Bringing politics to the classroom: Why we must teach dissent

As educators, we must be willing to forego the comfort of speaking from the irreproachable pulpit and make ourselves uncomfortable first.

BySayantani Mukhopadhyay

Published Apr 14, 2024 | 12:51 PMUpdatedApr 14, 2024 | 12:51 PM

Representational image.

This article was originally published in The Wire.

Under the guidelines of the National Education Policy, 2020, several institutions now offer ‘multidisciplinary’ courses designed to transform the classroom into a space where educators “develop social, physical, intellectual, emotional, and moral capacities of human beings in an integrated manner.”

It is a noble and ambitious goal. But I wonder if educators are prepared to confront the full extent of its implications.

The institution where I teach was one of the first to implement the policy. Each department now offers a substantial litany of courses from which students of all departments are welcome to choose the one they wish to sample.

As a result, I now get to discuss cultural studies with over 80 undergraduate students, all from various disciplines, for 45 minutes every week. The experience has been edifying, to say the least.

One of the first things I do at the start of the course is to point out to the students that, despite their varied interests, they have certain things in common. I begin by asking them if they think their work as budding academics is political.

Usually, the answer is a unanimous ‘no.’ I ask them about the syllabi they study, the research they wish to do, their goals after graduation, and why they have chosen to study that specific subject and not any other.

And then I ask them to think about these opinions they have formed and the knowledge they have acquired—to examine their shape and form, figure out how they came by these opinions, or know the things they know, to question the choices they are offered, the systems they rely on, and the classroom they have come to think of as a ‘neutral’ space.

And as we ask, and ask, and ask some more, they come to see that everything is political.

As academicians accustomed to doing research, we are well aware that the field we work in, the questions we choose to ask, the funding we seek, and the institutions to which we affiliate ourselves are all deeply inflected by our own politics and the politics that shape the various structures we both question and depend upon.

If so, should teaching not also be recognised as equally political? Should we not understand that our aims in the classroom, the methods we use to teach, the readings we prescribe, the syllabi we design, and the ‘personal baggage’ we bring to the teacher’s desk – our personal politics shape each of these?

Why, then, do we criticise ‘bringing politics into the classroom’? Can’t we acknowledge that the classroom has always already been political? And why do we avoid busting the myth of ‘neutrality’ in education?

Related: No caste, no religion in schools

Critical pedagogy

A peer tells me the classroom ought to be a happy place. I understand what they mean by it. In the classroom, you learn, discover, and fall in love with knowledge.

Another colleague tells me that lecturers should not allow bias in their classroom; their lectures should remain neutral and ‘objective.’ But critical pedagogy recognises the fallacy of such a demand—educating and learning are invariably, endlessly, delightfully political.

The claim for neutrality is a political stance constructed by a specific understanding of the teacher’s job within an institution.

Permitting ourselves to take stock of our own approaches such that we recognise their political implications – and asking uncomfortable questions, such as ‘which parties benefit from this stance?’ and ‘what sorts of questions do we invite into and eliminate from the curriculum by orienting ourselves a certain way?’ – is imperative if we are to impart honest learning.

It makes teaching such a potent tool for change – it is why becoming an educator comes with a great deal of frightening power.

To choose to raise unsettling questions, to choose to show students how to read between the lines, to teach them to smell out the relations of power that shape the world, themselves, their relationship with their teacher, and with the classroom—all of these have the potential to effect real growth.

They open up minds, help students care; see the classroom and their work as part of a bigger world outside.

The happy classroom is a myth. We nurture to bar its doors to the Debbie Downers, the buzzkills, and the ‘activist-types’ of the teaching world. But we must remember that ignorance is the source of bliss.

To know is being uncomfortable. To care is to feel ‘negative’ emotions–anger, despair, rage, and fear.

Also read: Syncretic vs sanctimonious education

Raise unsettling questions

Some time ago, I read about Sara Ahmed’s concept of the feminist killjoy. A killjoy is a person who is the equivalent of a death’s head at a feast, someone who dampens the mood by broaching ‘improper’ subjects, someone who ‘can’t take a joke’,’ someone too contrary, too angry, someone who asks too many questions.

The killjoy is disruptive. The killjoy is brave. To be a killjoy in the classroom is to confront unhappy discussions. It is to teach the students to see through everything they think and know. It is to help the student learn to be a responsible academic, a responsible human, and an ethical killjoy.

Turn the classroom into a safe space where the student dissents, asks, pokes, and takes apart anything held impervious to doubt, considered natural, a way of the world. Creating an effective classroom means being willing to raise discomfiting, unsettling questions about the unhappiness in the world we call our own.

Such a process can be as wonderful as it is unnerving. As students begin to see differently, they ask questions, learn their own power, and put it into ethical practice. Of course, immense labour goes into creating such spaces. Educators must strike the right balance so that teaching does not become a form of moral preaching.

Help students learn to use the tools to unpack and reassemble the world in new, socially conscious ways. We must avoid allowing the classroom to devolve into a contentious space where the student no longer feels safe.

To become a killjoy educator is to do quite the opposite. It is the heavy duty of being able to mediate uncomfortable discussions without causing harm.

It is to ensure each student feels secure enough to become killjoys themselves, to make others uncomfortable with difficult questions, and to see through the status quo constantly.

As educators, we must be willing to forego the comfort and security of speaking from the irreproachable pulpit. We must be willing to make ourselves uncomfortable first.

(Republished with permission. Access the original article here. Sayantani Mukhopadhyay is Assistant Professor, Department of English, St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous.)