Art & Culture

An ode to my teachers whose lectures had to be listened to, not downloaded

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanJul 22, 2018 | 11:24

An ode to my teachers whose lectures had to be listened to, not downloaded

The takeaway of my time was knowledge, not an idiot pizza.

I guess by today’s standard I am an old-fashioned man. It is not that I am incompetent or irrelevant. I must insist on this because people have a way of treating anyone above 60 as obsolescent. I am old-fashioned about the values I was brought up with. In our times we talked of character-building, which dovetailed with nation-building. Both were seen as crafts where you followed exemplars, not paradigms. I remember a picture my father talked about. Students in the early years of IIM would be given a jigsaw puzzle. When you completed it, you found a picture of Abraham Lincoln.


I see no reference to the old-styled teacher who taught by examples. ( Representative photo: Reuters )

Self-help groups

When you inverted the puzzle, it was a picture of the US.

The message was clear: “Take care of the man and the nation will take care of itself”.

Today no one talks about character. Everyone from management gurus to spiritual managers conduct courses in personality development, which are full of recipes and idiot coping mechanisms, often marketed as self-help groups.

I see no reference to the old-styled teacher of a man who taught by examples. He was an eccentric or an ascetic who taught you the value of learning, the joy of discovery and the sheer music of a classic.

It began with grandmother teaching you about myths and legends, adding bits of history as an additional flavour. Today, grandmothers are obsolescence as a child is tied by umbilical cord to television sets or smartphones.

It suckles information bytes before it internalises the Mahabharata.

My father was a great teacher. As a scientist, he would recite shlokas and from Shakespeare. He taught me the joys of orality and the rituals of celebrating memory.


His conversations had quotations, which were always a source of insight, not the empty salad dressing we see today.

As a child I learnt that my religion could never be fundamentalist. It was full of saints and scholars who loved a debate ( Representative photo: Reuters )

A quotation links you to other worlds, providing an early citizenship to the republic of Socrates, Gandhi, Milton and Kabir. It was an act of welcome and initiation, which one does not see today.

One misses the teacher reciting a gossip. We internalised our values with mother’s milk. We inherited and later reworked a set of dos and don’ts, which were never out of date.

Such ethics weren’t diktats, but a heuristic one could apply to a range of situations. A lot of it stemmed from religious books, but as a child I learnt that my religion could never be fundamentalist. It was full of saints and scholars who loved a debate. I always felt that an argumentative Indian that Amartya Sen talked about was a spiritual scholar and an interpreter of texts. I always thought that debates moved from religion to politics.

Reading a book was a special ritual. My college students do not know how to read a book. They insist on a summary or ask for power points. Knowledge begins with a Kunji, a desiccated textbook. They have no sense of a classic or the joys of re-reading one. I asked a student who has not read a major novel for three years what he felt. He said his parents would punish him, if he read a novel. He was busy preparing for entrance exams.


National treasures

Few people today talk of great teachers while my childhood was full of them.

I remember the Jesuit priest, Father Andrew Roberts, teaching me Macbeth or John Velan re-reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

One read and re-read them till texts became a second skin. Language became a part of one’s sensorium. When I was in Delhi University, each college spoke of great teachers as national treasures.

Even when you graduated you always went back to meet a Ranadhir Singh, a Frank Thakurdas or a Ramu Gandhi.

Student loved them, hung around them, mimicked them and told stories of them. They were the mark of integrity and excellence, not some idiot system of ranking.

Students migrated from college to college to hear them. It was like attending a revolving panchayat of knowledge, where the teacher had dignity and knowledge was treated with respect. Today students talk of downloaded lectures and treat teachers like discards from other careers.

Teaching no longer seems like a vocation it once was. I also remember that the scarcity of books led to sharing and the second-hand book shop was a cultural necessity. I remember asking a famous academic whether his son would like to visit a book shop. He looked stiffly and said, “I just brought him a kindle”.

Not a commodity

The sadness of education is missing an exemplar, a teacher who valued knowledge and taught you to respect it.

In those days, education was not the commodity it is today.

It was more a commons; both ideas and books were shared because the teacher emphasised sharing. I remember one crucial ritual was going back to college to meet my teachers.

They always remembered you by name and always had something celebratory to say.

The takeaway of my time was knowledge, not an idiot pizza ( Photo: DU website ) 

Our later successes never awed them. They were content in themselves, they kept something alive in themselves in us. I remember all of them loved to walk. Walking was an act of pedagogy, a pilgrimage to university campus where the coffee house was the sacred spot.

The takeaway of my time was knowledge, not an idiot pizza.

I always felt they defined success not in terms of power and currency, but in terms of earlier heroes and legends. I remember going to a funeral of one of them.

I thought I would be alone and found dozens of old acquaintances, each with his own morsel of memory, each with his favourite quotation.

We have not come to say good bye and merely to say thank you. I want to salute this generation, while we are being driven to mediocrity today by UGC, quota and the new ATMs of education. It is a missingness that I cannot explain to my current students.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: July 22, 2018 | 11:24
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