Re-imagine the Idea of University

We are in the midst of a digital age characterized by slogan writing and slogan driven seminars
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Representational ImageGK Layout Desk

In a  recent collaborative paper in ‘Economic and Political Weekly’  Tara Mohanan, who taught at National university of Singapore, makes a strong case for establishing world class  Institute of Human Studies in India. .This can help in integrating  scientific and humanistic pursuits for holistic development.

The India, they argue has been moving ahead in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine but Humanities and Social Sciences have remained neglected. The country can boast of Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management, All India Institutes of Medical sciences but no corresponding institution of Humanities.

The New Education policy NEP,20 in one sense also makes case for holistic education  something very much needed keeping in view the requirements of twenty-first century. The  dominance of (STEM) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics  has created many  problems in our existing education system.

This writer while  endorsing   the viewpoint of Tara Mohanan  advocates that existing social sciences too can be re-imagined  and revisited  to fill- up the gap in the knowledge systems. This can easily be done within the framework of existing university system.

For the Sake of Sustainable Development

 There is dire need for each one of us to reaffirm our commitment to the goal of sustainable development. This cannot be done through a top down model of development but by refashioning our institutions  towards the cause of human development .

In this runaway world we need time for deep reflection and consensus-building to usher in a sort of  development  which is people-centric, ecologically sustainable and  promoting the cause of a just society where dignity of the individual  and unity of the nation can be thought together.

It is in this context that there is need for new institutional mechanism  and reordering of existing ones so as to generate a new landscape of higher education in which knowledge systems are inclusive, research is people-centric and institutions are fully aligned to community needs.

For attainment of all these objectives the “University must shift to Multiversity” and give up its tag as an  ivory tower  where scholars speak to themselves and produce an intellectual work least connected to real needs of the community.

While as the need for a human centric institutional mechanism was always there  what has made is more desirable and much needed  is the type of change occurring in our social environment:

First, under the weight of neo-liberalism  there is growth of illiberal culture even in societies known for political openness. The corporate capitalism has created human trash and societies are increasingly turning unequal and exploitative.

The three core categories fundamental to education system: teacher, college  and student are undergoing change. The student in the college is a passive agent, buyer of skills not knowledge .The teacher is a coaching centre guru with a new identity of being  contractual and part time entity.

The college is a place where students go not for debating and dialoguing issues but for whispering into each other’s ears things that need careful discussion. Political Economist Bhabani Shankar Nayak  in a recent thought provoking article  writes :” the campuses across the globe are witnessing the growth of car park culture of managerialism where students and staff members are treated as cash cows or cars in the car parks....”

Second,  we are in the midst of a digital age  characterized by slogan writing and slogan  driven seminars. The slogans have been hatched either by  groups or corporate sector. The academic disciplines  viz, liberal Arts are pushed outside as there is no time in a shorter attention span for deep reflection and critical thinking .

The digital age is at odds with humanities. Even for our entrance examinations multiple choice questions are preferred rather than essay type where students analytical  power is judged . We need to encourage students to go through critical readings and train them  to unpack ideas and concepts doled out through the  tweet or wattsapp  messages.

In this context there is need for institutions and governments to think about social sciences as human sciences to ensure knowledge balance  in the society .We need to remember that many sciences originally emerged from the humanities pursuits such as philosophy and the study of ‘Arts’. It is surely a tall order but immediately some steps quite doable can be taken to effect the change:

Departmentalization of Knowledge

The one drawback in the colonial scheme of education is the departmentalization of knowledge  leading to narrow specialization and now further squeezed  to learning  of skills. We rarely look back to see how all this has led to compartmentalization of people working in  knowledge industry called as  university/college.

The compartmentalization is leading to classification detrimental to both teaching and research and a barrier to cross- pollination between the sciences that study the human species and those that study other species. It also according to Tara  Mohanan  “prevents cross-pollination between the disciplines that come under social sciences and humanities”.

