Tuesday, March 29, 2005


Somewhat continuing on the note of the former post, I think that this whole culture of fake independence is one of the many byproducts of great quality that America cherishes, and which has always been seen as a minor hallmark of her success- informality.

I remember the observations on American informality made by the wife of the great Enrico Fermi when she first visited America in 1933. Laura Fermi says that at first, being the European gentile that she was, she was somewhat offended by the casual informality that Americans seem to exude. However, gradually she realised that this superficial informality actually mirrored the deep seated conviction that all men are created equal (not women mind you; it never said that in the original constitutional draft...). The apparent irreverence was actually an indication of the commanility of dignity imbued in every American. The implication is clear; you may be my teacher or my parent, and I should respect you for the qualities that you have. But that does not mean that you are a greater HUMAN BEING in any way. This fundamental conviction of the American psyche has percolated through the times, where teachers and parents are supposed to be good 'friends'. If the teacher walks into the middle of a seminar and there are no seats vacant, there is absolutely no need to vacate your seat for him. After all, you would have also stood had you been in his place. And since both of you are 'created equal' you deserve equal treatment.
Laura Fermi also noted that the converse attitude had contributed to the decadence of twentieth century European where reverence became servility, and even slavish and blind following of orders, perhaps reflected in the rise of the murderous regimes that finally straddled and devastated that beautiful continent.

Laura Fermi's observation was made in 1933. Today, things are different. Informality has percolated through stratas to such an extent that it is also means sleeping with the teacher and killing your grandparent. After all, both your teacher and grandparent are your 'friends', and it's probably all right to get really mad at or 'fall in love' with a friend. Apart from the absurdity stemming from a basic emotional and social strife that such incidents reflect (OF COURSE it's nonsense to kill even your friend!), I firmly believe that such incidents are made more facile by the rejection of authority and the adoption of casual attitudes toward everything and everyone. The line between informality, irreverence, and condescension and finally hate, is easy to cross.

As a student, I enjoy the informality inherent in the American century and the American landscape. I have been relieved that I don't actually have to fear 'losing marks in the practical' because I ask questions to a professor in class. I don't have to 'dare' to disagree with him. I can easily ask administrative officials for explanations when a job does not get done, without fear that 'they will report my conduct to the principal (or whoever)'. I realise that all of this is made possible because of a country's belief in the basic freedom and rights accorded to everyone. However, many people tend to fail to recognise the responsibility that is inseparably linked with rights and privileges. When you exercise a right, it is also a privilege and therefore it means that you have a responsibility when you execute that right or privilege, a fact that I think is easily overlooked by many of these law-breakers. Behaving informally with the teacher does not suddenly obviate the status of both.
The same goes for these fake independence stereotypes. They think that by asserting the kind of independence which they claim thay have the right to, they are pushing forward the borders of liberalism, when they are actually crossing the borders of hypocrisy. Informality essentially and very simply means behaving as you want under the guise of freedom.

I don't know what the solution of this dilemma is, because it IS a dilemma. In India, the opposite is frequently seen. Reverence and formality are sometimes so extreme that they pummel the individual into accepting anything on the basis of authority. Students in schools and colleges are supposed to accept the words in their textbooks and of their teachers as law. Questions are forbidden, and even curiosity is frowned upon. It is a great tragedy that the basic scientific inquisitiveness which actually should be fostered as that age, is trampled upon by these unspoken decrees. I remember an incident from when I was doing my MSc. in Pune University. A friend of mine from another lab walked into my lab during practicals with a bleeding finger. She had cut herself and the first aid kit from her lab was missing. I immediately took the first aid box and lent her a bandage, whereupon the 'lab assistant' became livid with rage. Why had I not taken his permission before engaging in such an act? That did it. I could not contain myself and began to deliver a sermon on the most basic of human rights. I don't remember how the argument finally ended, but the incident reinforces the tragedy of the Indian scenario in one's mind. From lab assistants refusing bandages to injured students, to doctors refusing hospital admission in the absence of massive pre-payment of fees, imposed authoritarian strictures are the hallmark of every Indian organisation.
All this massively stifles creativity, curiosity, and finally even the desire to voice dissent. I always say that in many ways, an 'official dictatorship' is better than the situation in many quarters in our country, where unofficial totalitarianism embodies itself as a slippery animal, free to do its will and not get cornered by the law due to its unofficial nature. Again, I think that the educational scene provides a good example. If a teacher formally causes trouble for a student, there could be a provision in the law by which action can be taken against him. But when the teacher imposes unofficial authoritarianism (Insulting the student constantly in a saracastic manner is a good way of doing this), both of his purposes are served. The student would not dare to speak against him and the his basic curiosity would get smothered, and he also would be unable to take any official action against him (if he dares to that is).
So informality does have its great benefits. Communication is speeded, mistakes are quickly detected and eliminated and everybody's rights are preserved, unlike in our country. But then, we also don't sleep with the teacher...It's a tough nut to crack indeed.


Anonymous Sumedha said...

No doubt, this informality can be stretched to ridiculous/ ugly limits.

But I remember the tough time I had in COEP with a lab instructor in my final year. He was an M.E. student from somewhere in Maharashtra's hinterland. For some reason, he was particularly sadistic where I was concerned. This may have been due to the fact that:
a)I am a girl who speaks fast and fluent English. This was a real liability in COEP, where I was often perceived as arrogant and flighty.
b) I asked way too many questions during the lab.

I discovered later that this idiot belonged to a so-called backward community. He was overly nice later but that was just as sickening.
I have been permanently embittered by this experience. (and others of a milder sort).
U Mich is paradise in comparison.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Saket said...

Yep agree with you on that. It is a rather queer thing when one is making transition between places now.
Is there a correlation between informality and form of address?
I remember my boss in GE never stopped me from me calling him "Sir" for almost a month. I think he rather enjoyed it. So I like informality in the "epaulets dont make a difference" attitude of Feynman.

Ofcourse one has to draw a line. In schools in the US I dont think students are on a first name basis with their teachers. Bart never calls his teacher "Ms Krabapul" (I am sure I screwed that up) by her first name. In grad school one does start to treat teachers like our peers but I think people are fairly grown up at this stage.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sumedha: I can completely understand your experience with the lab instructor. It's a shame that the best colleges in India are riddled with such morons. ;(

Saket: I too like the "epaulets don't make a difference" attitude, and some people carry it too far. Also, some people forget that there is a way and manner to disagree with someone, especially a senior person...Feynman could that to an extent, because after all he was Feynman!

11:59 AM  

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