A few days ago, I attended a programme to felicitate one of my old teachers from Presidency College — Professor Mihir Rakshit, an outstanding scholar and a wonderful teacher. There, I was surprised at the presence of a large number of his former students who had not met him since they had left college. They are not academics. They must have forgotten everything that Professor Rakshit had taught. Yet they came to pay their respects. It must have been due to a mix of awe and admiration. Professor Rakshit must have left a mark on their minds over and above the lessons of macroeconomics. When his turn came to speak, Professor Rakshit kept it short, mentioning that he had learnt much more from his brilliant students over the years than they had ever learnt from him. Professor Rakshit belongs to the old school. He is very well read, much beyond the confines of his expertise in macroeconomics. He used to spend 10 hours in his office at college without fail, at least six days a week. His lectures were heavy and often difficult to follow if one had not gone through the assigned readings for the class. At the end of the programme, I wondered: would there ever be the likes of Mihir Rakshit again?
I had been extremely fortunate to come across quite a few outstanding teachers in school, college and university. They were outstanding in distinctly different ways. Quite a few instances come to mind. One professor had the rare ability to stimulate the best in the class to read and think further on the subject of his lecture while ensuring that the weakest in the class understood and appreciated the basics. This was, indeed, a remarkable quality. I had another professor who was extremely erudite but disorganised in the class. He would create an imaginary critic and bring him down in angry monologues. But in his seemingly chaotic lecture, he would dwell on a thought that would suddenly appear as a bright ray of light that made me see things in a different way. I would not miss his class ever. There were other teachers who demanded that you come prepared to class and, if you did, they would take you down great depths of the topic that textbooks hardly ventured into. I had another teacher who would, after making an elegant mathematical presentation of the subject, encourage us to be prepared to convince the janitor of the importance of the matter presented if he were to walk into the class. They all had one thing in common: they encouraged us to think beyond the confines of the syllabus or the textbook, often even beyond the confines of the subject, to doubt and question. To put it succinctly: it was about learning how to learn.
A reason I became an academic stemmed from the admiration I had for these teachers. I aspired to have a lifestyle similar to theirs. During my four decades of teaching, the classroom has undergone a number of radical changes in terms of how we teach and what technological aids we use. I grew up in the era of chalk and board, no photocopiers, one copy of a textbook in a resource-poor library. We had to depend on the classroom lecture as the primary source of learning, the all-important lecture notes scribbled in class. Gradually things changed with the arrival of the photocopier, the overhead projector, PowerPoint slides, the internet, email, the world of audio-videos and, now, the Artificial Intelligence of ChatGPT. All this happened within the flash of two or three decades. Classroom dynamics have changed forever. Learning is no longer confined to the classroom: the internet, access to a wide spectrum of reading materials, physically being away from the classroom yet being able to listen to the full lecture have all dismantled the classroom walls. Opportunities for learning exploded from the confines of the words of the master. Learning became more experiential and experimental.
In the meantime, the world changed dramatically as well. Gone are the days when a young student could contemplate a one-job career with stability and certainty of income. Uncertainty and change have become all-pervasive. Now, a new challenge for a student is to acquire the life skills to navigate this sea of uncertainty. Knowledge is also changing rapidly. Students are being warned that in their careers they would have to acquire the art of rapidly unlearning things they had learnt earlier. The only remaining purpose of the classroom is to get the legitimacy granted to the learning by the teacher. The established evaluation process helps the students get the diploma or degree that marks their licence to seek employment. That is why students have begun to shun the classroom in the best of colleges and universities. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Engaging students in the classroom is a massive challenge that teachers are increasingly afraid to take on. The crux of the tension is that teachers feel impotent if they have to certify a student’s knowledge without having a tangible role in the process. The students do not need the classroom; their laptops, the cafeteria, their hostel dorms are sufficient spaces where they can acquire the skills they wish to learn. The classroom space is now the last, fragile connection between the teacher and those being taught.
The classroom, in the best of times, served as a social unit that played an important role in the lives of the teacher as well as of the students. The teacher was supposed to go through his second learning. Teaching, as every good teacher will acknowledge, raises the levels of learning and confidence in the subject by a great deal. New ideas come to mind that become the embryo for research. The passion of a good teacher creates a rapport with the students in the class. The teacher-student relationship goes beyond the classroom too. Listening to personal problems and doubts, helping in the learning process as a mentor, enriches the life of the teacher. On the other hand, the students had a space to challenge the authority of the teacher, not taking everything at face value. Great teachers would relish these challenges. Even the innocuous classroom mischief could be construed as a challenge to the authority and the discipline of the classroom. The great teacher had the ability to control and defuse such situations.
The liberation of learning from the confines of the classroom has its benefits. However, it stifles the opportunity to challenge authority and doubt established norms. It has made learning, for the teacher as well as the student, a lonelier activity. The living teacher in a socialised classroom is being rapidly eclipsed by technology. Hence, there will be much less space for arguments and debates. The age of the great teacher has begun to fade away. We are witnessing the advent of an era of conformity. Being informed now trumps being knowledgeable.
Anup Sinha is former Professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta