Understanding a university

Noted social critic and philosopher Prof Noam Chomsky once commented that it is quite rare for an intellectual to be at the centre of public excitement. But it seems that in recent times, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and its intellectual community have earned that rare feat of being at the centre of public excitement and that, too, for a long time. Universities have existed since the times of Plato’s Academia and one of the fundamental activities of all of these institutions has been to question the yet “unquestioned.” But what we observe globally (including India) in recent times, is that this very act of questioning by the universities is itself being questioned. Artificial political and ideological binaries are being created to push forward a partisan agenda.

One common question faced by the university fraternity is “Why invest in Universities?” This question emanates primarily because the popular public discourse surrounding universities have been largely instrumentalist related to the ideas of affordability, access, intellectual prowess, economic profitability, etc. Interestingly, the values debated and taught within the university campuses are themselves utilitarian as they ensure the most efficient deployment of the skills (mostly the ability to combine intuition and reason) which are required for the development of society. But unfortunately within the neo-liberal economic environment there is a sense of urgency of transforming the research outputs in the universities as service products, thereby completely undermining the university’s role as a creative enterprise. What needs to be questioned is this linear in-out relationship.

Apart from the question that how the university should function, it is also important to see how it is being viewed in the public sphere. Often the university is projected as either a super-specialised entity or as a complete non-entity, thereby detaching it largely from the rest of the society. The academic community has been largely responsible for the development of this view. Through, their ideological dogmatism and dependence on archaic language (often garbed under the notion of intellectual rigour) they have actually hampered one of the fundamental mottos of the university, which is to act as a triggering point of popular alternative thinking. What one finds, is a sense of tactical detachment and a stultifying ideological conformity, thereby, often turning the academic circuit into an echo-chamber. The pedagogy in the universities has to stem from a desire to connect with the vast masses that remain on the other side of the university wall and speak in a language which can be easily comprehended by them.

Universities, because of their unique place both in terms of societal composition and nature of functioning, have the ability to provide spaces for constructive engagement. It is this ability of the universities which is currently under attack. The shrinking of this space for intellectual diversity is a necessary condition for any sort of populist politics to develop where thoughts can be streamlined within a codified spectrum. Denial of spaces for critical and dissenting voices is also a reflection of the regimentation of the larger political arena. The culture of dissent needs to be maintained and accommodated both at the “inter-ideological” and “intra-ideological” levels. It is important for universities to nurture an unsettling temper, because it provides democracies with the ideas of relevance and sustenance by continuously questioning the fundamentals, thus, saving the citizenry from complacency.

Saffron agenda

In the rising atmosphere of intolerance, a university’s role and ethical responsibility increases manifold. What we observe today is the rise of a hegemonic culture where a certain ideological group has taken upon itself the responsibility to regulate the socio-cultural dynamics, mainly through the political means. It is this exercise which I call the “saffron man’s burden” which at its very core, demands passivity and submission. But in this era of sensationalism, on many occasions, universities seem to be failing to present a counter-narrative. The biggest casualty in this regard has been the failure of the university to set the political agenda. Of late universities seem to be failing in this regard whether be it in the case of the Brexit debate, the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, massive policy restructuring in the United States, etc. JNU is a considerable aberration in this regard which has been able to put up a counter-narrative. This capability to set the political agenda is something which many other universities need to develop by challenging the territorial mindset which a large section of the academia suffers from.

There is no need for the alteration or re-appropriation of the university space in today’s time, instead, there is a need for its reclamation. There needs to be absolute clarity that providing a university space is not an act of charity on the part of the state, but instead, is one of its prime duties. Only then can a proper ground be laid for a constructive dialogue and communication between the university community and the society at large.

(The author is Assistant Professor at Jagran Lakecity University, Bhopal)

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Understanding a university

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