Free flow of ideasOne of the only positive side effects of the current pandemic has been a great increase in the discussion of ideas virtually.
In my department, we have decided to devote our monthly faculty salons this academic year to readings on race, racism and anti-racism in response to protests that followed the George Floyd killing. We will begin with a selection of shorter pieces chosen for this year’s common readers for first-year students and move on to books like How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X Kendi, who also wrote a book called Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016).
The goal is to continue the conversation about race, gender, sexuality, disability and other kinds of differences that produce discrimination based on social values of superiority and inferiority, normality and abnormality, or us and them. The faculty salon is an informal monthly meeting of department members to discuss various issues related to teaching and scholarship. Our goal in this series of readings is to educate ourselves first about various ways in which highly educated people like ourselves could get blindsided by our assumptions that originate from what Plato calls, while talking about education, ‘birth and becoming’. If professors themselves remain trapped in the prison-house of birth and becoming, how can they educate their students?
That’s why, even as society in general remains in the grip of community ideas, moving sluggishly forward or backward, universities in America keep the flow of ideas in constant circulation. Universities in America compete with each other constantly for better students and professors, who can bring better minds and ideas to their educational institutions. For example, Kendi at age 38 has just assumed an endowed professorship at Boston University and has been given 10 million dollars by Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, to start a new institute called Center for Antiracist Research. The academy has lapped up Kendi’s ideas, his 2016 book on race received the National Book Award, and the readership in America has not only made his books New York Times bestseller but put other such books, like the recent one on caste by Isabel Wilkerson, on the bestseller list.
Thus, American society moves in contradictory ways. On the one hand, it shows tremendous hunger for new ideas, new ways of thinking and doing, on the other hand, the larger society remains stubbornly trapped in old notions of race, gender and difference. In my presentation in July, hosted by the Limbuwan Readers Club, on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, I couldn’t adequately answer a listener’s question about America being the source of so many egalitarian ideas while remaining a hotbed of racism and retrograde racial ideas. I did have an answer, but chose not to answer it then, highlighting only the liberational ideas. Having given this matter some thought, I can now say that, generally speaking, there has always been a gap between town and gown in America—between the college and university educated and the general public who are high school educated, or less.
Statistically, only around 30 percent of Americans are said to be college-educated despite the fact that America has the largest number and probably the best-quality colleges and universities in the world. Partly for reasons of cost, partly for lack of information and partly for disinclination (disinclination because even high school education has, for the most part, guaranteed middle-class life for most Americans so far), only about one-third Americans avail themselves of university education. And in the absence of systematic higher education, where people get a chance to cultivate critical thinking, people remain in the grip of ideas imparted by the family, community and popular culture. And since individual liberty is one of the central tenets of American life, an individual remains free to either free oneself from dogma or happily remain trapped in it. And many obviously choose the latter.
Nonetheless, the colossus of higher education slowly and sluggishly filters and clears old debris and helps usher in new ideas and perspectives within its own walls and spreads them out through its newly minted graduates into the larger society. And, so, despite the snail-pace of progress, society sputters forward.
In a recent presentation on gender and ethnicity organised by Tarai Madhes National Council (TMNC) and in our Nepali writing in Kantipur on September 4, the flow of ideas or lack thereof remained the central focus. When Tula Narayan Shah and I travelled through the plains of Nepal from east to west last December, we saw that the villages lacked the flow of ideas. Rural women in several places said they watched Hindi television serials (soap operas) but nothing else. They didn’t even know the name of their Chief Minister, who had become known by then for his signature ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (Teach a Girl, Save a Girl) campaign. The situation for educated men was worse. While even the socially conscientious retired elder who had earned his Master’s in the 1960s from a prestigious Indian university didn’t read even newspapers, the young teachers of a private school we met in front of a locked library said they had never entered the library. Indeed, east to west, along the 1400 kilometres stretch of the country, we didn’t find any functioning library.
That is why, I think that one of the only positive side effects of the current pandemic has been the explosion of live social media broadcast of discussion generated by any person and any organisation. How far these emergent means of idea flows will go, only time can tell. But there is no substitute for the systematic flow of ideas either through libraries or schools and universities with their emphasis on cultivating critical thinking in the young and old. Meeting people in person or virtually from South Asia and knowing their fatalistic response to the Covid-19 pandemic has made me even more of a firm believer in the flow of new and corrective ideas to challenge, dispel and replace old, moribund ideas about life, people and society.