An Un-Ethical Code

April 27, 2014

By P K Vijayan


A “Code of Professional Ethics” came into effect for Delhi University teachers last month. The document in question is a collection of, for the most part, vague platitudes, clichés, bromides and sundry truisms about the teaching profession, which, as long as they remained vague elements of a vague stereotype of the profession, were perfectly harmless. For instance, it is perfectly innocuous, and no doubt very reassuring to the recipients of such benefaction, to have teachers “make themselves available to the students even beyond their class hours and help and guide students without any remuneration or reward” (Code II, viii); but this is essentially an attempt to legally codify the old stereotype of the “guru” who imparts knowledge for the sheer pleasure of doing so, with no interest in any pecuniary reward. And never mind that it also essentially violates the provisions of labour laws that protect employees from being exploited without remuneration.

This exalted figure is to be found lurking in almost all of the codes of Section II, dealing with “Teachers and Students”. But one exhortation amongst these – that teachers should “Inculcate among students scientific outlook [sic] and respect for physical labour and ideals of democracy, patriotism and peace.” (Code II, v) – stands out for its peculiarity. Let us not get distracted by the old adage that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, and what that might imply for teachers who perforce have to propound and propagate this lofty sentiment. Let us ask a plainer question here: can a singular understanding of democracy be arrived at, that we can all consensually apply, as teachers, to the vast improvement of our wards, as exhorted by the code?

George Orwell once said, “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.” In other words, depending on what my understanding of democracy is, I may fall foul of several other stipulations of the Code – Code III, iv, for instance (teachers should “Refrain from allowing considerations of caste, creed, religion, race or sex in their professional endeavour”), or Code VII, v (teachers should “Refrain from taking part in or subscribing to or assisting in any way activities which tend to promote feeling of hatred [sic] or enmity among different communities, religions or linguistic groups but actively work for National Integration”). These two platitudes in particular are strokes of pure genius, insofar as they not only curtail any democratic discussion of democracy, but effectively stymie any possibility of raising questions of “caste, creed, religion, race or sex” for fear of violating the Code. But the poor teacher, this caricature of a “guru” figure that haunts this Code, will not escape danger by simply maintaining a stoic silence on these pernicious matters – because then she can run foul of Code VII, iii, which demands that the teacher “Be aware of social problems and take part in such activities as would be conducive to the progress of society and hence the country as a whole.” The Code basically makes sure that you can, potentially and at any point that suits the administration, be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

There is much more that can be said about the specifics of the Code in this vein – about its contradictions, its clichés and caricatures, its vagueness and abundant superfluity – but that would be (since we are anyway promoting clichés now) to miss the woods for the trees. Now that these long-cherished clichés are all on paper, enactable as law, and punitively enforceable, they have suddenly become a different kind of beast. What should draw our attention is the fact that this compendium of clichés actually purports to be a Code of Professional Ethics. That is, it seeks to establish a set of purportedly ethical guidelines for how the professional teacher should conduct herself professionally – but it does so by drawing heavily on, emphasizing and perpetuating the old, stereotypical understanding of teaching, not as a profession but as a vocation – a calling to which the teacher dedicates herself selflessly, beneficently, munificently and without pecuniary considerations. As long as teaching was thought of as a vocation, a calling, a high and honourable service to knowledge for its own sake, its ethics did not need to be defined – after all, the very idea of a vocation presumes and implies an answering to a call beyond those of worldly considerations, and inasmuch, presumes an ethical bent that does not need spelling out. So, what has changed now, that has required the ethics to be spelt out thus, as a Professional Code (and not a vocational assumption)?

The answer lies in the changed and changing terrain of higher education itself. Heading rapidly, intensively and increasingly towards privatization, commercialization and “globalization”, higher education in India is no longer approached as a public service in the hands of the “vocational” but as a commercial enterprise with many lucrative possibilities to be elaborated and exploited by the professional. And the professional needs a Code of Professional Ethics, in order to be regulated and governed in the free-market calibrations of supply-demand, cost-benefit and capital-labour calculations. In such a scenario, the humble vocational, with his/her interest in pursuing knowledge for its own sake, is not only antediluvian, he/she is positively a hindrance to the quantification, commodification, packaging and sale of the New Education. Not only is this dinosaur likely to blunder around demanding that education be free and unfettered, ungoverned by the demands of industry and commerce, but he/she is also, likely as not, going to perpetuate such an understanding of education in her students. Moreover, a central part of this understanding of education has always been the idea that higher education must necessarily be socially critical and politically aware, and that its spaces must allow for the untrammelled discussion and debate of issues and concerns of every form and hue. The intellectual fossil that is the vocationalist, who answered the call of teaching precisely because he/she valued these qualities in the field of higher education above all else, is therefore, likely as not, going to insist that such an understanding of education be retained and advanced, as far as possible.

