Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2020

One of the more pleasant side-effects of the coronavirus-induced immobility is the opportunity to spend time re-visiting books and films one had forgotten.

The film Educating Rita (1983), with Julie Walters and Michael Caine, is one of those films I wish all university students could watch in their first year of studies. It would remind them of the privilege, let alone the responsibility, of acquiring knowledge. On the one hand, the story is a re-hash of the Pygmalion plot (immortalized in George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name and the musical My Fair Lady): a vivacious, lower-class girl’s relationship with her staid, upper-class mentor. On the other hand, this is no sentimental romance. It is far funnier, more moving and intellectually stimulating than any precursor.

Rita is a 27-year old hairdresser whose husband and working-class family cannot understand her passion for a higher education. She refuses to have a baby until she has “discovered herself”, as she puts it, and therefore can choose her life’s path rather than be pushed along by social convention. She enrols in an Open University course in English literature and has, as her tutor, an alcoholic professor who is also a disillusioned poet, one who has lost all interest in teaching and whose life is falling apart. Rita’s own marriage breaks up as her husband, seeing Rita’s new-found love for Chekov and Shakespeare as a threat to his dreams of fatherhood, burns her books and walks away. There follows a mutually transforming, yet asexual (because this is not Hollywood), relationship between Rita and her professor.

Such a relationship- of a student changing a teacher and them learning together about life- is perhaps more likely to arise in the study of the Humanities (literature, philosophy, history, art, theology) than in the natural/ social sciences and professional disciplines, because the subject matter is less in the “control” of the teacher and invites personal reflection on the bigger issues of our common humanity. And, of course, the kind of relationship between Rita and her tutor is not possible in the large classrooms of the typical industrial-age university or the virtual classrooms of the current information-age.

There are many professors like Rita’s in our universities, including the most famous. Not only have excessive workloads, bored students, and increasing competition made university teaching lose its thrall for many, but the lack of a coherent worldview within which to discover the meaning and value of one’s subject has a corroding effect on morale.

In recent years, the more far-seeing university administrators and academics have promoted more inter-disciplinary courses and research programs, as most of the challenges facing humanity, from global warming to technology run amok and widening social inequities, require a multi-dimensional approach. Cultivating wisdom is what we need, in whatever profession, and not the mere accumulation of information.

Contrast this with Jerome Kagan (a former President of Harvard)’s dispirited observation: “Too often the undergraduate years resemble a bus tour through a beautiful countryside where the purpose is not to admire the scenery but to keep the tour on schedule. The new understanding was that college students were hotel guests choosing from a variety of intellectual diversions with no purpose other than career preparation directed by a diverse faculty of reasonably well-treated employees.”

This is why the current worldwide trend in university education of seeing learning and scholarship as merely a means to employment and economic growth, coupled with the shutting down or scaling back of Humanities departments, is disastrous. It destroys the possibility of any independent critique of government and corporate hegemony, as the Humanities are the soil in which independent, critical thought is most naturally nurtured. As universities become mere tuition factories, churning out products for the marketplace, they encourage a society of super-educated morons.

In such a crassly consumerist world, the acting profession will be deprived of actors like Julie Walters and Michael Caine, both of whom came from working-class homes. And working-class folk like Rita will never be able to afford a college education; but, once in college, there is a real possibility of their minds never being awakened but remaining self-enclosed. Yet, paradoxically, if change is to come to our universities, most likely it will not be from the ranks of the social elite, and even the elite universities which are bastions of the status quo, but from rare individuals like Rita who help others awaken to life with all its everyday joys and cruelties.

The current pandemic has seen a resurgence of online courses. This has been inevitable, but it has played into the hands of those who want to turn all universities into financially lucrative virtual spaces even in the post-pandemic age. However, both before and since the pandemic, the severe limitations of online learning were becoming apparent to perceptive observers in the academy. Sherry Turkle, the renowned sociologist of technology at MIT, quoted the director of a Columbia University study that compared online and face-to-face learning: “The most important thing [the study concluded] that helps students succeed in an online course is interpersonal interaction and support.” (Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age). “What makes the greatest impression in a college education,” writes Turkle, “is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own.” For that, person-to-person encounter is indispensable.

Furthermore, Professor Las Back, in his Academic Diary, raises the question, “In the age of Google Scholar, aren’t libraries at risk of becoming a bit of an anachronism? Reading matters comes to our screens faster than any book ever could. Why do we need a library when, with the right log-in, we have almost immediate access to the world library online?” He answers his own question thus: “All this misses the point of libraries because they provide not only a refuge but places of serendipity, where we discover routinely things we are not looking for.”

Stephen Spielberg’s film Lincoln (2012)- the most intellectually demanding of all his films- is set in the closing months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, when he is struggling to push through Congress a 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that would abolish slavery. There are fierce debates within his own cabinet as to whether the Amendment implies that “blacks are equal to whites” or whether “blacks are equal to whites before the law”. The moderates in his party favour the latter interpretation, while the radicals urge the former.

