How to understand our times? Are we not living under the American empire? are not our intellectual beliefs, our uppie culture, consumerism make us already mental slaves of American power
There are manychallenges for India. As the largest democracy it had survived the post-Independence period. India’s many capabilities make us a serious contender for a regional power,if not a super power of sorts in critical technologies like IT and software services. India is set to emerge as a knowledge superpower. All these current perceptions must turn us to our education system, more so to the role of universities in the development of India. Open a newspaper and no day passes without reading about our politicians talking about education, more so higher education.
Today, higher education, the role of universities are all in my opinion taking place without any broader vision. In the absence of serious intellectual base, our very society and leaders are leaving things to the market economy. So many ills mark the development of university education. One is gross commercialisation. What is our intellectual base? What is our intellectual capital? Where are our intellectuals? Whom we can identify as our leading intellectuals who can define India’s position in the world?
We seem to be more and more pre-occupied by politicians and those who are making a success in businesses. That is all. Otherwise, we seem to imagine our bureaucrats or bureaucrats-turned polticians are our intellectuals.This is a gross mistake.No society can sustain its independence, nurture its soul without an intellectual base. We must have independent opinion-makers and shapers of our minds. Sadly I see this dimension of our self-hood, our nation-hood is missing in the national vision.Now, higher education had become hot money. Where there is money there are the politicians! And what they talk? They always have their vote banks in mind, be it students or teachers. Thus, we find the populist talk of paying better salaries to university teachers.
theBangalore University Vice – Chancellor says the states must fund higher education. When we all know the state governments are broke and even the schools are run with too many teachers posts vacant. So, how to balance these conflicting claims? Deemed universities or deemed businesses?
In Tamil Nadu, supposed to be one of the educationally developed states, the populist politics of the Dravidian ideology had turned higher education into a commodity. There are so many newly started self-financing engineering colleges, now they are also clamouring for deemed university status. Already there are some 10 deemed universities. Now, some 10 more seeking the DU status. More so, there are no recognised admission tests or admission standards. Our students don’t undergo any national-level tests for admission to higher education courses. So, every college wants to be a profit-centre! Not that the established universities are any different. One of the common money-making venture is to have the distance education or correspondence or open university courses. In one word, Indian universities are turning more and more commercial ventures.Not bad in itself. Universities today need more funds, given the infrastructure needs and the rush of students. Does this mean our universities are competing with foreign universities in levels of quality? Not at all!
As things stand, it is better to know that Indian universities don’t stand any international comparison. The University Grants Commission, UGC, is now thinking only in terms of infrastructure, by way of opening what it calls Academic Staff Colleges, ASCs, already some 56 ASCs are functioning. The high official of UGC, none other than, the Vice Chairman of the UGC, Rajasekharan Pillai, said in Chennai the other day that “despite progress in education, India is still behind the developed countroies.”In his view,” “the country could attain international standards only by providing state of the art faciltiies at educational institutions”. This is true in a sense.
Incidentally India is also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the first three universities, in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. Indian universities are also signing MOUs with foreign universities. Also the entry of foreign universities are opposed. Can we stop the foreign universities coming and giving competition? No, we can’t. This being the case, what chance our universities have in standards? Our university education standards are suspect. We are nowhere in the top 100 best univerisities in the world. Now, our university men, professors, the seniors are playing politics or succumb to politics They don’t teach history or truths in a fair manner. There is fear and incompetence in our university men. The latest report on the Indian Council for Historic Research (ICHR) exposes even so-called seniors who head such bodies behave unbecoming of their professional integrity. In such an environment what chance for Indian universities teaching truths? It is their jobs! Yet, we in India are not able to convey correctly what role Gandhi played in our freedom struggle. Or, what role the Communists played in the same cause?
So, what chance we will teach and convey to students and the public the temper of the times we live in today? Are we living under an American Empire in the making? Nobody from our universities will be telling us! Why? Our government views are not known. Or, our teachers and students are always dreaming of migrating to the American shores for good! In such mileu, what chance we Indians even know history of our own country? Or the history of the times we live in!
The world we live is changed so quickly in the very beginning of the century. Two wars, in Afganisrtan and Iraq. There is no sight for ending this war. The first world war created the League of Nations. The second world war created the United Nations. Now, the new century’s two successive wars have ended the UN as an international organisation to prevent war or save the peace. So, what century we are entering into?
What the twentieth century was like? What the new century is going to be like? Any sense of thought? Any sense of history? Any idea of looking back? Or looking for the future? America is becoming a threat to peace, say critics. What Indians say? Any idea? Who anyway are talking out? University men and women? No sight! Nor the political class. In India, there is no sense of the history of our own times.