These are not, however, what commercial investors in higher education are keen to pay good money for: time, as their favourite cliché goes, is money. The last thing they would want is to invest in an education that will waste time on such matters, fostering and putting out students who will raise uncomfortable questions about democracy, caste, creed, etc., and encourage questioning, dissent and criticism, rather than the New Education virtues of obedience, obeisance and acquiescence. So, even if the old institutional spaces and bureaucracies are thoroughly revamped, and the courses dramatically restructured to meet the expectations of the commercial investing lobby – as was done with such alacrity and aplomb by a succession of vice chancellors and their teams at Delhi University recently – the New Education required a new kind of teacher. But here the unfortunate succession of vice chancellors, so keen to fulfil the agenda laid out for them by their political and corporate masters, came up against the wall of service conditions, labour laws, and – even in their current, profoundly attenuated and decrepit condition – teachers unions, that would not allow the expedient of simply dismissing all these dinosaurs and appointing a suitably prepped and professionally subservient labour force (preferably on contractual terms) in their collective place. It was then, most laudably, that the genius of the current vice chancellor, Prof. Dinesh Singh rose heroically to meet the challenge of this obdurate obstacle, and came up with a simple yet superb solution.

The solution lay in transforming the vocationalist into a professional – the dinosaur into a robot – through the simple expedient of the Code of Professional Ethics. This code has been around for quite some time – since 1989, to be precise, when it was first drafted by a UGC team – and then came out in the 2010 UGC Guidelines to universities. But it was Delhi University that chose to transform it, in implementing it this year, from an average code that one is expected to abide by ethically (as its appellation might suggest) to – perhaps for the first time in Indian legal and jurisprudential history – a code that is also legally and punitively enforceable. Which makes the ethics of the code itself somewhat questionable: in trying to pass off a new set of service rules in the relatively innocuous garb of a “code”, the Delhi University administration is guilty of disingenuity, if not outright deception. What is even more objectionable though, both ethically and legally, is that, by calling it a “code” and yet making it legally enforceable, the University administration is clearly seeking to avoid the charge of unilaterally altering the terms and conditions of employment and service – which it cannot do under law, since any such change has to be mutually agreed upon by employer and employee – while effectively doing precisely that. But the true genius of this particular Code is that it continues to foster the idea of teaching as a vocation, in matters relating to the labour of the teacher, her devotion and commitment to her students, her institutional duties and obligations, etc., while emphasizing professionalism in matters relating to institutional allegiance, pecuniary advancement, obedience and acquiescence to rules and regulations, as well as, paradoxically, to accepting and living by the tenets of teaching as a vocation. The intent is to have all the advantages of an undemanding labour force that ostensibly embraces the work for its own rewards, while at the same time ensuring that it will be as quiescent, docile and subservient as a contract labour force, simply for fear of attracting the provisions of “the Code”. So then, the teacher is reduced not just to a robot but, in the words of the poet, to “a comfortable old scarecrow”, himself utterly and thoroughly scared of the crows that have taken over Delhi University.

I have no doubt that, simply in writing this piece, I will be attracting various provisions of this code, that I will be held to be in violation of several of its tenets. But in the end, I am drawn to a phrase that is used again and again in this Code, to profoundly ironical effect, viz., the “dignity of the profession”. The Code seeks to enforce this dignity, through unprecedented punitive measures; I – and the thousands of other teachers in the University who are appalled by this skanky document – seek to uphold this dignity by protesting, vociferously, against this farce of a Code. It is nobody’s case that the teaching community should not abide by a code of ethics; that is certainly not what this piece is about. But such a Code should emerge from within that community – for surely that community is best able to determine its own ethical requirements, standards and parameters – and not be punitively enforced on it from outside. Ultimately, the teaching community owes it to the larger ideals of higher education, as much as to itself and its students, to protest, in the most implacable way, against this “Code”.