All talk of “equality” begs the question “equality in relation to what?” Clearly not all human beings are equal in their economic status, physical fitness, intellectual endowments or artistic abilities. And, in most societies and cultures untouched by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, human inequality has been taken for granted as a fact of life. It has never been seen as a problem that needs to be addressed. In traditional Greco-Roman philosophies, some are born to rule and others to be subservient. Those outside the civilization of Greece are “barbarians”, “savages”. In the dominant Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought, no less than in folk religious culture, inequality is the just outworking of the cosmic unfolding of karma and rebirth.

If, like the radical Republicans of Lincoln’s day, we urge that “blacks and whites are equal in their humanness”, we are invoking a concept of intrinsic human worth or dignity. This worth is independent of a person’s age, colour, origin or capacities. But, then, all who insist on “abortion on demand” or “euthanasia for the severely disabled” are denying such an equality, for the unborn yet developing human person and the incapacitated human adult are equal to us in their humanness.

It is because the notion of the intrinsic and equal worth of human persons, which undergirds equal respect before the law, is a difficult concept to justify on strictly secularist/naturalist grounds that this deeper question is side-stepped in the polarized discourse about equality in the Western media. But it is a question that needs to be raised, provided it does not deflect attention from the systemic/structural causes of racial and other forms of injustice that need to be addressed.

I have often commented in this Blog on the hypocrisy and one-sidedness that often attends talk about “equality” and “diversity” in the media and academic popularizers. There is a long history of “scientific racism”, encouraged by Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man which influenced nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonial government policies. It was Christians, both indigenous and foreign missionaries, who countered such arguments. This is rarely mentioned in undergraduate history-of-science courses.

Racist attitudes and violence are not confined to chauvinist “whites”. One of the police officers indicted in George Floyd’s murder was from a Laotian ethnic community. Afro-Caribbean friends tell me that they have often encountered more hostility, even contempt, among so-called “Asians” in the US and UK than among Caucasians. India and China are perhaps the most racist societies on earth, as any black student or visitor to these countries will testify. The Indian caste-system may have originated in notion of religious purity/impurity and even of occupation, but it is clearly linked to colour: the lower-castes and those outside the system altogether are the darker-skinned. Indian TV carries ads for face creams that promise to “make your skin fairer” and in all Bollywood films you will never find a dark-skinned hero or heroine, but only villains. Why are there no calls to ban such ads, and even outlaw Bollywood movies on Netflix?

At the height of the Charlottesville violence by “white supremacists” in July 2017, the New York Times published a tweet from Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the U.S Army, which stated: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” Really? The US army had separate black and white units well into the 1950s, with black units always led by white officers.

If city mayors and state governors in the US are going to expunge all memorials to Americans who were “pro-slavery” or “white supremacists”, they should begin with Thomas Jefferson and shut down the University of Virginia.

Jefferson himself was a hypocrite. He owned over 600 slaves at one time, despite claiming, famously, in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence (1776) that it was a “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson described blacks as intrinsically and permanently inferior to whites. He hid his affair with his enslaved house maid by whom he fathered at least six children and shunned all financial responsibility for them. He also advocated the idea of forced repatriation of blacks to Africa, arguing that it was far preferable to the mixing of races in the USA. As for his presidential orders regarding the harsh treatment of native Indian Americans, this too never appears in American popular histories.

Countering racism has also to go beyond confronting the ideology of racism. I may not believe in the ideology that says “whites are superior human beings to blacks”, but if I live within and benefit from a socio-economic-political system that has been constructed on such a premise, I share in the guilt of racism. In many countries, the entire criminal justice system, with its disproportionate sentencing of ethnic minorities, needs to be overhauled. And what about the hiring practices of elite universities, the non-registration of many voters, lack of access to healthcare, and other sources of social exclusion?

Racism, like sexism, is more about systemic injustice than personal attitudes. But personal attitudes also matter as they are what shape our informal social relations. Global media and national educational curricula are far from egalitarian in their agendas. A Martian who scans news media on the planet Earth will conclude that, whatever some national Constitutions may say, the lives of “celebrities” and super-rich oligarchs and tycoons are far more valuable than others.

Dismantling memorials to slave-owners and racist imperialists was long overdue. But dismantling unjust structures and stopping modern, rampant forms of slavery worldwide (human trafficking, bonded agricultural labour) is far more important. And why cannot American governors erect monuments in places where black folk were lynched by mobs or First Nations tribes massacred by US cavalry? And why are there no slavery museums in southern cities comparable to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC? These will not eradicate racism, of course, just as Germany’s acknowledgment of its past has not entirely eradicated neo-Nazism in that country. But it will go a long way towards dispelling the ignorance over history that undergirds fear and racist politics.



July 2020