Indians have always been living without a sense of time, a sense of history. History has lessons, we often hear people saying. What is the meaning? History shapes much of how we live our present. Whether we realise it or not, it is our, I mean mankind’s collective memory, the collective memory of the past that shapes our collective memory of our own present. Our ideas of society, our living in a political society, the world at large are all shaped by the history of the world, the history of mankind’s civilizations. Many have dealt with thse questions. From Greece to Rome, then the Italian Renaissance to the modern European world. The rise of the European colonial power, the empires, last the British Empire. Much more than the British Empire, was the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had a history of some 9 centuries and that made Western Europe the centre of world civilization.
Yes, the Far Eastern societies, India and China were old civilizations, even old empires. The critical difference to man’s civilization was, in my opinion, the rise of Western philosophy, following its knowledge, the rise of modern science. It is a fascinating history. Then arose our ability to improve mankind’s positive and negative skills. The rise in material wealth banished poverty over the large mass of people in the world. Unfortunately, mankind also learnt to destroy mankind itself! That is the military power,the awesome nulcear bombs, the spread of nuclear weapons making capcity.The rise in international terrorism is closely linked to the American military power, its capacity (or lack of it?) to understand the world. That is why a study of history, education in humanities and sciences acquires enormous significance for the present times.
I am reading through some old books. One by Louis Fischer’s autobiography: Men and Politics, an autobiography by Louis Fischer. Another, a fellow American, John Gunther’s Inside Asia. These two books brought to me afresh the olden times, when Hitler and Lenin, Mao almost living figures. Louis Fischer lived in Moscow in the early Twenties, he moved closely with lenin, watched him so carefully and the many comments and insights he gives of Lenin, Troskey and Stalin and in Germany Hitler, how he rose to capture power and the consequences for the two world wars, one brought the Communists to power in Russia and the other brought about by Hitler. The two world wars saw the disappearance of the two empires; Austro-Hungarian empire and the British Empire.
Now, are we into the most powerful of all empires,the American empire?
All these memories made me think of the twentieth century world as Hobbswam says the short twentieth century, the worst century in man’s history. This is said by Isaiah Berlin (see below). This is also said by another historian of the modern world, the famous Marxist historian, Eric Hobswam, who was also recently in India. Hobswam considers the beginnig of the twentieth century starting only in 1914, after the start of the first war, as it brought the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Also the century ended, according to Hobswam, with the end of the Communist (empire’s)fall!
But in India, we dont have any thinkers who think or ask such questions.
American evokes strong anti-pathies. Anti Americanism is very strong in some countries, like France. Many books have come out about this anti-pathy. Even in the UK, there is this anti-American undercurrent. In India? I am not so sure. We are neither pro-America (yes, there are strong reservation about what America does in so many areas) also, a stong pro-American attitude.The latter more among the educated, established, well-off sections. Culturally, there yuppie culture is no visible anti American opinion, unlike in France where there is strong anti-American views on Yuppie culture, cinema, books or arts or in so many social etiquette and manners! Indians are proverbially ambivalent!
In India we see a poverty of knowledge.Our universities must be the portals from which the public must be getting the light.Unfortunately, I don’t see any such excitement in living in India.That is my view. There is first a lack of talents as I see, second, there is the fear of authority. Too much politicisation had led to an uncomfortable feeling. The point is that academic life in India is unlike in the UK or USA where there is a jealous respect for honest academic work. Here very rarely, an academic intellectual writes serious books after he or she reaches the government positions We don’t know Singh’s mind. He doesn’t write and say anything. Even when he was not in any government job.
Thus in India, we don’t really honestly believe in academic excellence. All sorts of undesirable characters, academic politicians, corrupt university administrators, scientists who retire and yet come back to build “empires” cornering government grants and use rhetoric to sound very patriotic and yet in pactice a big block to genuine innovative ideas or autonomous universities to function.
The Bangalore university, it was reported not long ago, had decided to close down the philosophy department.The reason? There was only a lone student in post-graduate course! The academic Council took up this issue and decided to refer it to a committee. What amused me more was the Academic Council’s noises about government interference! Does’nt the Council know that the so-called government interference in universities is now taken for granted? The VCs know well that their real boss is their incumbent Chief Minister! Why? The State Governors, though nominally the Chancellors of the universities know well the incumbent Chief Minister the boss of the Governor too! Yes, such is the political reality today.
Academic freedom is just an empty phrase. The VCs have no freedom. They often invite the CM to address the convocations! You can imagine the sort of freedom these VCs have? The incumbent CM is also conferred the honorary doctor of letters!
