I have had the extraordinary privilege in the first 22 years of my career to spend much time living and working in provincial parts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the second major period of research I carried out in north India. Between 2000 and 2002, I spent 18 months in Bijnor district, western Uttar Pradesh, undertaking a project on education and social change.
Every day, I would travel from Bijnor Town through sugar cane fields to talk to rural parents and young people about education. I remember, especially, the passion with which parents spoke of educating their children. Above all else they wanted their children “to become somebody,” and they believed that education was key to this process. “Education is like nectar of the gods”, said one parent. “It is the light that streams through a chink in the door,” said another. Some parents were willing to work 16-hour days in local brick-kilns so that their children could remain in school. “I will do anything for education,” said one parent, “It is my heart’s desire.”
The energy that parents injected into conversations has made me reflect recently on the whole question of ‘passion.’ Fifteen years since the research and those intense conversations, I find myself wondering about how passion can be helpful in university life.
People might imagine universities as places of ‘objective’ learning. In some disciplines the capacity to be ‘dispassionate’ is important.
But passion – and of course especially passion for learning – is a crucial prerequisite for research. Teaching is surely also about passion. I remember an especially inspiring lecturer during my undergraduate days. It almost didn’t matter what he was saying, it was his passion that was the lesson – the medium was the message.
Engagement depends on passion, too. According to the Dictionary, ‘engagement’ means “to connect with”, but also: “To hold by mutual attraction and interest”.
I’m also remembering Bijnor district because of a specific point that parents made about mobility in their discussions about education and social change. Parents said that to advance in life meant leaving the “dirt and dust” (dhool-mithi) of the village. Indeed, in their view, the further you got from the village, the more you would advance. Physical mobility and social mobility were aligned: ‘Out’ is also ‘up’.
What would happen if universities reflected on the word ‘mobility’ – it’s double sense of physical movement and progress up social hierarchies? What projects might such reflection engender?
And, if social mobility does often involve physical mobility – if my informants in Bijnor district are right – what specific programmes or opportunities might universities develop for young people who live outside Australia (as well as within it)? An excellent starting point would be to establish scholarships for students from non-elite backgrounds in India to study for Masters degrees in Australian universities.
But the project of reflecting on international mobility and social mobility together within universities could have other aspects. It might lead to new programmes that provide financial help to Australian students who wish to study and obtain fieldwork experience in India. It might lead to new programmes that offer opportunities for poorer young people in Australia and India to meet. It could be potentially transformative for departments that deal, say, with ‘Global Mobility’. A lot is already being done. This is an area where there is a great deal of potential – and passion.