Human-it-ies

Two and a half intense years of studying appear to be coming to an end. By tomorrow I may just be a student with the number ‘s1634690’ in the administration system of Leiden University. As I wait for the last grade to find its mark, I decide to put down some thoughts that have nothing to do with those grades, but with other values, in other schools, with other teachers and other companions and friends.

Last year, I could not spare much time to support two institutions on two different ends of the world. I’m speaking of the University of Amsterdam (Uva) here in the Netherlands where I am now, and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII)– where I once was. Glancing furtively up from my books – telling myself I wasn’t going to be spending much time on a quick catch up, I saw how students of both these ‘ex schools’ of mine stood up in rebellion.images

In Amsterdam, a year ago in February of 2015, just after I finished my Masters in English Literature, students peacefully took over the administrative heart of the University – a historic monument and the equally impressive building that housed the faculty of humanities. I had spent many wonderful hours in the latter as a student. The protest was in response to budget cuts to the humanities in favour of those subjects that supposedly draw the crowds (and the money) and apparently contribute to careers. In other words – the students were protesting against the idea that the humanities don’t really count. Languages were badly hit. I was told that my thesis supervisor’s contract was not renewed and that another teacher of mine left for America, where the future looked brighter. One of the things the students tried to negotiate was a representation of those who learn (students) and those who teach (teachers) in decisions that involve what a university stands for. Thus, not managers and more managers. Its not just the economy stupid.

images-1When I met one of my teachers at a seminar, I asked him if there was anything I could do to show my solidarity. He said, ‘tell as many people as you can to go to University’. Because, quite simply, if enough students don’t register for the humanities, the latter are seen as irrelevant to society and scrapped. This same teacher, who later gave the inaugural speech at our graduation ceremony had done his research, and could convincingly show that graduates of studies like English language and literature do find jobs – and ones that deeply satisfy them. But…jobs made up one part of the speech. He lingered with love on what literature does to the mind, the heart and soul of those engaged with it. Hearing him that day, anyone would understand those protesting students whose message was clear: there’s more to life than returns and efficiency.

In the Film Institute of India, the protest began when unqualified people were appointed to run the institution. Or…differently put, people whose qualification was highly evident in their worship of the prime minister and not in their knowledge of cinema; people whose credentials lay more in their membership of Hindutva and less in the skills required to really educate young, impressionable minds in anything else. Every now and then, I caught a glimpse of a classmate, or friend, now alumnus of FTII taking the time to go to the campus and address the students, to repeat everything I heard as a protesting student so many years ago there – that this place – where the questioning, curious minds of all those who enter its gates – rich, poor – from every corner of the sub continent- had to be kept just that way – open to questioning and curiousity – and it was now threatened with some form of ideology that opposes those very precious qualities. Filmmakers, thinkers, writers joined in – one did not need to be an alumnus of FTII. One needed to care about what was happening in the society at large under Hindutva. I read of the protest march in Delhi – of broken bones; of the surgeon who reduced his fees when he realized that those broken bones came from a lathi charge. I read about the corner shop that stocked magazines of the student protest – so word would get around.images-2

In both cases, police were called in to use force to break the protests. In both cases, the message had already spread and was not any more confined to these institutions alone. It resonated with a larger public. In India, this student protest spurred many more voices of dissent.

But why am I writing all this? Because maybe by tomorrow, I will have met the formalities required for a teaching qualification. Because my newspaper says that since robots and computers are going to be taking on much of the administrative tasks and the mechanical work we do, schools should be focusing on nurturing those qualities that make us ‘human’.

And where do you think the word ‘humanities’ could be coming from?

Human it is.

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