Intellectualism or politics by proxy? (Column: Spy’s Eye)

A university committed to ‘liberal education at par with the best in the world’ became the butt of criticism recently — in the circle of free thinkers — for letting a senior academician and a reputed intellectual known for his political critiques on the ruling dispensation, part company with the institution. It is normally left to the ‘autonomous functioning’ of a university to determine where the dividing line lay between the intellectual freedom of a faculty member and his writings deprecating the democratic credentials of an elected government — that went far beyond a legitimate analysis of ‘policy flaws’ and shortcomings of administration.

Universities are ‘hubs of teaching and learning’ which to an extent ‘establish the terms of civilised engagement in democratic citizenship’ and encourage an ’emancipatory, transformative impulse’ — these are the meaningful observations of a thinking academician commenting on the issue but the contention of the same writer that ‘depoliticised classroom is an oxymoron’ for it marred ‘critical thinking’ seemed to abandon the fine distinction between ‘education’ and ‘politics’ — maintaining this separation should be the hallmark of a university.

Education is a positive phenomenon, different from indoctrination and political tint, and is really in no need for banking on an adjective like ‘liberal’ as a crutch. Someone once said that education is what is left behind when ‘you read a book and forget about it’. The subtlety of education in a democratic state lies in spreading the awareness of the secular foundation of ‘one man one vote’ on which it rests and the twin principles of ‘development without discrimination’ and ‘equal protection of law for all’ that define its secular performance in terms of what the Constitution had mandated. The students would then be well equipped to make an evaluation of the existing governance.

In fact, the charter of educational institutions has been impacted by the transition of the world in the beginning of the Nineties, from Industrial Age to the Age of Information — thanks to the success of the IT revolution that produced instant connectivity, borderless markets and a global mindset. In the new age ‘ignorance is bliss’ no more since ‘being well informed’ is the basic requirement of success in any sphere. There is a newfound importance of knowledge — the new age has changed the concept of ‘leadership’, put a new emphasis on the word ’employee’ and altered the organisational approach. A leader has to take knowledge-based decisions — he cannot rely on ‘charisma’ or inheritance — and an employee has to be regarded as a ‘knowledge worker’.

Successful companies are aware of the importance of garnering all the ‘tacit’ knowledge that the members, high and low, carried with them as they realised that ‘nobody knows everything but everybody knows something’. Places of learning have so much to give to their wards in a rather compressed time frame that education has of necessity to be anchored on acquisition of knowledge and the ability to analyse and absorb it. Understanding how the country was being governed is a part of that knowledge and the role of a student as an adult voter would reflect that awareness. However, the university days were not to be spent on political activism — that could wait till the time for making a choice about the path ahead was reached at the end of the education phase. Universities are, of course, always open to researching on the current policies of the government in the higher realm of Political Science, Sociology or Human Psychology. A classroom is the place for defining principles, concepts and learnings from history that would govern public life but it is not a forum for discussing party politics.

The autonomy of a university is reflected in the wide spectrum of responsibilities that it has to undertake and the complex issues that it had to tackle in both academic and administrative spheres. There are no doubt questions raised about the quality of leadership at Indian universities as situations developed around campus discipline and fair evaluations and standards of teaching and research took a dip. If the professor becomes ‘an entrepreneur and not a pursuer of truth’ and the student comes off ‘as a consumer and not a learner’ then the forces of intellectualism available at the universities should get focused on this basic internal threat to the centres of higher education. The critique should also invite attention to any unhealthy links of the university with state power, the practice of putting placements for jobs above the inculcation of critical thinking and abandonment of the goal of excellence set by a globalised world.

The Vice Chancellor today does not look as ‘big’ as he or she did some decades ago — the President of a university in a country like the US is, more often than not, a major influencer in regard to the socio-economic facet of the nation but without compromising with one’s complete political neutrality. Centres of learning and politics do not go together and the role of intellectuals based there should be to keep the atmospherics politically ‘clean’ by not becoming a part of government-opposition rhetoric and narratives. Enhancing the capacity for contributing to reasoned dialogue and debate is a dividend of real education but this should happen without the university being drawn by its faculty into the politics of the day.

A university is benefitted by intellectualism that is rooted in academic excellence — it may be disadvantaged by an excessive involvement of an intellectual on its rolls in controversies of public life, particularly those linked to political governance. There are always two sides of an argument in politics and one has to be ideologically neutral enough to support only the side that upheld such unexceptionable principles as ‘largest good to the largest number’, ‘constitutional’ obligation of the state to work for removal of gross inequalities and ‘equal treatment to all’ regardless of caste, creed and region. Bringing in political slogans like ‘pluralism’, ‘majoritarianism’ and ‘intolerance’ in the classroom debates can create avoidable confusion and ambiguities unless they figured in a natural structured discussion on democratic governance as a subject. The point is that the free-for-all that the intellectuals in public space enjoy cannot be the norm in a place of higher learning for those whose responsibility was to impart education — howsoever prominent their standing might be as a speaker or writer on the real-time political matrix.

The challenge for India is to keep the universities out of politics. Some serious thinking needs to go into this. Socratic spirit of putting the known ‘truths’ to constant scrutiny on the strength of new knowledge is one thing but calls for agitation against ‘uniformity’ and ‘totalitarianism’ smack of politics and could not be at the core of university education. The role of public intellectuals in a society served by a democratic rule cannot be overemphasised — they should be devoted fully to curing political life of the pitfalls of ‘identity’ divisions, ‘doctrinaire’ outlook and ‘corruption’ in all its forms. Let them not, however, stir up the campus of a university that had a full-time job of providing wholesome education to youth within a limited timeframe and preparing them to take on the world with all its complications for carving out a pathway of their choice, later. In the context of a university, intellectualism should not become a pursuit of politics by proxy.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)