'University is meant only for studying' strangles India's education

It actually undermines the aims of humanities education and even disempowers the 'Make in India' campaign.

 |  6-minute read |   08-03-2016
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In the ongoing controversy regarding education at JNU, one of the arguments that has been consistently made, starting from Mohandas Pai, is concerned with the role of students at a university.

The argument is pretty straightforward: The students' job is to study in the university and they shouldn't be wasting their time in getting too involved with student politics or other extra-curricular activities. Moreover, as their education is subsidised by the revenues collected by the government, which includes taxpayer money (21 per cent of total revenue), the students should show some responsibility towards it and stick to their task of studying.

Unsurprisingly, such a simplistic argument has been critiqued at various levels by people, starting from who can be the spokesperson for all taxpayers, the government subsidies which the middle-class enjoys every day, role of a liberal arts university, etc. However, what I want to point out in this article is the inherent contradiction within the argument of what education is meant for, as well as larger implications for higher education in India.

Growing up in the 1980s, many of us experienced the "stick to your studies" injunction, which insisted that a good student's job was only academic and not indulging in other extra-curricular activities like sports or arts. What included "studies" is the interesting question here, as it only comprises mathematics and science, for which the metonym of studies was used. Everything else in the curriculum or in the educational space, including friendships and emotions, was not only extra but also problematic.

The goal of "studies" was therefore to train the student in the sciences, keeping in mind the later benefit of getting a professional degree in higher education (engineering/medicine) and subsequently a job. This middle class dream has been largely responsible for a reductive understanding of education, which is meant only to make the student market-ready rather than becoming her own person.

However, when we look at the professional courses like engineering and medicine, what is the ideal of education that we observe? It is expected that the student learns in the classroom and from books, and then applies it in real-life scenarios through projects, internships and eventually in her job. Medicine and engineering, both emphasise hands-on training of the student so they can take theories, and implement them, in life - fixing things, or creating new things.

At IIT-Delhi I was trained to apply my knowledge to address real world technical problems. Moreover, I was initiated into an entrepreneurial mind-set of taking problems head-on and not merely getting a job in a company. The recent support by PM Modi to the Startup India Movement, as part of the larger Make in India campaign, re-emphasises this need to apply one's knowledge to address the emerging problems of the country, something which Mohandas Pai has supported whole-heartedly.

Let us apply the same start-up model which is popular in the IITs, to JNU. In a university where the focus is on social sciences and humanities, what does entrepreneurship mean? In the Humanities context, one of the key concepts discussed is "social justice", which draws on the highest ideals enshrined in our Constitution.

Thus, the aim of such an education is similar to that in IITs, which is to train the students in applying the concept (of social justice) for dealing with the pressing concerns of our times. Kanhaiya Kumar, in a recent interview with Ravish Kumar, mentioned his research also draws on Constitutional values as he is interested in social transformation.

For him, the campaign "Make in India" implies making social transformation possible in India. He explains that social transformation includes economic and social justice for marginalised communities of Dalits, Adivasis, women, poor farmers and soldiers, working class and minorities.

Thus, if the students of JNU are doing exactly what we expect an educational training to do - applying the knowledge and techniques to real life problems - then doesn't the "stick to your studies" injunction actually undermines the aims of humanities education and even disempowers the "Make in India" campaign?

Now, it can be argued, as Urvashi Sarkar does convincingly, that these self-appointed spokespersons of taxpayers themselves reject constitutional values of social justice and quality education, to maintain existing structures of hierarchy and privileges. And are therefore more anti-national, a mentality against which Babasaheb Ambedkar struggled all his life. However, if we look beyond the atrocious attempt to stifle dissent through the use of sedition law, and try to be sympathetic to the concerns regarding free and hate speech,  then it actually points to an educational problem. The problem is not about the aims of education, but how to apply those aims in the contemporary economic-political context.

Umar Khalid in his speech at JNU, pointed out that an antagonistic andself-righteous rhetoric suffocates any possibility of a dialogue right from beginning, reminding us of Gandhi's non-violent approach with the British.

So does Professor Paranjape, when he highlights the hegemony of the left in JNU's "democratic space" that leaves little space for disagreement. Further problematising the application of social justice aims, Omair Ahmad hints at the severe lack of fresh ideas in campus politics. He argues that instead of encouraging new political experiments, campus politics largelyserves the purpose of being recruitment grounds for Congress, BJP and the Left (similar to IITs becoming recruitment grounds for multi-nationals).

It follows the sameconfrontational and self-centred politics where instead of addressing concrete issues of social justice, we end up being locked in antagonism for petty political gains. Likewise in professional education, we end up in pandering to an economic system where livelihood issues are completely undermined because of unbridled greed of profit maximisation. Hence, what we need is true innovation in re-imagining higher education and consequently the business and political sphere, which the current mai-baaps want to stifle using the "stick to your studies" injunction.

For such a re-imagination of higher education, we need to take the "Make in India" campaign to its logical conclusion in Swadeshi. Swadeshi is not merely about "placing" the students in the existing global hierarchies determined by neo-colonial forces, but it is about re-making the frame itself. The benefiters of global hierarchy are invested in maintaining the status quo, by pitting livelihood and social justice in opposition to each other, which translates as professional vs liberal in the educational context.

Like other unhelpful binaries of left vs right and national vs anti-national, it deflects our attention from concrete issues and leads us to hollow ideological positioning. It prevents us from coming together in any substantial ways, as it is only through dialogue and improved relationships that we can hope to address complex issues of livelihood and social justice in India.

Thus, true innovation lies not in accommodating with current structures of oppression in business and politics, but in transforming them fundamentally to replace exploitative relationships with caring ones. For this purpose we need quality and just education, which not only teaches us technical skills but also constitutional values, not only business acumen but also ethical action, and not only scientific temper but also artistic appreciation.

Only then can we truly hope to have a Made in India education, which encourages creativity, care and justice to re-make India, instead of "stick to your studies" for mai-baap's economic and political benefit.


Asim Siddiqui Asim Siddiqui

Ex-student of IIT Delhi and a teacher-student of philosophy.

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