Politics and the Portals of Learning

10 Feb


Should politicians be invited to speak at colleges? Yes, of course, more and all should. It brings political discourse to the young, who must learn to engage meaningfully, as clearly politics is a part of everything we do.  People need to have both informed and well thought through opinions in order to guide their own participation. The danger is not from more politics, the danger is from less politics that operates only at the margins of societies. Making politics mainstream and creating a two way communication channel is part of the traditional role of higher education institutions.

Student politics have always played a significant role in the national politics of most nations, especially at times of turbulence, change or discontent. Universities have traditionally been places where politicians come to test or spread their ideas amongst the bold and innocent questioners who will be their vote bank in the future. Not only are student unions an active training ground for choosing a political life, they are also the best place to learn how to engage in civil debate with political authorities for those not seeking active participation in political careers.


[Let me start with a bit of a disclaimer and a trip down memory lane. Sri Ram College of Commerce is my old alma mater. I was there in the late eighties and it was one of the few colleges that was not as agitated as the rest over the Mandal Commission issue – the students (not all of course) were fairly committed to their classes and their canteen. Much changes over a generation, including impossibly high cut-off marks for admission, and the college has now hosted more than one political leader to come and speak to the students.


My memory of the college – which is an economics and commerce college does not include much politics. Even as college after college shut down during student elections, and during the Mandal Commission outrages, ours remained open. They came, in large groups, chanting slogans, insisting we leave our classes. They made us all walk out, and bolted classroom doors. We were driven to the college gates, but not beyond. Most turned back and went to the college canteen before quietly going back home or to class. I still do not know whether this – and I was there- was something to be proud of of embarrassed about. It was clearly freedom of expression and those who wished to be engaged with the political process were free to do so. There were always political opinions, but they did not dominate the discourse in this college – unlike other places. I wonder if other students too remember it this way. ( A question I do not answer here, as logic would clearly provide – is all politics partisan?)]


It is a tradition in the grand old colleges and universities the world over to interact with past, present and future politicians. Oxford and Cambridge clubs have invited controversial speakers and listened to the most extreme views. Many have disagreed with them and boycotted them too. Others have protested from afar. And yet, many others have listened and calmly agreed or disagreed to the speakers they listened to. It is the mark of a mature mind to be able to give the opposing point of view a fair hearing and then to be able to walk away from it – accepting or rejecting according the best information available. It is also a mark of an intelligent mind to be able to process the various points of view they collate and to form an independent yet not set-in-stone opinion. This opinion surely influences their personal practice of politics – local or national, active or passive.

The students unions in various places, including the European Students union have an active and formal role to play in policy making. They are a formal party to the consultations for national issues and their responsibilities include creating well researched policy papers that explain their positions and the reasoning for those views. To deserve a seat at the table it is necessary to prove that you are a mature voice – and one that is based on representation and reason. This serves as training for many in leadership, they build skills in participative politics and some of them even go on to become active in the politics and policy space.


Students Unions in India rarely acquire a reputation for participation in the political process via reason, manifestoes or even discourse. The average level of the discourse is often limited by exposure to the literature and process of politics. The arguments often dealt with brawn rather than brain, the muscle of choice made clear. To engage with more views, to debate formally and to get a chance to understand the reasoning behind policies is a chance that a university can offer. This often a tradition more honoured in the breach with notable exceptions. To be a student is to get a chance to try on different beliefs and test them with good data and information. Some beliefs get discarded along the way, others receive support and grow. This is the chance for the individual to learn to evolve their political opinions, not be boxed in by peer or other pressures. Least of all the dark pressure exerted by ignorance and disinterest.


The tide is turning in recent years. As India discovers public diplomacy, even the foreign policy babus send senior retired ambassadors to speak to students across the nation to show them how policy is formulated and to answer questions. New political parties that seek to build from the grassroots focus on institutions of learning to build their base and find a new type of politician. The demographics say that the largest number of voters soon will be this generation that is of university age in this decade – it is then up to them to formulate and participate in the politics of tomorrow.


This is a great time to call for more speakers with a variety of views to reach out to the young and to support disciplined debates. It is right to develop the habit of questioning and open discourse. To ask questions and make politicians answerable is at the root of democracy – the youth are often given more leeway as they learn these processes. The elders, ideally as mentors in this process of town hall debates (a formal construct in many democracies). For the elders too this is a chance for them to understand the ‘generational’ gap that they must cover, a chance to listen to new ideas and new ways of going things. A chance for them to train the youth in political parleys and a chance for them to test their new ideas in the thrust and parry of honest discussion. India may have a way to go here, and often things get a bit difficult before they get better. But it is time to encourage and cultivate habits of civil debate on issues that matter. It is time to expect more from the educated student representatives and bodies. It is time to connect politics to the people.

(This post is in no way partisan, it supports no party or politician. It has always been my intent raise issues that education institutions need to introspect – and this is merely that, a chance to reflect.)


This was posted to the Times of India site on February 07, 2013 and is linked here and http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/politics-and-the-portals-of-learning


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