THE CONFERENCE AND ITS THEMES

This international conference co-organized by the BMS College of Engineering and India Platform, aims to examine the general predicament of liberal education and the future of the university in India. To initiate the discussion, we will briefly sketch two important dimensions of the predicament and raise some specific questions.

1.    The University and the Crisis of the Social Sciences and Humanities

What is wrong with taking elite universities from the United States as a model for the liberal education that India needs? To see one of the major problems, we need to turn to the burgeoning field of Cold War Studies. In the period that followed the Second World War, the United States saw an unprecedented growth of the social sciences and humanities caused by a massive injection of government funding into the universities. The government had a specific goal in mind: to promote and support research that was of import to the American national interest and security. Scholars were expected to develop, illustrate, and promote Cold War ideology. The United States stood for ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’; the Soviet Union represented ‘tyranny’, ‘oppression’ and ‘the totalitarian state’; and the rest of the world had to follow the American way. This “ideological offensive,” as government representatives called it, was considered as important to the national security strategy as the nuclear bomb.

For decades, Cold War America consciously spread its academic model and ideology to the rest of the world. American foundations became active in funding research and societal projects in the Third World.In America, this process went hand in hand with ‘the professionalization of academics’. In his important work The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby shows how the independent American intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century gradually disappeared and were replaced by another species: the professional academic. The booming universities of the 1950’s attracted many to this new form of life. Its major aim consisted of recognition by a network of ‘experts’ and ‘peers’ that could make or break future careers. To get the required stamp of approval, young academics needed to conform to the style, idiom, and ruling fashions and orthodoxies of the discipline to which they belonged. This constituted a process of selection and moulding which allowed only a particular type of men and women to survive in the universities.

This academic eco-system also saw the establishment of professional associations that claimed to promote scientific excellence. All too often, however, power structures came into being where favoured scholars subservient to the government agenda and intelligence community called the shots. They formed self-reinforcing networks, which dominated grant committees, tenure decisions, and the contents of journals.

The disintegration of liberal education in the West

Quite apart from the Indian context of the failure of the University, we must confront the disintegration of liberal education in the West. There is a growing gap between the natural sciences and the humanities. They seem to be moving in very different directions. The discourse about the ‘two cultures’ is just one expression of this tendency. Humanities scholars are increasingly suspicious of ‘science’ and accuse it of all kinds of sins from ‘essentialism’ to ‘reductionism’. Natural scientists find it difficult to respect the jargon and ideology dominating today’s humanities. Recently, conservative scholars in the U.S. have gone so far as to declare the bankruptcy of the humanities.

Historically, it is clear that both European universities and American liberal arts colleges started out with the aim of forming Christian minds capable of leading their societies. A common ultimate goal gave unity and integrity to liberal education and its merging of the sciences and humanities: the search for truth. But this search was put in religious terms: How does the will of God express itself in the universe and in human existence? How could one make one’s life meaningful and valuable to humanity?

If the coherence of liberal education programmes indeed depended on a religious framework and its ultimate concerns, then we cannot hope to merely transfer these programmes to societies where these concerns are absent. Not only that: given that the Christian religious framework appears to be gradually disintegrating in the West itself, how can liberal education retain or revive its unity in the western universities and colleges? How can we identify alternative ultimate goals that could give unity and coherence to this type of education?

2.    Liberal Education and Indian Culture

Liberal education is often celebrated because it brings together the natural sciences and the humanitiesin order to form well-rounded human beings. To be able to do so, however, a crucial precondition needs to be fulfilled: the humanities and social sciences component must make sense to the students it seeks to educate. That is, the currently dominant theories concerning human beings, societies, and cultures should help Indian students to reflect on their own experience, society, and culture. If they do not, the failure of liberal education in India becomes inevitable.

The impact of colonialism

From the 1950’s, critics of the humanities and social sciences have argued that the available theories are ‘western’ and ‘parochial’ in some sense. These theories not only fail to understand Asian cultures and societies, but also clash with basic intuitions and experiences of Asians.

In this context, we need to look closer into the following issues: Has the integration of natural sciences and humanities indeed misfired in India because the latter do not offer knowledge of the (Indian) social world, while the former do give knowledge of the natural world? Do the theoretical frameworks of today’s social sciences and humanities simply fail to provide Indian students with the conceptual tools to reason and reflect about their societies, experiences and lives? Is this caused by the fact that the theory formation is constrained by the culture from where these disciplines emerged?

Beyond ‘saffronization’

In the above context, we raise the question, how could we introduce Indian culture into higher education? In contemporary India, this issue has been hijacked by an ideological debate about the ‘saffronization’ of education (saffron is the colour traditionally associated with many of the Hindu traditions). On one side, we have the ‘secularists’ who argue that religion should be kept away from higher education and scientific research. In India especially, they argue, the rising threat of Hindu nationalism makes it imperative to do so. They accuse the Hindu nationalists of trying to impose a particular version of Hinduism and a mythical story about the Indian past onto all students. When the BJP is in power, the secularists point out, its politicians try to re-write history textbooks, introduce Vedic mathematics and astrology, impose religious texts like the Bhagavad Gita onto all students,etc.

Hindu nationalists and other critics argue thatthe current crop ofIndian academics in the social sciences and humanitiesis the product of this colonial education system that sought to eradicate Indian culture and replace it with Western civilization. They argue that dominant academia continues to marginalize inherited learning and uproot students and scholars from traditional Indian modes of thought, inducing in them ‘a spirit of self-denigration’.

No doubt this ideological clash has impoverished the reflections about the potential role of Indian culture in contemporary higher education. Yet, as the intellectual history of India shows,its traditions have shown anything but a lack of critical and creative reasoning about human existence. Several Indian traditions focused on comprehensive education rather than training in technical skills.It is not as though these traditions are dead and done for. In many parts of India, they live on in different forms. But they do so in isolation from the formal education system and the academic world. This isolation is sustained from both sides.

On the one hand, from the perspective of modern ‘secular’ education, these traditions are ‘religious’ and should be kept away from the sciences. The idea that Indian intellectual traditions could well be compatible with a scientific education is rarely taken seriously. On the other hand, from the perspective of most practitioners, the formal education system is considered irrelevant or even detrimental to their traditions.

It is crucial therefore, to raise the question: How can we go beyond the ‘saffronization’ debate in identifying the issues at stake?

See full concept note HERE