radically transformative process of recognizing the common vulnerability of all human beings and the mutual care and support we owe each other if we are to survive as a species. .

When the classroom becomes a space where students are disciplined into close uniformity, then learning becomes a straitjacket for body and mind. When classroom uniformity is shaped by political considerations and enforced by the authority of political power, then teaching is replaced by indoctrination and learning is replaced by the thoughtless parrot of political ideologies. . When education becomes the servant of hate, the creativity and joy that sustain life’s great diversity are destroyed. When teachers become gatekeepers to bigotry and parochial political interests, they lose their right to the trust and responsibility that a community places on them to guide and shape its future possibilities.

When the classroom is used to label, classify and exclude, it ushers in a future of senseless hatred and mindless cruelty. These classrooms become the laboratories of those who have lost the sanity necessary to sustain human existence through the reciprocity of kindness and love. In such classrooms, students are instrumentalized into votes and reduced to the color of the shawls they drape over their shoulders or the scarves they wear on their heads. They are taught the mistrust of hatred and trained in the violence of anger. Then educational institutions will close their doors to students who fail to display the uniformity of the one-size-fits-all body. And in the classrooms, teachers will close the processes of reflection, questioning and questioning. And educational institutions will end the process of learning, teaching, and experimenting with the many ways we can build an equal, inclusive, compassionate, and intelligent society.

Therefore, it behooves us to initiate dialogues in the classroom and listen to the hesitant, almost unreadable voices speaking from dark social margins, constantly struggling against invisibilization. I struggled for a friendship with my students that could only be achieved by disrupting the hierarchy of knowledge and learning in the classroom. I tried to listen to the polyphonic social rhythms of their voices. I tried to understand their speech through their speech grammar, not my own. My students have shown me great generosity by bringing their worlds to class. They listened, spoke and argued with disinterested civility and no hard feelings. They constantly pushed me into the precariousness of uncertainty.

Together we have maintained the dissonance of knowing and being. We struggled with lyrics that shook us and made us feel uneasy forever. Together we unpacked the orders of meaning and the canons of knowledge. And we did it as companions, as friends, as equals. We translated the multiple social worlds to which we belong to each other. We initiated a process of difficult listening and failing speech. We experimented with the formation of empowering and egalitarian spatializations of the classroom. At times it has been an exhilarating and at times frustrating process. I thank the generations of students who have shared with me this process of learning about the order of the world, of digging into the genealogy of its making and of questioning the politics of its being. Without your company and your speech, this could never have been done. Let us protect this classroom, which we have shaped together, from all assaults and keep it even as the world that should sustain it seems to crumble.

This column first appeared in the print edition of February 10, 2022 under the title “Not so uniform”. The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Mangalore

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