Weighty last words?

Pawan Singh

Having been the author of many a ‘last word’, I am beginning to wonder about the column’s overall place in Teacher Plus as a popular intellectual forum for disseminating critical ideas on education. The last word has often departed from the magazine’s content in ways that I’ve enjoyed both, reading and writing.

When I was working for Teacher Plus, I was churning the column out every other month, trying to justify my curious existence at the magazine office. On a number of occasions, my writing provoked angry reactions from people, mainly protesting the insensitivity with which I called a spade a spade. The editor was pleased with these responses because people often do not bother to offer feedback that, in turn, challenges us to produce more thought-(or anger-)provoking content. In a particular instance, an apology was demanded by an advocate of “accidental” plagiarism on the part of teachers. In the column in question, I had derided teacher submitted content plagiarised from the internet. Another Last Word I wrote about the status of spoken English in India hurt the feelings of rookie learners who felt I was being elitist. These claims are inconclusively debatable.

Without justifying my own position, an important question for me then is: What is the ‘last word’ really about?

Other writers of the column may disagree but I propose it’s about not taking oneself too seriously. It is convenient for me to claim this for I mostly operate in self-deprecatory humour mode, thus it comes naturally to me. Where the rest of the magazine content broaches crucial matters pertaining to education, the Last Word, in my view, offers a moment of respite. I do not intend to detract from the gravity of Teacher Plus’ mission but if a little more thought is expended, the Last Word in fact serves the same critical function but employs different linguistic devices.

Last WordWhy is plagiarism such an issue? Why are we obsessed with speaking English? Why is education, more often than not, a religious experience? Why is living in America so completely necessary to lead a fulfilling life? These questions have merely peeled the superficial layer of our being constituted through irony and contradiction. The Last Word, then, for me is turning the lens on ourselves (the unity of you, the reader, and I, the writer) to think a bit more about who we are. It’s the exact opposite of self-help in that it allows us (at least I hope) to forget our fragile, egoistic selves and have a hearty laugh at our own insecurities and blind spots. The sardonic tone only serves a medicinal function. It is bitter yet it is meant to make us feel better.

At least, that’s how I’ve always intended to write the last word. If humour is employed to humiliate, the author thoroughly betrays his own intelligence and devolves into self-oblivion. And the ability to laugh at ourselves, on the other hand, is a sublime form of nirvana that we must vie for in small measure in our routine, insignificant lives. The Last Word is perhaps a first step towards that state.

The author is a PhD student at the University of California at San Diego, USA. He can be reached at pawansinghh@gmail.com.