Saturday, November 12, 2011

The University must trust its own teachers and students

If Delhi University’s academic council is to be believed, Indians who are eligible to drive, to vote and to get married are, however, not adult enough to be exposed to the idea that there are multiple versions of the Ramayana. We are ‘reassured’ that A.K. Ramanujan’s essay on Three Hundred Ramayanas has not been banned, it has simply been deemed unfit for undergraduate pedagogy. After all, how can teachers, especially women and non-Hindus, who effortlessly teach reproductive biology in high school, talk about sexuality and desire in the epics? How can students distinguish between faith and historiography?

There is a clear political agenda to the removal of this particular text, which has little to do with allegedly ‘hurt community sentiments’, starting with the 2008 ABVP attack, the subsequent court case, and the pressure on the OUP to cease publishing the book, to which it so cowardly caved in. What must cause deeper concern, however, is that the academic council of one of India’s leading universities enabled this particular agenda. Not only does this show lack of reflection on the university’s role as a public institution, but also indicates serious problems with university procedures.

A case for engagement

In a poor country like India, university teachers, especially post 6th pay commission, must justify their burden on the public exchequer.  The question is how best to engage with the wider public and yet maintain one’s autonomy.

When scholars from the Northeast point to its absence in standard histories of nationalism, we should welcome this correction in perspective.  If a dalit community were to object to the teaching of allegedly casteist texts, we would be obliged to investigate this complaint seriously, even if the grievance was later found misplaced.  In fact, this is what the appointment of experts to look into the Ramayana reading was meant to do, before the academic council decided to substitute its own expertise for theirs.

More fundamentally, however, what the public pays a university for is not specific bits of research or teaching, but to enable young people to think, to go beyond their own narrow experiences. Thus fundamental research in mathematics, philosophy or literature is as essential to a university as market led courses in commerce or management. If there is one message that the academic council decision on the Ramanujan text sends out, it is that the university does not trust its students or teachers to think.

A case for autonomy

The controversy over the Ramanujan text highlights two basic problems in the Indian university - distrust and discipline. Whatever else the advantages of the semester system, for many in authority, its real value lies in the regulatory power of frequent exams. As one college principal noted, “this ensures that all teachers and students attend from the first day of college.” 

As for distrust, far from being self governing collegiate structures, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the UGC exercise over-riding control.  For instance, the UGC decides on selection criteria for recruitments because it cannot trust academics not to exercise favouritism in drawing up shortlists. All that the department does – and it requires a panel of four Professors to carry out what is essentially clerical work - is slot people into grades, depending on their marks and degrees.

This control translates in turn into the university bureaucracy.  Small things which should be handled at the department level, go up some long food chain to the Vice Chancellor and equally slowly come down again. Department heads spend considerable time signing bus passes and library cards, presumably because the clerical staff cannot be relied on. PhD thesis titles have to be approved at the start of the PhD and require an elaborate procedure should the hapless student want to change. And so on.

It is intrinsic to this whole system of institutionalized distrust that the academic council decides what should be taught, rather than leaving it to the department or faculty concerned. Indeed, the whole system of syllabus formation often borders on the absurd. Courses stay unrevised for decades because of the painful procedures.  It took me three years to get a new MA course on the sociology of law passed. The academic council becomes a site to show off knowledge. No-one dares challenge the hard sciences but everyone claims to be an expert on the social sciences, even if they have no idea of the craft that goes into the simplest looking text.  If teaching about the Ramayana might have consequences for people’s faith, by the same logic, learning chemistry might enable people to make bombs.

True, teachers often betray their profession, a fact which their unions must address.  Absenteeism and nepotism are major problems. Quotas are required because left to themselves, few people actively implement affirmative action. Yet, the solution is paradoxically, not more discipline, but more autonomy.  If your employer does not pay you to think, why do that extra work of thinking? And once you stop thinking, why bother to have a university at all?