Campus Notes

Campus Notes

21st May 2006

When Simpreet Singh silently held a banner raising the question “Development or Destruction?” before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who addressed the convocation of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the activist community debated the wisdom of his gesture. Was it an embarassment to an institution that has steadfastly supported people’s causes, and in fact from which several staunch activists, including Simpreet Singh have graduated? Did it help or hurt the cause he aimed to support?

The debate, while very interesting, was cut off by the crushing judgements the next day and after – the Supreme Court postponed hearing theNarmada people while allowing dam construction to continue, and explained to the homeless in Delhi that the Right to Housing did not necessarily apply to them. Consider it an early warning to those displaced without rehabilitation.

Reflecting on my own experience teaching college students, I can only wish we had more Simpreets. I can also say with some confidence, that given a choice of embarassments surfacing on campuses today, administrators would vie for an action like holding up a silent message for a just cause at the convocation assembly.

Most contend with the scattered outbursts, that may embarass, which I have come to understand as a “cry for help.” We hear this cry in the muffled students who succumb to mob tactics to raise academic issues; in such practices such as bullying, sexual harassment and regional rivalries; and in some of the uglier elements that come on display during public programmes when students take the center stage.

Small children often experience uncontrollable frustration during ages when they are coming to terms with their own sense of independence. Those who have sought to understand the role tantrums play in the child’s process of growing up advise parents to listen and not only “put out” the tantrum like one would put out a raging fire.

Unseemly as it may be to tell men of 18 or 20 years of age not to hit their classmates or not to masturbate on stage in front of their peers, faculty and townspeople, one must also look into the source of these tendencies to violence and vulgarity. What frustration or insecurity drives this exhibition of machismo? Perhaps it is because at a time when people are expected to be prepared to stand on their own, make their living and take greater family responsibilities, they harbor deep-seated anxieties over these very matters.

What resources do we provide for young people to share their anxieties? I read the tendency of some to condone practices such as ragging, eve-teasing, and other routine harassment to which some students resort, as an abnegation of responsibility to address the real issues bothering our young people today. This is a question for our society as well as our campus community. Fear of failure, introduced from class I or even earlier, has shown its ugly consequences in myriad ways. Acts of rage and desperation including suicide and homicide have captured headlines. At the same time, there are less noticed yet in some ways equally alarming impacts of an educational system that associates discipline with punishment and education with segregation, teaching students to judge one another as harshly as they themselves feel judged.

From judgment follows reward and punishment. Yet there is a disconnect. Students are ready to judge, but lack the capacity to implement any meaningful action (certainly not one that deviates from the norm) based on the judgment. This very frustration fuels the tantrums of very young children. A society that has not developed a caring approach to these should not be surprised to see this frustration resurface in uglier proportions in adolescence and beyond.

While it is tempting to blame popular culture for the cheap thrills associated with sex and violence, one must also answer the question, “why and how has this culture become popular?” Is it in fact “what people demand” or could there be other forces driving certain themes and scenes into our TV programs and films, both fiction as well as those broadcast under the banner of “news” or “opinion.”

Not all are interested or willing to take up media activism, or even to write a simple letter to the editor. Yet how critically do people read and how seriously do they take their own opinions? While the Chief Guest at a recent student’s assembly was offering valuable advice on raising one’s own standards of excellence, a wave of students made noises to suggest that he should truncate his prepared remarks. However, the speaker, perhaps hearing the silence of those who were actually savoring the pearls of wisdom, continued unfazed by the peremptory applause or other actions. One wonders whether the catcalling students even wished to be taken at face value. Did they really reject the idea of a Chief Guest at the annual program, and if so were there not other opportunities to express this opinion? If they had better ideas for involving accomplished community leaders in the institution, probably they could be implemented. Or do they indulge in disrupting the dignity of the occasion because they know that saner voices, including the silent majority, are there to prevail?

But what if the crowd mentality takes over? How to account for mob dynamics which exploit the silence of the majority for their own ends? Do we know how to protect ourselves against that? In all our years of education do we learn to speak truth to power, to say what we believe without worrying about who agrees or disagrees with us, and how much money or might they have? Sadly our schools often teach us to do exactly the opposite.

Regarding the routine humiliations and severe harassment that plagues many college campuses, a student in my Group Discussion class exclaimed, “without being hit a child does not even learn 2+2 = 4!” Such violence, passing through the system to higher grades, has reached a level of complacency. Outraged, many have called for ragging to be banned and perpetrators to be punished. However few have looked into the violence of our education system in itself. How many would share this student’s recollection of being put down, whether by words or by stick, even in elementary stages of learning?

At the root we must ask what it really means to “learn 2+2=4.” Is it simply being able to produce the answer “4″ when asked for 2+2? Today’s children are hardly given a chance to discover concepts such as quantity or accumulation through their own intuition and aptitudes, which have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Instead, so eager are we to impose our so very recently standardized alphanumeric codes on human experience and impression, that very young children are expected to accommodate their expressions to adult languages. Adults reward children who “correctly” do so through external praise, gold stars, grades, and even junk food. This craving for external affirmation may grow addictive and get internalized through the school years, with almost no reciprocal expectation placed upon parents and teachers to understand the world from the way children make sense of it, or deal with the senselessness of it.

