Higher education-particularly, the idea of a liberal university-is in crisis. And possibly, the visible decline of Jawaharlal Nehru University-a centre for higher learning that once promised philosophically nuanced and socially relevant education, and produced good academicians, social activists and civil servants-indicates the gravity of the crisis.
As an insider, I feel that it is important to be reflexive and understand the politico-pedagogic turmoil we are passing through.
To begin with, I wish to contextualize the crisis. As neo liberal global capitalism produces its 'knowledge economy', and asserts the need for a new 'knowledgeable' man-technically skilled and capable of selling oneself as a 'resource' in the market, 'utility', 'efficiency' and 'profitability' become the foundations of the master narrative of the nation's educational philosophy.
No wonder, liberal education with its emphasis on critical social sciences, hermeneutic arts and aesthetics, non-utilitarian philosophical discourses and even foundational theoretical sciences are seen as hindrances to the fulfillment of the demand for 'skilled' workforce for corporate capitalism. This narrow meaning of education has gained tremendous legitimacy in an era in which the ruling forces seek to promote social conservatism with the rationale of technical efficiency. Possibly, JNU-some sort of intellectual embodiment of the 'socialist' legacy of Nehruvian progressive science and secular humanism -does no longer fit into the changing ethos of technocratic reasoning and religious nationalism.
This makes it easier for us to understand the symptoms of the crisis. For instance, the new administration seeks to alter the uniqueness of the university known for its excellent academic culture in both cultural and natural sciences. As it intends to introduce engineering and management, we realize that the leader of the institution, far from acting as a visionary educationist, is celebrating a purely technical rationality devoid of a pedagogic sensibility needed to differ from the establishment ideology.
While every corner of the country has seen the neurotic growth of engineering/management colleges, there are very few places left for pure research and profound liberal education. It is sad that the new administration is not in tune with the very spirit and promise of JNU-its critical and dialogic education. Is it the reason why a retired and aggressive army General becomes a 'guest' of the university, moves around the campus, and asserts that 'JNU has finally been conquered'? Otherwise, what is the reason for the leader of the institution to feel that the installation of a model military tank inside the campus is the best guarantee for the arousal of patriotic sentiments?
In fact, this crisis manifests itself in a broken communication filled with the all-pervading fear of conspiracy, revenge and victimization. No wonder, with the disappearance of a collegial relationship between the caged administration and a significant section of senior/experienced professors, we see the assertion of 'discretionary power' by the Vice-Chancellor in the appointment of the Deans of different schools or tragically in the selection of experts for filling the new faculty positions. In this toxic environment of doubt and apprehension, new appointments are seen with suspicion; dissent notes are circulated; and the dictates of power are allowed to replace the rigor of an academic conversation. With court cases, allegations and counter allegations the university looks like a war zone.
However, it is equally important to realise that we too as teachers and students are responsible for the fall of this great institution. To begin with, JNU, it has to be accepted, was not necessarily always liberal and egalitarian. Every insider knows that the voices that are not in perfect tune with a broad 'leftist' paradigm have often been doubted and ridiculed by the 'stars' of the university; and even some of the earlier appointments were not entirely free from controversy, networking and 'affiliation'.
Moreover, many of us lost an organic linkage with the cultural nuances of a rich and complex civilization like ours. We thought that Gandhi was nothing but a patriarchal Hindu casteist, Tagore was just an impractical romantic, and the likes of Swami Vivekananda were simply militant revivalists. We loved to hear the same voice, utter the same slogan, and write the same jargon. Sometimes I wonder whether all that is happening today in JNU is like a return of the repressed, which, as psychoanalysts would say, is always violent and pathological. Is it the reason why in recent times a state sponsored celebrity guru came to deliver the Nehru memorial lecture?
Likewise, students too cannot escape their responsibility. Freedom requires discipline-not military discipline, but the music of inner discipline that cultivates the art of listening and wonder and exploration. As many of our 'radical' students begin to cherish the 'certainty' of their political doctrines, be it Marxism or Ambedkarism or Feminism, they refuse to grow. Social science is degenerated into a political slogan; a teacher is evaluated in terms of 'political correctness'; and classrooms become increasingly empty because many of them begin to think that grossly ideological pamphlets, cleverness and instant consumption of information in the cyber space are sufficient for scholarship. This immature and ethically irresponsible radicalism seems to have done a great damage to the spirit of a vibrant/participatory/pluralist ethos of learning.
At this moment of crisis, we ought to see beyond 'left' and 'right', and collectively strive for some sort of broad consensus. For this, the Vice-Chancellor should learn to trust his senior colleagues, use less of his 'discretionary power', and see that every new faculty recruited, irrespective of his/her political ideology, is oriented to the culture of rigorous teaching, academic research, liberal education and institution building. Second, our teacher activists too have to see beyond their exclusive and snobbish cliques, converse with every section of the university community, and generate an environment conducive to dialogue. And third, if the spirit of studentship is not restored, nothing can resist the fall of this iconic institution.
(The author is Professor of Sociology, JNU)