Moral economy of a university

Its role as a nursery for the availability of eccentricity, and for dissenting imaginations, is under threat

Indians do not have the patience to focus on a problem for an extended period of time. We do not think of institutions in the long run. We panic when there is a crisis but when a crisis dims, we lose our focus. As a result, we are poor at institution-building. We treat institutions cosmetically, applying the latest management gloss or creating a fetish of numbers like the ritual of rankings. Today an institution such as the university is in crisis and yet there is no systematic response, no reflexivity, no sense of loss. The university reflects both a failure of sociological analysis and of storytelling. In fact, in the tired eyes of many of my colleagues, dedicated teachers, many who have nursed little undergraduate departments, one already senses the obituary of the institution. Death by neglect, death by illiteracy seems to be the quiet chorus.

Like a plaything

True we have a report on education, virtually shelved before it appeared. As a colleague put it, “The T.S.R. Subramanian Committee report is a modest effort with a lot to be modest about.” It is more an effort to understand the university as a bureaucracy. It has no sense of the university as a knowledge system, or as a community of scholars producing ideas. The university has become a plaything, either in the hands of politicians who see in it a reservoir of electoral politics or in the hands of bureaucrats who draw their Kafkaesque songlines around it. What we need today is a report of the university by university teachers, people who nurture students, people who understand what it means to be a Third World academic in a populist era where the Indian university is expected to be instantly world class on a zero-cost system.

One has to begin by challenging the current assault on the university. In fact, one has to rewrite the contract between the university and society. The recent battles at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the talk fests, the debates showed that the public university has the resilience to fight back, to defend the moral economy of the university. What was impressive about the JNU struggle was the solidarity between faculty and students, a shared vision of the university as a critical space for the democratic imagination. Yet, the JNU struggle opened the raw wounds of the university. Today, the state believes that the universities should be starved, and in that impoverished status, it encourages a few acts to be conspicuous consumption. One does not deny that accounting is important, but more so are accountability and responsibility. The broader vision of a modern university is lost as we convert them to tutorial colleges of the mind.

Such a vision was kept alive by everyday practitioners. In fact, if one goes to Delhi University, for example, one finds the real heroes are a few legendary undergraduate teachers. It is around them that legends are built and values transmitted. Delhi over the last few decades produced a Frank Thakurdas, a Rajender Kumar Gupta, a Randhir Singh, a Dilip Simeon. Each created a small panchayat of knowledge, each lived an almost ascetic life. They remained legends, exemplars of what a university should and could be. Each showed that one could create a world of knowledge the college was proud of. Bearers, sweepers, laboratory assistants were proud of these teachers as any student was. They all understood that excellence was a mix of integrity and creativity. As a nostalgic friend put it, they were characters but they also had character.

They were rarely rule-bound or procedural. Yet they had a sense of the normative. They doted on classics, treated Marx or Shakespeare as an entire ecology. They taught you the pleasure of reading a book, and they reminded you that democracy needed a sense of the classic, as an everyday benchmark of standards. One still remembers the feast of ideas, the playfulness of scholarship as one recollects a J.P.S. Uberoi literally compering the Friday seminars at Delhi School of Economics or Rajender Kumar Gupta’s colloquium called the Philosoc where a Ramu Gandhi fine-tuned his erratic genius. Knowledge became a gift, and it was gratefully received. Each of these groups was a ‘commons’ where books, memories and insights were shared, a hospitality downed happily with teacups.

Small, simple, sparse but cheerily confident, it is these panchayats of ideas that sustained the sanity and creativity of a university. None of these groups would fit into a rankings evaluation because many of them were part of an oral rather than a written imagination with its dogma of publish or perish. Such a creativity was not restricted to the humanities or social science alone. The role the Department of Physics at Delhi University played in developing and anchoring the Hoshangabad science project was enormous. Such efforts rarely get mentioned in theories of institution-building. In all of them, the normative and the creative were enacted everyday.

The playful power of these intellectual efforts still recharges many a new imagination. Both teachers and students inevitably know such a community of understanding cannot be created by mercenaries. Love of scholarship went with a love of the university as a community, a way of life. It is a pity that these groups have become the stuff of nostalgia because they represented the everyday genius of the university. Because one does not understand the ecology for exemplars, one fetishes management theories which commoditise education, turning the teacher-student relationship into one of an arid clientelism, a paisa-vasool model, good for bargaining in second-hand shops but a misfit for a world of values. It is the values the university created that upheld the university. Values to a university were a guarantee of competence.

An element of craft

One has to emphasise the community, the craft element in such institutions. Teaching and research have a craft element, where the ritual of learning has to be internalised in tacit ways emphasising that the university is a rite of passage, an initiation into a way of learning. The experts of today do not understand the care, the nurturance, the rigour and the gestation period this requires: Writing a research paper is literally rewriting a research paper many times. Learning a craft is not a downloaded act. It requires a sense of heuristics, of alternatives. Acquiring a skill is an art form, not a job for prefabricated educationists. Craft needs a face-to-face encounter, a sense of love, a skill, technique that demands time. The university is the last of the craft systems and to destroy teaching and research as crafts is to destroy a university. The Gurukul and the Gharana will be parts of its conscious.

Questions of renewal

There is a further banalisation that we are not able to articulate. Knowledge should be free but education is not and our politicians with their populism think education is zero cost, where hostels are treated as langars. No one talks about maintenance, the renewal, the sustainability of the university. Its richness as a commons demands that we sustain it as a commons, and no commons can survive without diversity, dissent and marginality. A university is a nursery for the availability of eccentricity, for dissenting imaginations. To punish it for what it naturally produces is an act of political misunderstanding the future will not condone.

I wrote this essay because I see an institution I grew up in suffer through assault and neglect. One realises that the Indian state, after hiring a quick consultant reproducing the latest fad abroad, has little interest in education. Its understanding of values as something ancient or revivalist is even more lethal. I do not deny the dependence of the university on state funds, but I think one must insist that the university as an institution of civil society, as a defining core of craft and professionalism must now produce its own report, a restatement of its charging condition and its changing self. One cannot let state and the party or even industry define the core vision of the future. This work is the urgent task before the academe today, to define the values, emphasise the craft and specify the difference that makes a university a defining institution of a pluralistic society.

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