The author is professor of philosophy and of law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Liberal education is in serious crisis in India. It is comforting to pretend that this crisis is simply a result of the political pretensions of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is rather a product of a wider web of complicities. For years, the idea of a liberal education — an education that equips students with the necessary means of coping with the complexities of a plural and liberal society in a rapidly changing world — has been under assault from a variety of different sources.
We all ought to acknowledge that there have been times in Indian higher education when professional tribes like historians, economists or Sanskritists of a wide variety of ideological persuasions have run their professional organizations as closed-minded shops. The obligation on historians and social scientists to act as court historians for a particular party was not invented by the BJP. While it would be grossly unfair and illiberal to indict large groups of scholars collectively, there is very little doubt that sections of the Indian left, when in positions of academic power, were liberal only to the point at which they were never seriously challenged in the profession. Or often, they complacently hung on to their favourite distinctions, say between secular and sacred, without any room for questioning their own foundational presuppositions.
Ideological closed-mindedness also came to be tied to populism in a way fatal for education. Liberal education is, above all, a search for distinction and individuality. Distinction was sacrificed to the odd idea that education is about levelling, not about bettering yourself. And individuality was sacrificed to the logic of group-thinking of various kinds.
The controversies occasioned by the BJP’s misguided interventions in the humanities and social sciences therefore require of us, not just a posture of ideological combat, but also a far more searching attempt at self-reflection. At the very least, we ought to reflect on the following paradox. On the one hand, at the present moment, the humanities and social sciences have become politically important in many senses. They are the objects of political controversy, and there is an unarticulated sense that what we teach by way of history or political science or economics or archaeology will have profound ramifications for society. Yet this political interest comes just at the moment at which the authority of the humanities and social sciences in schools and colleges is, at best, tepid.
Their presence is condescendingly tolerated because of some vague apprehension that these are the kinds of things future civil servants ought to know. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even in our best universities, a general culture of reading and sheer intellectualism that sustains these disciplines have declined. The central aspiration of liberal education — creating a culture of articulacy — has been sacrificed to the rigours of standardized exams. And the culture of public argument amongst those fortunate enough to have been educated often shows little evidence of having benefited from a rigorous humanities or social science education.
The sources of this decline are complex.The general deterioration of universities, poor infrastructure, the imperatives of getting a practical training have all contributed to this decline. At the school level, these disciplines have long suffered from poor teaching, boring textbooks and an inability to impart a sense of quite why any of these subjects were important. The result is the paradox we see. On the one hand, there is a greatly felt need for what might be described as social self- knowledge, the process by which societies acquire insights into their own working; on the other hand, there is very little confidence that our schools and universities can be the source of such self-knowledge. Why have we come to this pass'
It seems that part of the answer is that, as in many other spheres, we do not trust the intelligence of our students much. In part, it seems that our debates over curriculum have concentrated more on the content of education than on its purpose: the provision of a general intellectual training. There is far too much emphasis on the absorption of information and too little on the acquisition of appropriate skills to acquire or use information. In any education system there is bound to be a tension between these objectives, between imparting some information as settled fact and between inculcating a healthy scepticism in students towards received facts. But it seems that our education system has on the whole erred on the side of the former with predictably disastrous results.
The central ambition of a liberal education ought to be the cultivation of a critical intelligence, an ability to go out and wake up one’s own mind, based on sound evidence and rigorous reasoning. It seems that in the way our textbooks are written, whatever the ideological persuasion they advance, this ambition is sorely lacking. The result is that students deal with their own scepticism about arguments they find in their books, not by a searching examination of the issues involved but by an easy embrace of whatever alternative happens to be around. The result is that the disenchantment with Marxist narratives has not produced a historical or social imagination capable of dealing with the complex and protean character of social or political life, but rather a thirst for alternative simplicities. If our education had better rewarded critical intelligence, the struggle over content now going on would matter less. The debate over writing our text-books now ought to include some reflection on how to give the students the means and the confidence to think for themselves intelligently.
A greater emphasis on skills rather than content would also make disciplines like history and philosophy more marketable. Humanities and social sciences majors from the best universities around the world are in great demand, because they can be relied upon to possess a good set of skills: argumentative rigour, research capabilities, writing skills, an ability to make discoveries. The reason these disciplines are not much in vogue in India is because they have acquired a reputation for not being connected with any generally usable skills.
I have a vested interest in emphasizing the importance of subjects like history, philosophy, and political science to intelligent citizens. But it would be obtuse to argue that just because they are not relevant in the same way that, say, law or management is thought to be relevant, they are not of far-reaching importance. If anything, the controversies in our politics demonstrates the intricate ways in which these subjects are connected with issues of citizenship. To paraphrase Keynes, we are in the grip of one or another defunct social science proposition, whether we like it or not. But these controversies should lead us to defend not only this or that particular truth, but to ask how we can make these disciplines meaningful to students.
How can the teaching of subjects such as history, philosophy and political science, cultivate a critical intelligence, a curiosity for entering worlds not our own' How can they inculcate an ability to live with a diverse set of tastes and allegiances and a capacity for charting a moral course without being moralistic' Can these disciplines give us the social self-knowledge that will allow us to make the most of this world, receive it with an open mind and help us better our selves' Can we move away from a world where the disciplines like history and archaeology are enlisted as totems of ideological identity rather than as open intellectual adventures'
These ambitions ought to be platitudes whenever the aims of education are being discussed. But these platitudes are the first to be forgotten when education is equated with ideological warfare — left or right.