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University cannot surrender its role as a site of dissent and questioning

The depoliticised classroom is an oxymoron, more so as “critical thinking” increasingly becomes the accepted imprimatur of academic credentials.

Written by Meenakshi Gopinath |
Updated: April 19, 2021 9:02:46 am
A view of Ashoka University in Sonipat, Haryana. (Express Photo/File)

The exit of Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University has challenged popular assumptions about the space for unfettered intellectual freedom in bastions of academic privilege committed to “liberal education at par with the best in the world”. The outpouring of international support, the protest of students and faculty on campus, and Mehta’s own formidable reputation infuses it with particular salience. Is the promise of autonomy so enthusiastically advanced by the New Education Policy (NEP) unravelling?

Beyond the heat and dust of the moment, emerge concerns about the future of the academy and the ecosystems that define its trajectories. As it navigates the complex terrain of institutional autonomy, academic freedom, regulation, governance and sustainability, what thresholds of pluriversality does it set for itself?

As multiple imaginations of the university jostle for space the world over, the space of higher education institutes (HEIs) in India defies easy categorisation. The 967 universities and 128 institutions of national importance include state, central, deemed and 370 private universities and cater to around 3.74 crore students. In this expanse, a more recent entrant, the small, primarily liberal arts, private university, raised the bar of expectation on excellence in teaching and research and new horizons of opportunity, for both students and faculty. Their progressive promise buttressed by a sophisticated communication strategy proved impactful. Autonomy was the USP of their appeal.

Universities are not merely transactional hubs of teaching and learning. As social institutions, they anticipate a new reality, envision alternatives, establish the terms of civilised engagement in democratic citizenship and embody an emancipatory, transformative impulse.

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Academic autonomy is a contextual category, but key questions remain. What is the non-negotiable bottomline that distinguishes a progressive space from a transactional enterprise? At what point do intellectual “assets” turn into liabilities? How capacious is its diversity? How far is it willing to go for those who “march to the beat of a different drum”? How clear is its commitment to the professor as a “pursuer of truth and not an entrepreneur, to the student as learner and not consumer”?

Diverse imaginations of the university inform contemporary discourse — from the Newman idea, the Humboldtian ideal, the entrepreneurial model to the more radical edu-factory of a virtual, autonomous global intellectual commons. The university today is a fluid daily plebiscite contingent on how it navigates an array of tensions, such as between academic freedom and organisational accountability, between its connection with the state and centres of power and the need to maintain critical distance; between equality, inclusion and international benchmarks of performance; between teaching as the transmission of critical attitudes and society’s expectations on qualifications for employability; between contributing to the economy and providing a space free from utilitarian pressures; between connecting beyond borders and subserving “national culture and identity. It is within this mosaic that an HEI calibrates its autonomy, determines its priorities and carves its distinct identity.

How far must the academy insulate itself from the socio-political milieu in which it is embedded? The solipsistic notion of the ivory tower has today given way to the idea of the “engaged university”, linking town and gown. The NEP, too, steadfastly underscores “outreach” programmes, actuated by the “social responsibility” of the university. The NAAC and NIRF rankings pay considerable attention to this dimension.

Does this then not imply greater permeability between the roles of teacher and public intellectual? The public intellectual’s recognised professional stature enables her to seek explanations for public action from those in power and to intervene in the interests of public good based on distilled analysis. These interventions are invariably in the interests of justice and democracy and delineate the alternatives that are available for a better ordering of society.

The role of public intellectuals to “bestir the quiet voice of ethically engaged reason” underscores, in an age of ceaseless technological change, the need for historical and philosophical perspective. In responding to the normative problems of society, the public intellectual is expected to be an impartial critic and demonstrate that a “politics that rises above resentment, that is without enemies, is possible”.

For a variety of reasons, universities have abdicated their role as sites of the dissenting tradition. History is replete with examples of the possibilities of “heretical” interrogations opening new continents of thought. The contributions of an Aryabhata, Buddha, Khwarizmi, Copernicus, Galileo, Al-Zahrawi, Descartes, Newton, Marx or an Einstein were built on paradigm shifts that disrupted settled comfort zones. The oft-invoked Nalanda tradition too excelled in pushing the “sutras” to evoke new voices through reasoned dialogue and debate.

As classrooms evolve from “safe” to “brave” spaces, “teaching to transgress” becomes integral to pedagogy. Analysis of the structures of dominance, power and prejudice that compound exclusions and silences in knowledge production become vital. The depoliticised classroom is an oxymoron, more so as “critical thinking” increasingly becomes the accepted imprimatur of academic credentials. The NEP too exhorts HEIs to integrate it into course and discourse.

Mehta had, in an address to students over a decade ago, said that education for him is not about giving simple directions to map the world or conferring the illusion that identities are unproblematic. In true Socratic spirit, it is to inoculate citizens against dogmatic closure of their own beliefs and shake them to put their own “truths” to constant scrutiny…while being secure in the knowledge that “while politicians may write history…. thinkers speak to eternity”.

The issue is not the choice between an “ekla chalo re” moment or an Eklavya-like predicament. It is then, in what scholar Ashok Vajpeyi calls the “unceasing, unstoppable, interminable satyagraha against simplification, uniformity and totalisation” that the academy will truly reflect atmanirbharta.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 19, 2021 under the title ‘Learning, outside ivory tower’. The writer is director, WISCOMP, and chair, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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