Academia needs to be in dialogue with the times

Valson Thampu
Professors are unsure if they constitute the intelligentsia. They are not even sure if they should. Should academia be responsive to the world beyond its small confines?

Since the writings of Marx and Engels, it is a point well settled that the two factors most decisive in the formation of a human being are the education available to him and the material conditions that surround him.

In the Indian context, the education accessible to a person is determined wholly by his material circumstances, which is determined by the accident of birth.

We are a society in ‘future shock’, caught in a tailspin of rapid and radical changes. In such a context education, unless it is to perish in irrelevance, needs to be in dialogue with the context. This is not to say that education must sit in the direction of each passing wind of change. It is to insist and to emphasize that education, being a celebration of awareness, must keep one eye focused on what happens in a society even as the other remains glued to the curriculum at hand.

It is for want of the equilibrium of this double-vision that academia remains haunted by an antediluvian spirit. With or without educational reform, higher education needs urgently to be made contextually pro-active. This can be done even now, if teachers would understand their vocation, or calling, aright.

Those who are familiar with the ground realities in higher education will readily concur that teachers are the dead-end of effectiveness in educational reforms. Nothing will work, and no change for the better will take effect, as long as teachers stay stuck in the present groove.

There are two interesting patterns among them. In the interest of brevity, they may be called: (a) name dropping and (b) dropping everything except name.

Of these, the first category, which numerically preponderates, comprises teachers who are aware of their academic inadequacy and, therefore, use the names of established authors as mere fig-leaves. They invoke these authorities only because they have no authority.

The second, admittedly a smaller category, comprise those who have the run-of-the-mill stuff with them, but are incapable of any originality or felicity of thought. They are, at the same time, keen to pass off as original thinkers before undergraduate students. So, they borrow, without acknowledging, insights from others. While the first category revel in dropping names and references, the second category gain from withholding the very same thing.
Both categories make an impression on undergraduate minds in the beginning, which reflects poorly on school education. They are impressed by the first and over-awed by the second. But only for a while; certainly for no more than a year. When they begin to develop a stuttering, stammering sense of the subjectthey begin to see through. Masks fall. Boredom sets in. Classroom attendance drops. Fake medical certificates mushroom when the time to reckon attendance requirement to qualify for university examinations approaches.
It is incredible how many teachers spend a lifetime teaching no more than two or three courses. In comparison an undergraduate studentdoes eleven courses in three years, and a post-graduate, sixteen courses in two years. I am reasonably certain that the day individual teachers are made to do as much academic work per year as their students are, quite a few of them will either exit the profession or collapse.

During my tenure as principal of St. Stephen’s College, I tried hard, for eight years, to motivate each department to offer a set of two popular lectures annually on any aspect of their discipline, which can be heard with profit by the college community as a whole. Not one department ventured to, fearing it would expose itself.

I was particularly keen that the department of philosophy came forward. I hold the view that every educated person must have a notional grounding in philosophy; if not as a discipline, at least as a bent of mind, an intellectual taste. This is the foundation for lifelong learning. There is so much that a department of philosophy can do, if it is alive and responsive, to enrich the substance of an institution of higher education. Sadly, my repeated efforts to extract something of value from this department for the enrichment of the total life of the college failed altogether.

In order to understand why, I thought I should sit in at the lectures of one of the members of this department.Out of courtesy, I consulted the head of the department. He seemed uneasy, but not opposed. Said, he would consult the person concerned and let me know. He did. “She says she won’t be able to teach, if you are in the class.”

It is high time we worried about what young minds are being subjected to in the name of higher education. We have a duty to do so, if we keep attendance mandatory. Either ensure that lectures delivered are worth attending; or make attendance optional. The idea that young people are too immature to know what is good for them is a canard. For much of my time as a teacher I made physical attendance at my lectures optional. This has had a beneficial effect. Only those who really cared, came. They are always a majority.

The desirability of teaching philosophy at the undergraduate level as an honours course needs to be re-examined. Barring rare exceptions, it has served so far to slur the grandeur of the subject. Athens, the cradle of western philosophy, was philosophical about teaching philosophy; we are only quantitative about it. An aspirant to philosophy had to prove himself, through twenty years of study of diverse other subjects, before he could be eligible to study philosophy. A fair degree of intellectual maturity was the pre-condition for studying philosophy.

And we? Philosophy is not taught in our schools. (Thank Goodness, it isn’t!)Raw teenagers are herded into a three year undergraduate course in philosophy abruptly and casually like cattle. They are then exposed to a set of jargons which neither they nor their teachers quite understand. The reigning superstition is that if you add “a priori” and “a posteriori” to anything, it becomes philosophical. This is then ribbed with a repugnant convolution of style which is offensively contrived and altogether uncalled for. Every sentence spoken by an undergraduate student of philosophy must resemble a bowl of noodles! If you and I are bothered by a question like “How to live?” an undergraduate in philosophy would, in all likelihood, formulate it as the ethno-methodology of existential phenomenology. If his house is on fire, he would shout, “Conflagration! Assistance!” And not, “Fire! Help!”
But that is not the worst! It is nobody’s concern that philosophy is no longer understood as “love for wisdom,” which is what the word means. Most lamentably it is arbitrarily associated with certain states of mind which are supposedly accessible via psychotropic and bacchanalian routes. Drug and alcohol abuses are more common among philosophy students than their counterparts in other courses.

The so-called intelligentsia in academia stands at the cross-roads today. They can either choose to languish in irrelevance, severing themselves from society and hiding from the searchlight of transparency and accountability.

Or, they can stand by the nation in this crucial period of challenge and change. So long as the first option stays, the mouthpieces of academia have no moral right to denounce the disowning of education by the State, as is happening at present. As of now it is as if academia has seceded itself from the Indian mainstream. Secession and State patronage cannot go hand in hand.

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