Teacher: An Activist Or An Indifferent Academician?

In his essay The Functions of a Teacher, Bertrand Russell argues that: “teachers whose opinions are not correct are expected to keep silent about them. If they mention their opinions, it is propaganda, while the mentioning of correct opinions is considered to be merely sound instruction.”

Much of what takes place in Pakistani classrooms — at least in the limited number of institutions where I have taught — is precisely this ‘silence’ that Russell alludes to: silence about political oppression, about stinking social mores and about our rotten ethical framework. Is that what a university or the teaching-learning space is designed for? Is the education infrastructure meant to just consolidate the prevalent order or should it also tweak it where required? Who, after all, is a teacher?

I contend that in societies like ours, a teacher should be more of an informed activist rather than just being a pure academician. By activist, I mean he or she should actively speak on issues of societal urgency and import, and even practically participate in popular protests against the existing state of affairs; by activism I mean proper praxis, not merely cold theorization. One reason for that is that teachers are the most conscious individuals of a society. If they feign indifference to what is taking place in the polity and society at large, who else can be hoped to shoulder this responsibility? Besides, the idea of the public intellectual implies that he or she is invariably visible and speaks up during all instances of public political and social activism. After all, he is a ‘public’ intellectual, not a ‘closet’ researcher. But before I ask for your agreement to this viewpoint, let’s first relay some reasons in favor of the original claim, that is a teacher as an activist.

First in the series is the idea that text (what the teacher teaches) and context (where a teacher ‘lives’) need to be cognizant of each other. We cannot expect a teacher to talk about one thing in the class and live out quite another outside the class. The two are, and must be, inseparably linked if the class is to have any encouraging and recuperating effect on the health of the general context. Elsewise, it would be an expression of the saying ‘Rome burnt while Nero fiddled.’

Likewise, not everybody understands complex theoretical jargon that teachers in classes deal with. On the contrary, if they come out in public view, they will have to trade the same esoteric terminologies for simple stories, analogies, symbols etc. for the consumption of common men and women. In that way, the same knowledge attired in a comprehensible language will have a wider and more digestible reach and reception.

Lastly, and I guess the most urgent of all, if teachers don’t indulge in intellectually sound activism on the streets, tea stalls, and in drawing rooms, these spaces will be inundated with minds uninformed and rigid in nature. In other words, it is the well-read in our society who should engage in debates pertaining to socio-political and cultural malaises rather than the unduly enthusiastic and the unbearably loud. I suppose we all wish we had received our first lesson about politics, society and myriad other facets of the world from some intellectually uncertain and humble voice and not from the irreversibly certain and haughty politician, cleric, or even a school teacher.
If teachers don’t indulge in intellectually sound activism on the streets, tea stalls, and in drawing rooms, these spaces will be inundated with minds uninformed and rigid in nature

But, by this point in the argument or since the beginning, you may be wondering: where and how can a teacher act as an activist? The answer is in the classroom as well as outside it. The classroom, in settings like ours, should I believe be a highly politicized space. Nothing that a History, Economics, or Literature teacher discusses in the class should be severed from what is happening in the marketplace, around the city squares and on the roads outside. Those inside the classroom should at once be listeners and contributors - listeners to the tales of past societies and people and contributors towards the well-being of their own. Reading about other people’s past should, at the end of the day, be meant to wake one up to their own present in all its hideousness.

Teachers can practice activism during their colleague meet-ups, discussions in cafes and hotels and other avenues of socialization, like in drawing rooms and during literary and academic events. Teachers should leave no gathering or space that they visit without generating queries about the prevalent order and structures in the participants’ minds. If they do, they would be just like any other visitor who came, saw and concurred without asking any questions or showing any disagreement.

Why I advocate that is because our own kin will never forgive us if we, as teachers, opted to stay silent while those around us were at the receiving end of the current regimes of oppression. I know that churning out research paper after research paper is a precious participation in the realm of knowledge. But in milieus like ours, and teachers being the most edified and vigorous intellects of any society, we won’t be judged by how many research articles we gave life to, but by how much compassion and concern we displayed towards issues that affected common people the most.

As Russell says, then, ‘teacher as an activist’ might be forced to stay put while all around him or her are losing their heads but that should not deter him or her from performing his one vital function: to speak up when most of the rest are silent; to rebel, both in words and deeds, when the majority are criminally quiet.