Wednesday, October 5, 2011
The State of Indian Universities
Rajesh Kumar Sharma
One of the few things on which we Indians have a consensus is the state of our universities. It is a wretched state, though we may politely call it unenviable, or ingenuously describe it as unsatisfactory. Year after year, international ratings remind us and expose us. And year after year we observe some rites of remorse, and let the 'findings' go down under the next breaking news.
The universities, which should be throbbing with excitement and discovery, have increasingly become intellectually banal and sterile places. Except for a few green patches or a solitary glistening blade here and there, the landscape is barren and gloomy. The well-intended, apparently radical exercises initiated by agencies like UGC and NAAC are quickly absorbed into clever document management regimens and smart presentations, so that an enormous change appears to have happened 'on paper' and yet nothing much changes on the ground.
Perhaps we have yet to realize that we need more than mere jugaad. That we need vision also, and understanding, and courage. Do we realize that the reigning paradigm of our university education continues to be industrial (Fordist, to be precise)? Yes, we need huge quantitative growth, but that does not mean we can ignore the singularity of talent and skills. We have to move from antiquated mass education delivery systems to customized education meant for specific individuals and groups. We have the technology, but we suffer from severe trust deficit. We lack trust – in ourselves, in teachers, in students. Having cheerfully embraced the post-industrial economy, why do we hesitate to adopt post-industrial pedagogies?
Not just in the use of pedagogies, in engagement with the current state of knowledge also we continue to lag and act ad hoc. There is hardly any premium on, or professional mandate for, being intellectually up to date. This failure is matched by another of equally sinister proportions: a creative dialogue, from our contemporary locations, with intellectual traditions both native and foreign is conspicuously missing.
The rapidly changing forces and relations of production over the last quarter century have resulted in certain kinds of social exclusion and marginalization. A whole social class stands no chance today to occupy any tenured positions among the university faculty. One of the consequences is that the interests and concerns of that class are receding farther and farther from the agenda of higher education. How good or bad this can be for society should be anybody's guess. The situation is aggravated by the migration of those into the 'higher spheres' who inhabited or still somehow inhabit the upper boundaries of that class. This migration has to be seen alongside the larger phenomenon of cooptation of 'the salaried intellectual'. This entire pattern of movement – characterized by exclusion, marginalization, migration and cooptation – has actually come to mean at least two things. One is the de-politicization of the academic intellectual. Careerism and social disengagement have thus overtaken the commitment to intellectual vocation and social engagement. The second is that the class which bears the brunt of current changes stands increasingly drained and deprived of effective political and intellectual representation. With the youth already largely de-politicized, the prospects for a turnaround are bleak.
The picture looks even murkier when one notices that whatever credibility the free academic intellectual retains is jeopardized by the rise of a parallel public intellectual whose terrain is the spectacular, contingency-driven media. An audience that has far more exposure to the media than to reading, reflection and the slow mellowing fruits of research is likely to find the new public intellectual's instantly ready wares handier and prettier for obvious reasons. The university is the place where these things should be considered, reflected on and deliberated. In order to continue to be the intellectual conscience of the society of which it is a part, the university cannot afford to forget 'examining its own life' – to use the famous Socratic injunction. The university-based intellectual whose authority derives – as Pierre Bourdieu suggests – from a long-range academic accomplishment cannot try to cast himself in the image of the media-based intellectual who may be required to hop, instant to instant, from canvas to canvas. In fact, the university has to avoid the temptation to be always in the news. It must strategically court obscurity, slowness and distance as essential preconditions of its proper functioning. It should step into the media spotlight only rarely, and gingerly. The urge to get noticed can damage its real, long-term objectives.
Indeed, the university has to be more than a mirror of its world. It is bound to that world through a fundamental disjuncture and ceases to be a university when it is completely integrated into that world.
Where integration is desperately needed is vis-à-vis its feeder institutions, particularly colleges. The university must nurture its feeder institutions if it is to undo the curse of intellectual sterility. It must better pave the roads that lead from those institutions to its own portals.