The immediate provocation for talking about universities and also about philosophy is that there was this philosopher from the USA visiting India. She is a well-known name in the international circles. First, in India we should at least know that there can be university professors of the category of Martha Nussbaum. She is at once a professor of Law, Ethics, with appointments in divinity, philosophy, classics and South Asian Studies. She is a distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. What is really typical of such calibre of people in the Western universities is the fact that she combines’passion and intellect’. How many or how few of such personalities are there in India? Either inside the univerities or outside our universities? This particular professor is a rare personality of course. But you can spot such exceptional individuals in Western society, these personalities who exhibit rare passions for their dear causes and also competence, intellect. The Western societies also have this unique strength to discover and foister such talents.
In the West this doesn’t work, this process of government jobs that ensure intellectual recognition.
Now, Martha Nussbaum. She had done some really path-breaking intellectual break-throughs.She and Amartya Sen had come out with what they call substantial freedoms, capabilities space. These enhance our understanding of what are some of the irreduceable minimum for a man or person to realize his or her best.Formerly, in terms of politics, Harold Laski used to observe the freedom of the individual is to eanble to help the individual to realize his or her best. Now, there are much more subtle issues.
The name of Amartya Sen is closely associated with Nussbaum. The two are credited with the theoretical formulation of what is now called in the academic circles as the Capability Approach. There is an international society of the Capability Approach members and it is said there have been till now four international conferences on the subject. I don’t want to go into the details nor am I interested to dwell on Sen’s contributions to the intellectual debates.Except for the fact that Sen lately had been giving interviews and lectures that show a fatigue in his theoretical foprmulations also his belief in the application of his theories.
Just recently I read an extended writeup and an interview with Sen on his latest thoughts. The pity is that he beloiecves in democracy and at the same time he never for once refers to the many challenges to democracy, inside India as well as outside in the world. Not a single word on America’s mission to spread democracy in the world through unilateral military action, by passing the United Nations! Nor Sen seems to realise that there would not be many takers in India as well outside for his citing China as a lesson for India. Sen simply forgets or wants to forget the Tiananmen square mssacres,still 2,000 odd people are in jail and also the house arrest of the just dead democracy leader of China is conveniently forgotten by Sen. Also such events are not commented in India. With China on the border and Pakistan on other side,how can Indian democracy is capable of realising the full potential of the individual citizens? In short, we need intellectuals, political scientists and individuals with passion and commitment to stand up to an insensitive government. Such a criticism holds good now even in India.
Another philosopoher whose name comes to my mind. Just now, I finished reading the long book review in the Financial Times of Isaiah Berlin (Letters by Isaiah Berlin 1928-1946). Here is a famous philosopher,he is considered a mix of political and social philosopher. He has some rare insights and as a thinker and philosopher of ideas,he has some very original views.One is that there is no single, ultimate truth as such. There are always contradictory views of life and truth. I am rather putting in more simplistic terms, readers must bear with me!. Another view of Berlin is that history is a “crooked timbre of humanity” History doesn’t move in continuous straight lines. It runs zigzag.Yes, that is all the history is about. Bloodshed is so much of human history!Why? So too the much cruelty. Cruelty of man to fellow beings.Why? Whether we like it or not Berlin’s such penetrating thoughts had shaped the intellectual outlook of my generation.We students were mesmerised by his brilliance.For Indians of this generation,Berlin might look very narrow, a jew, a pro-Israeli sympathiser etc.But his great erudition, his sharp intellect and his company of fellow intellectuals among whom he won such praise had given his insights some permanance,it seems. Berlin is a pure pleasure for the intellect.You can’t enjoy reading him at the first instance.You would be drawn into his almost non-stop flow of words and phrases like “Dostoyeskian hermit”, my
pro-Russian and anti-Floretine turns”. Such learned wisdom would flip through every page of his correspondence and writing.
He is the quintessential Oxford don, outwardly so simple, inwardly so deep and learned!
The one personal interest for me is that he was a professor of social and political theory when I was at Oxford as student. In fact, I was attracted by his lectures and the time when he was lecturing was a time when the Oxford philosophical establishment was dominated by intellectual giants.
Berlin was also a past student of my own Oxford college,New College and I used to see him often in its premises arguing or talking with his contemporaries, notably A.J.Ayer, another great philosopher.The review and the quotations from his letters brought back to my mind thoae exhgilerating days when we all thought that philosphy can help to change the world and make the world a better place.Berlin wrote very little but he talked incessantly and wrote enormous amount of letters.I wondered whether he was short of serious thoughts and hence he wrote so little and yet considering he is made a lion of a man in the history of ideas just for the sake of keeping up the temper of those times he lived.
