The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Indian academic life is unsure of what excellence means

A change of regime in Delhi has occasioned numerous academic appointments and committees. Many academically heavyweight positions are likely to be filled in the coming months. But these appointments, and the discourse that surrounds them, are revealing at least as much about the crisis of Indian academic life as they are about the ideological preferences of the government.

When the government constituted a committee comprising of Professors De, Grewal and Settar, to examine the content of the history textbooks, the first reaction of most academic colleagues, regardless of party lines, was some lament to the effect that the government should have found someone below retirement age to carry out this task. But if you followed up this comment with a question, “Whom would you recommend'” there was a long silence. In the gossip circles of Delhi, there is much talk about appointing a new director for Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a significant institution for historians. But it is noticeable that most participants in this gossip are very hesitant to recommend names.

It is astonishing that even in as well-established an academic discipline as history, there seems to be a dearth of names that command general intellectual respect. Imagine the story in other disciplines. The Delhi School of Economics, once a giant in both economics and sociology, is a pale shadow of its own past. While it still has very good talent, in both these disciplines it no longer has the commanding presence it used to. And in fact it has a difficult time finding talent whose reputation is commensurate with its own history. The story is even worse in disciplines like political science and philosophy, where the veneer of serious academic talent seems thinner still.

The sense that there is a crisis of academic leadership is very palpable across a range of disciplines. This judgment is not based on some romanticized version of our academic past. After all, in academics, as in history, time often consecrates eminence. Those whom we designate as academic giants in retrospect, suffered from a similar crisis of credibility when they first appeared on the intellectual horizon. Many of the so-called giants of the field, especially in disciplines like history and economics, ran intellectually closed shops. It could be argued that there is no real diminution in the level of average professional competence in these fields. Yet there is a sense that we are experiencing an unprecedented vacuum in higher education. Why'

There are many reasons for this. The political economy of higher education has altered drastically. The deteriorating state of our universities and incentives abroad make retaining talent very difficult. In disciplines like economics and history, the brain drain is quite staggering. A list of all those names who command general academic admiration, but who have left India, would take more column space than would be prudent to use up. The reasons for this attrition from Indian academic life are quite complex. It is true that many of our institutions do not reward talent. But in disciplines like history and economics, many of those who left were at the top of the profession in India, widely acknowledged and celebrated: Kaushik Basu, Veena Das, Gyan Pandey, to take some random recent examples. We ought not to rush to judgment about the choices Indian academics have made. But we should recognize that there is an institutional cost to these choices.

The character of academic life has become ideologically more partisan. Academic life has always been characterized by partisanship, sometimes ideological, sometimes venial. But we have reached a point where it has become almost impossible to detach the idea of excellence from a scholar’s theoretical or political positions. Judgments of excellence have become internal to sub-communities of academics. While we can name many professionally outstanding individuals, we are less sure that they will command some general credibility across theoretical or party affiliations. Sometimes, paradoxically, greater professionalism also diminishes general credibility. Academics lose the ability to reach even a wider audience of academics, let alone the general public.

Then there is what we might call the phenomenon of institutional secession. Given the difficulties of institutional life in Indian universities, good scholars adopted one of the following strategies. Many of them chose to set up or affiliate themselves with small research institutions that became little islands of autonomy and occasionally excellence. But the cost was that these academics became less involved in teaching and the mainstream of university life.

Two consequences followed. First, some of our best scholars have not been able to produce a critical mass of students. They have not been able to institutionalize first-rate research programmes that are necessary to sustain standards in the long run. Second, the power to command general credibility often comes from teaching, especially at critical institutions like Calcutta or Delhi University. Teaching can put a stamp of authority on a figure larger than even their scholarship. And students, more than the scholarly community, are both more tolerant of diversity and a real source of reputation. Other scholars still, who chose to remain in the university system, de facto seceded by withdrawing from institutional life altogether. The result was that even the excellence that remains is fragmented and under-institutionalized.

There was perhaps a time when association with power did not diminish intellectual credibility. This was because the political climate did not force those in positions of power to make so many compromises. And those who were in power saw themselves as upholding a professional trust. In contemporary times, association with power almost automatically diminishes credibility, whether you are a vice-chancellor or simply the chair of a department. As a result, almost any academic who takes part in active institutional life, runs the risk of appearing tainted in one form or the other: they have either had to annoy enough people that their reputations suffer, or they have had to placate enough people that they come across as mere stooges. But institutional responsibility these days invariably seems to diminish academics. The result is a general crisis of credibility.

In a curious way, we have also come to associate a certain kind of eminence with age more than we used to. So there might be a number of people in the age-group of forty-something, who are considered too young to provide academic leadership merely on account of their age, thus exacerbating a sense of vacuum. This is a shame. If the history of our own academic institutions is any guide, plenty of young academics have provided sterling leadership in the past. I suspect we resort to age as an argument more because we are unsure of our own judgments.

So the hesitation of my interlocutors on the subject of academic appointments was entirely justified. This is not because they could not name individuals whose scholarship or good sense they could trust. But what they had less confidence in was the ability of these names to evoke widespread enthusiasm. Whether the current round of committees and appointments will lead to a better academic culture — in the best sense of that impoverished term — remains to be seen. If early evidence coming from the ministry of human resource development is any guide, the “detoxification” drive against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that is currently underway is also premised on a short-sighted view of what academic life should be about.

But the difficulty we are having in making appointments that command general assent is more evidence that our academic life is fragmented, partisan and unsure of what excellence means. It shows that we have difficulty thinking of what a genuinely liberal academic life would look like.

Email This Page