“Intellectual skepticism can be a way to resist indoctrination and reduce societal violence”

Prof. KP Mohanan dissects identities and raises uncomfortable questions about one’s beliefs at MGIEP’s 6th Distinguished Lecture

New Delhi, India— In November 2016, four students of a medical college in India tied a monkey’s hands, beat her, broke her legs and jaws, and finally put a rod through her anus and killed her. This gruesome incident and the extent of violence that the young students resorted to is a chilling indicator of the growing pathology of violence in societies the world over.

Did the students feel pleasure in causing pain? Had the bystanders become desensitised to suffering? What factors shaped the young individuals to behave in the way they did? And more importantly, can we redesign education such that the young grow up to become less violent and more compassionate?

This million-dollar question posed by Prof. KP Mohanan at MGIEP’s Sixth Distinguished Lecture on 2 December 2016 set the tone for the next hour where he spoke on the intricate links between ‘Education, Blind Faith and Societal Violence’. The event was co-organised with and held at the University of Chicago Centre in New Delhi and attended by approximately 150 academics and young students.

In his talk, Prof Mohanan explored the forms and roots of violence at an individual and societal level. He elucidated that while individual violence relates to incidents of violence between individuals such as domestic violence and bullying, societal violence refers to violence amongst varying groups— religious, ethnic, nationality, tribal etc., and primarily stems either from greed for power or an emotional disposition arising from the us-versus-them mindset, or a combination of both.

Citing anecdotes, he elaborated how developing a rational temper can act as a bulwark against a person’s intellectual and emotional predispositions towards violence. To begin with, rational inquiry enables a person to see the essential non-singular nature of identity and accept the notion of multiple identities that we are all endowed with. Secondly, by subjecting one’s deeply-held beliefs and assumptions through rigorous scrutiny, rational inquiry dislodges the sense of total certainty in people’s mind and implants a degree of doubt or skepticism towards one’s own assumptions and position, as well as those of others. This self-skepticism, Prof. Mohanan emphasized, is a primary requirement for developing a rational temper. Perhaps this is what Bertrand Russell meant when he famously said, “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” Rational inquiry extends beyond the scope of mathematics, science and philosophy to include historical, humanistic, religious, moral and personal inquiry.

“Can you prove that the earth goes round the sun and not the other way round”? He asked the audience. No response. “Don’t we all believe this because it was written as such in our textbooks?” he further prodded. Thus making his point that all whose present in the room had been indoctrinated by textbooks to some extent, Prof Mohanan explained how mainstream education typically produces pliant and ‘schooled’ individuals with degrees and certificates, but who can be easily manipulated and indoctrinated by governments, corporations, and religious fanatics, again because of blind faith in authority. One of the results of such manipulation is the obscuring of the nature of collective violence, as demonstrated by the bystanders whilst the medical students tortured the monkey.

As an alternative, Prof. Mohanan proposed fostering the students’ abilities to critically inquire, engage, evaluate and, if logically inconsistent, then challenge the validity of knowledge transmitted through textbooks and teachers. This, according to him, would be the first step in cultivating the student’s intellectual and emotional resilience against any form of indoctrination, However, in his talk, Prof. Mohanan acknowledged that rational enquiry alone is not sufficient in creating a compassionate society, and needs to be combined with some form of socio-emotional learning and training.

The lecture was presided by Dr Karan Singh, member of the Rajya Sabha in India and the Chairman of UNESCO MGIEP’s Governing Board, and attended by distinguished guests from the world of academia and civil society. The engaging discussion concluded with a round of questions and a witty repartee between Dr Singh and Prof Mohanan on the need for doubting and questioning vis-à-vis the need to hold on to one’s beliefs.

About MGIEP’s Distinguished Lectures:

Creative living in a world of unprecedented complexity and growing interdependence requires a fundamental shift in our ways of envisioning and engaging with our reality. UNESCO MGIEP’s Distinguished Lecture Series invites speakers of global eminence to spark discussions on contemporary global issues and dissect the role of education in this new paradigm.

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Contact Information:

—Ms Anamika Gupta,, Programme Officer

––Mr Simon KUANY,, Programme Officer

-–Ms Radhika BHATNAGAR, Communications Officer


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