When we confront problems such as violence, vulgarity, sexual aggression and exhibitionism we must search for the causes and solutions not only in the extra curricular realm but also in our very approach to education.

Therefore Institutions of higher learning take seriously their obligation to model the kind of leadership that relies neither on the pocket nor the fist but truly engages people’s hearts and minds towards a shared goal. This kind of leadership relies on reciprocity, in that one must recognize the individual aspirations of those one leads, and also inspire in them a yearning for the broader vision, which all create co-operatively.


Is it true that you are still …

Is it true that you are still …

18th May 2006

Is it true that you are still …
March 2006 / Mumbai

A woman interrupted me last night as I was taking printouts of the petitions we were planning to send to the Prime Minster to stop the Sardar Sarovar project from going up to 121 m. Urging me aside, she told me, “As early as possible you should stop breastfeeding her.”

She was probably not the only one surprised when my daughter nursed during the meeting, but she was the only one to state her views so directly. Unprepared for such a confrontation, I simply said, “I am very busy, and I am not going to stop breastfeeding now.” Seconds later, more crisp responses filled my head … “Really, this is neither the time nor the place…” but alas, the moment was gone. Not that it is the first time. I was once stopped on the street by an elderly woman who looked uncomfortable as I said “hi” as I walked into a party that she was just leaving. As she walked slowly towards me I smiled and waited for her acknowledge my greeting before I continued walking towards the house. She finally said, “Is it true that you are still breastfeeding your daughter?”

Most of the conversations I’ve had about breastfeeding (and I do have a lot) are among friends who are also mothers and who don’t need to be reminded of the basic facts … that the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding at least for 2 years and beyond as long as mother and child wish. That breastfeeding offers nutrition superior to any other food or drink. That cow’s milk is for baby cows and human milk is for baby humans. That breastfeeding is so much more than nutrition – it is immunity not only to germs but also to excessive stimuli from the environment, it nurtures one’s sense of wholeness, it is comfort after a fall or stress, and of course, it is a warm cozy place to sleep, etc. The world offers alternatives for all of these functions, and the child who learns to avail these at her own pace will utilise them best. Children in adivasi societies, from whom we have much to learn, are allowed to wean naturally, meaning that no one really monitors their weaning. One fine day people may notice that the child hasn’t nursed in a while. Somewhat the same way children in urban societies may start eating meals on their own, or knowing the way home on their own.

A rural parent may be more than amused to see urban children being spoon-fed. I myself have seen urban parents spoon feeding their children even into adulthood. However the rural parent will refrain from judgement, at least aloud. If only we afforded them the same courtesy!

Breastfed children may have the freedom to discover the world of solid foods at their own pace, since they are not dependent on these for nutrition. They need not be fed at all – parents need only present fresh and healthy food and let the babies do the rest. Spend a day with an adivasi family and you will see that babies and young children are quite self sufficient when it comes to eating. No coaxing, cajoling. These parents read no research articles like (quote) which meticulously urge parents to allow self feeding from infancy, avoiding even suggesting that the child “finish the plate” or have an extra bite after the child stops on his own. In this way, they say, the child learns to guage his own hunger and satiety and not reply on external signals like parental approval, or amount on the plate as an indicator of how much he should eat.

While the adivasi diet is not as varied as the city diet, nearly all the food is not only grown locally but prepared fresh, to the point of freshly stone grinding their grains twice a day. Their chapatis perhaps offer more nutrition than our vegetables which we import from long distances and eat days or even weeks after they are harvested before the point of ripeness. And though their fruits and vegetables are far fewer, they are always fresh.

Often writings in the West take for granted that breastfeeding is better understood, supported and more widely practiced in “traditional societies.” While this may be true in the fourth world, i.e. tribal or indigenous communities, and those parts of the “third world” that have sustained their natural resource base and along with it, their parenting traditions, in the semi-urban, urban, and urbanizing parts of the third world, we see an abrupt departure from generations of family living wisdom. Nearly every component of the “attachment parenting” model that is gaining popularity as well as growing support from the medical establishment in Western countries – sleepsharing, breastfeeding, babywearing and natural infant hygiene (using cloth diapers or no diapers) is falling out of fashion among those who have been practicing these for generations without ever having to read a book, consult a doctor or chat in an online support forum.

What may be most telling of all, of course, is what my friends at the meeting last night may not have noticed. Without the benefit of breastfeeding, what 2 year old child is able to attend a meeting for 2 hours late in the evening? Sure, she brought along snacks, but breastmilk is much more than protein, vitamins, superior fats and highly absorbable minerals. In a crowded room, breastfeeding gives baby a safe haven where she can touch home base, settle and process her observations.

[to be continued …]