What a university is for?

Of course, there is much that is deplorable in Indian highr education. First, there is no environment to stimulate open debates on high and sensitive issues. There was this column by a lady columnist, on universities and the academics. The caption of the column provoked me. “The conformism of free academics”. Tracing India’s ancient guru-shisya paramparas to Nalanda and Taxila, the writer goes straight to the European scene. Here she starts with assumed freedom of the university academics and the fall of the same under the authoritarian regimes, Hitler, Stalin and in the East under Mao. This is much trodden territory and all she has as a text is Karl Jaspers, Idea of the University.
Of course, this was published after the fall of the Hitler regime and we all know how the mass migration of intellectuals, Jewish intellectuals, to the USA and UK and how the Western universities benefited. The list of geniuses, foundout in the West, were all these one-time Central European universities, mostly German and many Austrian. Thus, the centre of gravity, so to say, shipfted from Vienna and Berlin and other famed German universities.
My own intellectual roots I can trace to some of the best brains of this emigre population. Isiah Berlin, John Plamanatz were the two who se classes I attended but th books and authors I read in my political and philosophical and even in economics are too many. Some who remain as central figures in my intellectual universe are: Karl Poppar, political philosopher, Fredrick von Hayak, the Nobel Prize economist, of course, Sigmund Freud, Witgenstein, philosopher, all Austrians and Viennese men!

The Vienna Circle of philosophers and thinkers (of many diverse disciplines were my very own Oxford’s famed linguistic, analytic or more broadly the specific empirical philosophy as they taught us in the later fifties and early Sixties. That was an exhilarating time of much of the best intellecutal and philosophical debates in the world.

The university atmosphere in Oxford and in Europe,at Sorborne, Paris, was quite liberating. Tere was the 1968 students revolt in France and De Gaulle gave up power, all owing to the combination of idas and a new visionfor a much more enlightened world.
This contribution, I would out, exlcusivelyfor the university’s great purpose and ideal.
Now, back in India, it was the time of Pandit Nehru’s high noon ormuch idealisionand nation-building. Nehru, in particular,as the chancellor (acharya ) of Visva-Bharati, exhorted us, a s s tudents into this special brand of positive belief system.
Under Nehru, I would say, Indian universities had the chance to move forward. There was much openness and much freedom to think and act boldly. Nehru had the right men and women around him. S.N Bose was our vice-chancellor. He even toyed with the idea or a German system of higher education, after the school a four year doctorate degree.
A fantastic innovation, I thought. Then and even now.

There were good academicians as administrators or vice versa. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan held out much promise as an academic luminary. So too were many others. In M.C. Chagla Nehru found a good education minister. But Indian education, both primary as well as higher education s ome how didn’t take off. The reasons could be many. Where we stand taday? The universityatmosphere is now verydiscouraging. As the columnist notes: “appointments of new faculty are often governned by personal (the professors own students or unthreatening individuals not brighter than by merit and tend to ensure, the perpetuation of a second class faculty”. Infact, there is now intense fear in the universities,fear starting from the politicians, to university bureaucracy to to faculty jealousies and relulting mental stultfication. Indian universities don’t r ank among the first ten world universities, not even among the first 500 world universities.

The much rated IITS, IIMs are okay. But they don’t pay amount to universities in the traditional sense, they don’t have humanities or social sciences or pure basic science reasarches, not to speak of the many innovative chairs like an Oxford chair for “public understanding of science” held bythe greatest evolutionary biologist Prof. Richard Dawkins. One can go on listing such geniuses after one’s own intellectual preoccupations.
Of course, thre is much that is deplorable in Indian highr education. First, there is no environment to stimulate open debates on high and sensitive issues. Under Mrs. Gandhi, the history and social sciences research got a big boost but her henchman, G. Parthasarathy, was set to “buy” the intellctuals to advance Indira Gandhi’s own peculiar authoritarian regime’s causes. One result was the emergence of the so-called Leftist intellectuals in the academic faculties. This led to some negative consequences. One negative development was the comingof the BJP and its attempt to undo much ofthe good a cademic work by the so-called Marxist academics.

Now, we are at the context of Manmohan Singh’s own McKinsey expertise Vs India’s own native Leftist economists to advise the Planning Commission and the resultant hue and cry and the dumping of the entire “expertise” out of the window!
Unfortunately, Indianeconomists lost all their credibility. They shifted from leftist positions to completely liberalised / economics without anybody knowing the reasons! or government. So too the historians. They haven’t succeeded to give Indian children an unbiased account of history.

As for other high university disciplines, philosophy, after Radhakrishnan lost an anchor. In other humanities disciplines I cant just recall a name who would be rated as an internationally known intellectual. This brings me to the last, very important, point: who are the public intellecutals, inside or outside the universities who can articulate independent opinion on a range of issues? There was at least the late Nirad Chudhary. Now, even the NRI intellectuals like Amartya Sen and Jagadish Bhagawati are more narrow specialists. They don’t talk the language of the intelligentsia. We don’t have such figures even in the media or books. In the SA, UK and France, such intellecutals you can name. In France, such independent intellectuals politicians in power court. That’s why French culture and the arts, the academic and non-academic writing commands so much public attention. So too in UK and USA. In India, we need to create such an intellectual space in our public discourse.

Throughout centuries, most ideas that changed the path or human civilisation were speculated and articulated by men outside strictly what is called an organised system of learning, be it Plato’s Academy of Aristotle’s Lyceum. The names we venerate are all often individuals who were also out side the society, going against the dominant current of beliefs and opinions. Only after the seminaries and universities took shape the modern idea a university evolved.

Even after the organised universities started articulated knowledge, often it is individuals, a Rousseau or a voltaire who changed the dominant current opinion. even today, we see the same trend. Yes, universities are essential, a critical scholarly tradition is vital for teh development of useful knowledge. Yet, the role of the dominant independent voices a re so critical for any new ideas and innovationns. Hence the role of public, unattached intellectuals in a society, is as critical as ever.

As under authoritarian regimes, as even in the so-called opensocieties, be it America or India. In India too the fear of authority, fear of illiterate politicians, fear of superiors hold back new thinking. So are the basic cowardice, fear and fear of freedom are also the blocks to new knowledge.


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