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OP-ED: The experience of bricks and mortar

  • Published at 05:53 am July 6th, 2021
This has no substitute MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

If online academia is the present and future, where is the need for reverting to the education of old?

Eighteen months ago, we were confronted with the reality of King Covid, the magnitude of which compelled a revolutionary realignment of the mechanics of life and survival. Institutions similarly underwent a sea change. And nowhere is this more manifest, is this transformation apparently more complete, than in the universe of pedagogy.

In a few short weeks of the first quarter of 2020, we made the reluctant transition from classrooms bursting with children to a billion individual units of learning, each separated by physical space and connected to a “school” dissipated in the ether of the internet and connected to its pupils by the “Zoom call,” the generic expression for a tool of communication long since subsumed to the versatility of Microsoft Teams. 

Online education entailed an un-learning and re-learning in record time of content, mode, and method for both student and teacher. Interestingly, when we take stock in the second year of pandemic, evidence suggests that the surface of the world is now equipped with and, equally importantly, reconciled to the new tools and protocol of learning which, by all accounts, are here to stay.

Life is flesh and blood and bricks and mortar. Till recently, only the tangible world that we occupy defined and equipped us to take our place in it as members of world citizenry. But, dear reader, we are in the grip of a thought and idea revolution powered by a digital engine untrammeled by the physical environment and the traditional boundaries that it imposes.

Internet-powered education is an outcome. Human beings are, yes, resilient and capable of change. But once the change occurs, we then crave a life of minimum disturbance and maximum stability. And, all told, this “new normal” -- we are now not only accustomed to it, we thrive in it.

Therefore, if online academia is the present and future, where is the need for reverting to the education of old? Have we outgrown and outpaced the compulsions of traditional physical school and, by extension, even the desire of the experience for something as esoteric as the boarding school?

Ask any teenager what she misses about last February, and she will instantly recall the lunch break, that sacred hour when long lines of pupils eagerly snaked into the depths of the dining hall, collected the standard “prison plate” and proffered it to the staff who, like the mechanical arms of robots on the assembly line, would slap a dollop of vegetable or a scoop of rice or a ladle of lentils into the appropriate receptacle. 

With laden tray, the inmates would seat themselves at the long tables and fall to the fare of the day and the gossip of the morning past. Oh joy! And those precious seconds between classes, snatched between first and second bells, the multicoloured milling in the corridors, exchange of sound-bytes at the speed of thought, how he looked at me, why was Ma’am so angry, how cute he is, but so annoying, guess what, he sent her a note, I couldn’t read it. 

The air crackles with excited chatter, moments before the legions are swallowed by the classrooms from which they had so gratefully spilled, and silence descends once more.

And why even consider the boarding school, the final frontier of academia, familiar to a mere handful, a sanctuary so removed from the daily cadence of a normal life? The experience! 

What does that mean? Difficult to explain, but it demonstrates itself through the alternate magic of Rishi Valley; the formidable network of Doon School and Mayo College; the powerhouse that is Welham Girls; the natural beauty of Kodaikanal, erstwhile venerable sister-school; and the plethora of recent oases dotting the breadth of India, merchants of holistic education and now, increasingly, the purveyors of a curriculum founded on the International Baccalaureate.

For those who attended their version of a private paradise removed from home, we took it for granted, and know no other life to assess it against. But my better half remains mightily impressed by the specimens of the menagerie whom she has encountered. 

“There’s a different smartness about you lot. I can’t explain it, but it’s there.” Why argue? Let her nurture this rather flattering picture, I say. And as for you, you maverick group of loveable misfits, in happy and dysfunctional orbit of a world of which you will never totally be a part, thank your stars that you were consigned to boarding, whether as orphans of wealth and success, the collateral damage of broken homes or, simply, because distraught parents had no other academic option. 

Whatever the reason, wallow in it, because it’s the intangible essence of the experience clinging to you with every step that shouts out the unique life that you were fortunate enough to have lived.

Our resilience is under strain. The scourge of virus is real, and the ebb and flow of its effects and reputation compel us to retreat periodically into the sanctuary of home. We can, therefore, do little but persevere a while longer with this cloistered life. The transition from physical to logical academia, as with life, may have been complete, but it will always be transitory. 

School and the development of the well-rounded youth of tomorrow require close, healthy, and laughing physical and intellectual contact.

Whatever the circumstances, we shall never outgrow that.

Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in India and is a freelance contributor.