Create informed citizens21 NOVEMBER 2020 16:55 IST
One of the ways to do so is to develop critical thinking, which can be achieved by exposure to a wide variety of literature
Recently, Booker-winning author Arundhati Roy’s book Walking with the Comrades was removed from the M.A. English syllabus of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) complained that the book “highlights Naxalism and is anti-Indian”. According to vice-chancellor Dr. K Pitchumani, the committee “decided to withdraw the book as it may be inappropriate to teach a controversial book for students”. Thinkers, activists and leaders of various political parties expressed their strong condemnation of the act, but few academics voiced their opinion.
What is the book, published in 2011, about? Arundhati Roy, who spent months living with rebel guerillas in deep forests, reveals how “under the pretence of battling Maoist guerillas, the Indian government is waging a vicious total war against its own citizens — a war undocumented by a weak domestic press and fostered by corporations eager to exploit the rare minerals buried in tribal lands”. The book received rave reviews from various sections of people and has the characteristics of good literature: a compelling theme, authenticity, social relevance, a unique literary style, and the potential to make reader think and raise questions.
Will any student become a Maoist by reading the book? Several thousand people across India must have read the book. Have they all become Maoists or violent activists? Have the committee members who read the book become Maoists? The claim by MS University screening committee that the book is “inappropriate” for the students underestimates the intellectual capacity of students. Do educational institutions treat students as mere sponges or thinking individuals?
Studying literature helps people broaden their horizons, understand human beings and society better, appreciate human experience, be sensitive to the needs of people, become good critical thinkers, and shape ideas. So, it is necessary for students to be exposed to a wide variety of literature. This gives them an opportunity to look at issues critically and become informed citizens. Students who are trained to read literature critically do not blindly accept the views expressed by authors.
Academics are expected to be free thinkers and fearless critics. They should not allow themselves to be influenced and remote-controlled by fringe elements. Only those academic institutions that are free from political interference can do justice to the student community and education. By bowing down to the demands of fringe elements and removing the book from the syllabus, the university has set a bad example.
Education that does not expose students to the world of knowledge and deprives them of the opportunity to look at issues critically is not education. Educators who genuflect before politicians and do not speak truth to power are not educators.
The writer is an academic, teacher educator and columnist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org