D is for Discipline

Discipline and Punish is the name of one of the formative books of the modern/postmodern era. Together with his other books The Birth of the Clinic, Madness and Civilisation and The Order of Things, this book by Michel Foucault reveals processes that go into the making of the modern age as few studies have done. He focuses on institutions like the prison and the hospital and his analysis is perfectly adaptable to that of the school—the Indian school.

There are two kinds of discipline. One is the familiar one of the stick and the reprimand. In schools in the past, there was of course such a disciplining. My father, born 1924, had a favourite story of how his maulvi sahib had one solution to any discipline problem: murga bana diya (a particular folding over of the body to hold one’s ears with hands coming up from under the knees—which is called “becoming a murga—a rooster”). In many schools in India today, ranging from madrasas to private English medium schools there is regular corporal punishment, or the threat of it. This form of disciplining, harsh though it seems, is superficial and short-term. The receiver of it remains free and plays the same tricks again and again. The blows form the master’s stick or raps on the knuckle or becoming a rooster does not produce any fundamental change in the student’s nature.

The second kind of discipline is what Foucault critiques. This is an insidious, holistic, system in which the child, if he wishes to be rewarded, to be respected, to be liked, to even survive, must follow the rules. The rules are not forced on him in an obvious way such as with a stick. Rather “the stick of modernity” is an invisible stick of praise and blame, good and bad marks, labels of “smart” and “dull.” Children from the earliest age can intuitively understand what adults prefer them to do. Those who wish to succeed become disciplined through their own volition. They think. They do not realise that rather than being free, they are in fact insidiously controlled by regulations framed as options and choices.

But free they are in a way. Our best schools are those that have the best “discipline” in this modern, Foucauldian sense, where there is no need of a stick. Quite the opposite. The students are so motivated to follow all the rules that unruly behaviour is not an issue. Our weakest schools are those in which children repeatedly must be controlled in explicitly violent ways.

What would we rather have? Foucault has left no holds barred in his critique of modernity because he finds the invisible control of the state and its institutions terrifying. But for us in India I think that such empowerment by discipline is the prerogative of the elite and needs to be shared by the masses. Just as there are two kinds of discipline, there are two kinds of freedom. The masses are free—to wander around and spit where they like. They do not exercise self-discipline and their children go to schools where only the superficial disciplining of the rod is exercised. The elite are not free. They exercise self-discipline and in their schools are produced  smart, modern citizens of the globalizing India. The freedom they gain from this subjection to rules is of career and lifestyle—they can have career satisfaction and social mobility.

Discipline of the modern kind, with all the reservations that Foucault teaches us to have, is necessary and desirable to ensure that everyone in our country has democratically the same freedoms. The elite learn the discipline of completing their homework and preparing for their examinations and the masses do not. The elite live out their dreams; the masses barely dare dream. Instead of understanding this fairly obvious structural difference, educators think of the undisciplined as “dull” or “dumb.” At this juncture in our history, the prospect is not of “Discipline and Punish” but of “Discipline and  Freedom.”

Of course a word needs to be said, and will be said later under “U for uniforms” about how there is totally superficial and unnecessary disciplining of the tie, belt, badge type; of assemblies and straight lines; of “May I come in?” and “May I sit down?” 

At the other end of the spectrum is an inability in most of our schools to recognise actual learning difficulties that children face. One such is dyslexia, a problem of learning in the normative way. It is not something that cannot be overcome.

D is for Dickens who may or may not be a household name to young British students today, but continues to be one for Indian students. One of Dickens’ novels, or an abridged version nowadays, is invariably prescribed for the literature syllabus anywhere between classes 9 to 12. Dickens’ value, together with other worthies typically present in our syllabi, such as Thomas Hardy and William Shakespeare, is questionable. One perspective on teaching has it that students should learn what is most relevant to them. Another perspective has it that liberal education consists precisely of seemingly “irrelevant” things, including things from a distant time and place. In this debate we ourselves are on the side of liberal education—except that the practice of teaching English literature in India reveals such a tremendous gap between the desired and the actual, that our faith is shaken. Even though it is important to learn of a country, the British Isles, of a culture and society in the nineteenth century, of metaphors and images very evocative and judgements on human character and life very profound—could all this not be done with less labour spent on mastering another language? Or at least, to grapple with the distant and the strange for pleasure, and not as compulsion?

Dickens’ world is so distant from ours that it seems not merely difficult to understand, it seems mad. Just think of Miss Havisham. It would be wonderful to spend some of the time spent on mastering Dickens’ language in mastering one of our own Indian languages so that many potential authors from among our young people could end up producing the worlds that Dickens created. Instead of merely studying Dickens, we should adopt an educational policy in our country that aims to produce native Dickenses.

D is for daughters, those delightful beings (I have two). It is no longer the case that there is a prejudice against educating daughters. With the exception of some regions in some states—Rajasthan and Haryana come to mind—and some groups within some communities, almost everyone in India today is convinced of the link between education and a better life for their children. Quite clear as an argument for sons, for daughters the argument remains a bit elusive. Girls do not need to be prepared for jobs and they do not need to stand forth as smart or educated. In the marriage market there is a mixed, but mostly positive, reception of brides who are well educated. Change in this area has occurred on its own without much strategising by the state or the public. Further change will also occur thus on its own. 

Dare one leave out Disney? The Company is unbelievably creative, consistently high quality, and startlingly sensitive to changing values. That it does something right is evident from the vast numbers of adoring, even addicted, fans it has. What it does wrong is less evident. It annexes young imaginations with its stereotypes of castles, forests, princesses, good and bad characters. It artistically bullies you into wanting more of Disney art, and only Disney art. When my kindergartners enthusiastically chorus “Tom and Jerry!” and my teacher draws a Disney cartoon in response to a request to make a poster of a cat, I know I am in the presence of Monopoly Capitalistic  Art, in front of which lesser figures simply do not survive.


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