Andre Beteilles collections of essays are always distinctive in three respects. They are elegantly written and clearly argued. They refuse to succumb to the temptations of cheap populism or political correctness and in that sense personify the dignity and vocation of the scholar. And they are often ruminative and measured in tone. Rather than rush to propose solutions,his essays try to precisely articulate the problem and understand the conditions under which some proposed solutions might or might not work. This collection of essays and lectures that deal largely with the nature and character of universities is no exception. With a great sense of history and institutional judgment,they look at the challenges facing Indian universities.
There are two central threads running through Universities at the Crossroads. The first is the claim that the modern university has often been shaped by political and social imperatives. The primary social imperative has been the idea that the university should be a space that counteracts inequalities that exist in society; that its raison detre is to prevent the reproduction of inequality. Beteille,author and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Delhi,understands the impulse behind this claim. He has been one of the most acute analysts of inequality in Indian society and the gaps between formal equality and existing structures of power. But he is deeply sceptical of the idea that the university can play a major role in mitigating social or economic inequality. The university has relatively little power to shape deeper forces that structure inequality: social relations,the structure of the economy and so forth. But the idea that simply expanding access to education will prevent the reproduction of inequality is more a leap of faith than a proposition based on historical evidence. Beteille is not arguing that expansion of access is not a good thing; he is cautioning against expectations that that expansion will redress the question of inequality.
Making social equality the driving force behind institutional decisions also has one major deleterious consequence. Beteille is exceptional among contemporary intellectuals in defending the university,not on account of its utility to some social ideology. Noel Annan once wrote ringingly that the primary purpose of the university was the cultivation of the intellect. Universities should hold up admiration for the intellectual life. The most precious gift they have to offer is to live and work amongst books and laboratories and to enable the young to see those rare scholars who have put on one side the world of material success,both in and outside the university,to study with single-minded devotion some topic because it seems important to them. A university is dead if (teachers) cannot in some way communicate to the students the struggle,and the triumphs and disappointments in the struggle to produce out of the chaos of human experience some grain of order won by the intellect. Beteilles book is a sober defence of this sentiment; and he is the last few of a dying breed of the professoriate who would say this openly.
The book is also refreshing in its refusal of nostalgia and living in the past. Beteilles second theme is that university has always been in the process of flux. Universities have to respond to changing paradigms of knowledge and the rise of new disciplines. Different universities have,in the course of their history,been shaped by the particular paradigms of knowledge in which they arose. And the universities of the future will have to adapt. The last essay in the book,Universities of the Future,can be read as plea for institutional diversity. The book also usefully reminds us of the ways in which different conceptions of what the university is,interact with broader social contexts. He ranges freely over the history of our universities,particularly some of the older ones,but also displays a deep understanding of the histories of other universities,particularly American ones. The book is dedicated to Edward Shils,who conducted the last major study of intellectuals and Indian society.
If there is one complaint that can be made about the book it is this. It is almost too measured in its tone. One wishes that some of the rough and tumble of social conflict and political compulsions that have shaped university life were more vividly expressed. But then Beteille the professor would,I am sure,remind us,rightly,that scholarship does have,what Max Weber called an ascetic quality to it. But can the highest ideal of the university that Beteille defends be revived? Like a good professor,he has left us to answer that question.