The authors furnish two interesting examples  of medical and engineering education as part of human studies. Can a practicing physician  or a medical researcher afford to be unaware of the value system embodied in the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ and the consequences  of the  value systems  for policies ,practices and actions? Similarly can a civil engineer afford to ignore the value system while  designing a dam? An example from first world university can make things much more easier for us.

The MIT, for instance  focuses on technology but brings in mathematics, the sciences  and the humanities under technology. Steven Jobs -an American business magnate  stated that part of the reason what made Macintosh great was that people working on it were musicians, poets, Zoologists and historians .

They also happen to be the best computer scientists in the world” .All this suggests that education is not war as we present it to our students  devoid of joy ,reflection and  meditation .Education is  comprehensive ,holistic and total development of man and society.

University without borders

There is much to learn  from S Parasuraman  who helmed the Tata Institute of Social sciences  for fourteen long years and  passed away in  September this year. Prof  Lakshmi Lingam who teaches Media and cultural Studies at TISS  in her obituary note thus writes:” Parasuraman,s  story is a case study in organizational change, management and leadership.

The universities in India need vice Chancellors like him to build institutions  for inclusive teaching and learning and to contribute to the making of a vibrant democracy like India” Each year about 3000 graduates find their way into the industry ,government and the social service professionals. Many graduates also pursue higher studies and  set up social enterprises or work at the grassroots”.

TISS  made  its  forays into the realm of public policy  to aid and advise  governments and other  bodies which made huge change to the study of social sciences .TISS also made a meaningful intervention in  Ladakh Autonomous Hill development Council. This writer visited Ladakh in 2008 to study the working of Hill councils and was told by council leaders about the invitation extended to TISS to offer its guidance to the leadership on  decentralized planning in Ladakh.

In 2015 at the invitation of state government of Nagaland  TISS  collaborated with Gandhi  Academy  for Human development to offer academic programmes on sustainable development and livelihoods. Tata Institute also extended support in education , social work and health administration to Afghanistan and Mynamar. Hence there is a case  to invest in humanities and social sciences to bring them in alignment with STEM so that the gap between STEM and on-STEM domain  is reduced.

Invest in Social Sciences

Social Sciences need not be looked from a narrow prism where students opt for these subjects only  for  cracking civil service  examinations. Social Sciences to Greek Philosopher Aristotle are  ‘Master sciences’.   Eminent political scientist Neera Chandok thus comments “ political scientists cannot become advisors to the government but they can become conscience of the society”.

The experts at Stanford university  believe that clinical depression examines the genetics, neurosciences ,psychology, sociology-anthropology, psychiatry and pharmacology of depression as a phenomenon of the human mind. In a celebrated article in the Guardian literary critic Terry  Eagleton wrote  “that just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol there can be no university without humanities”.

Sociologist S. Thorat  did a comparative study of Indian Council of Social Science Research(ICSSR)  and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences .His conclusions are quite distressing. The ICSSR founded in 1969 funds partially only 26 research institutes in India. In comparison  the Chinese Academy has 35 research institutes and 45 research centers.In China there are national and provincial Social Science Academies.

The Shanghai institute alone has 550 researchers  working on different social/economic and other issues . The Chinese Academy of social Sciences has 3200 researchers  and it was described by Foreign Policy Magazine as the top  think-tank in Asia.

It has linkages with 140 countries in the world. In India  with all difficulties the social science research still goes on within university  spaces which are increasing witnessing faculty shortage and dwindling funds and few faculty members working on substantive basis.

In the light of above discussion there is a  case to re-imagine the idea of  university to further inform  the  ‘New Education policy’. We need an ecosystem that balances the science and humanities and ensure that we balance the development of both sides of the brain and provide equal chance ,status and public perception  for learners who make their own choices. While as there is need for Professors of practice there is an equal requirement  for professors of principle.

Prof Wani is Kashmir based Political Scientist

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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