I had read almost all his books in print,he wrote a famous small volume on Karl Marx and very little else that would hod the attention of Indian reades.He was by 23 a Fellow of All Souls College, his insightful observations, describing the 20th century”the worst century there has even been’is one such.Born in Riga,then in Russia, he left Russia as the october Revolution broke out and became an Oxford don for the rest of his life. He was given a knighthood in 1957,( Born in 1909 he died in 1997) .Why Berlin is rated so high?
His conviction which he advocated lifelong is that human nature is what it is, contradictions and divergences should be central to human existence,there is no certain truth or truths as such.You can’t work for any imaginary utopia that is free of human ills,we have noticed all through history.He is considered a liberal,a rightwing liberal in the sense all we can do is to work for liberating the minds of people,by clarifying the confusions of the minds of leaders and the citizens.So,
he went his way, concentrated in the history of ideas, he imagined pure philosophy is a bit esoteric and too logical to be of any wider interst or impact. Now, after having lived in India and having seen the changes that had come about in the world,I have a numbing feeling of doubt. It is this:isn’t Berlin over-rated? It seems to be so. The British have this over-confidence of their achievements.Thus, we see big volumes are being written,why even many times written about the same persons. So much for Berlin’s letters and also so much for the brainless behaviour of the Prime Minister! With such shallow, almost non-seriousness of much of his social circuits,he was always meeting some literary or intellectual or other but never he had given any attention to serious intellectual questions,as can be seen in these letters. He never seemed to have taken any firm position in his career.
And yet,his sharp intellect is not suspect. He had so much potential to go for big themes, like the impact of Communism on the world or the decline of Britain’s political power or the shape of the world he saw evolving before his eyes. Yes, he was not interested in topias. But what about his political insights into men and matters? After all, he is known only as a political philosopher?
Anyway, all these thoughts ran through me as I was also reflecting the state of our universities and the role of intellectuals. There is no freedom much left in the world today, it seems. The French intellectuals also bemoan this fact. May be we in India don’t bother to think in these terms or such issues dont have much significance? In India,certainly there is not much independent public space for independent intellectuals to live and work. Even in the USA, we are told by visiting Indian faculty there are restrictions or watch-dog committees, as one in Columbia university on research priorities in the Middle East subjects. It was there the famed Middle East intellectual lived and taught for long,the late Edward Said. In India,we are a nation of conformists. Here all our intellectuals or academics are as god government servants as other government servants are. Our scientists are mostly government employees first and scientists later.
Our intellectual traditions are most formal and what we have in our universities today,mostly in Delhi and other metropolitian cities are senior officials or bureaucrats who get reappointed as vice-chancellors. As I had mentioned elsewhere, in Delhi university the distinction between the tenured full-time professor and the full-time governbment servants (on government assignments is as good as nil!) India is a peculiar place when it comes to intellectual independence. Do we realise that Indian universities without an international level competence would become only slaves to the foreign university thoughts and prejudices?
Already we see it is only the British university or American university professors who dominate the many intellectual controversies in the world. My worry is when India would become intellectually a free country? When our university men and women learn to think for themselves?
Are we not already succumbing to the dominance of American economic power, military
power and now the most serious of all,the American intellectual power and even the threat of making Indians belive the rather,in my opinion,very poor mental equipment of the average American university man or woman. We all seem to pretend we are free and independent.But
no one woud express himself freely or independent of their employers! Our universities
are another segment of government departments. There is so much of internal decay in the universities.
The regional political bosses are as ignorant as any when it comes to university affairs. There is an air of artificiality when you notice how submissive the universitiy men are. Who would do the thinking? Where are the thinkers and intellectuals who would differ and who would question the statu quo? Unless there are independent debates,how the public would start thinking and asking questions.
Are we living under an American Empire in the making? Nobody from our universities will be telling us! Why? Our government views are not known. Or, our teachers and students are always dreaming of migratin to the American shores for good!
Open a newspaper and no day passes without reading about our politicians talking about education, more so higher education.
Our intellectual base
What is our intellectual base? What is our intellectual capital? Where are our intellectuals? Whom we can identify as our leading intellectuals who can define India’s position in the world?
The VCs know well that their real boss is their incumbent Chief Minister! Why? The State Governors, though nominally the Chancellors of the universities know well the incumbent Chief Minister the boss of the Governor too! Yes, such is the political reality today.
What the twentieth century was like? What the new century is going to be like? Any sense of thought? Any sense of history? Any idea of looking back? Or looking for the future?
In India we see a poverty of knowledge.Our universities must be the portals from which the public must be getting the light.Unfortunately, I dont see any such excitement in living in India.That is my view. There is first a lack of talents as I see, second, there is the fear of authority. Too much politicisation had led to an uncomfortable feeling.