Why Universities? Developing Character or Cogs?

Why Universities? Developing Character or Cogs?

I attended the First Vinay Kanth Memorial Lecture at the Bharatiya Nritya Kala Mandir conference hall. One reason I went was to ‘catch up’ with familiar faces I knew would be there , ( fully well knowing that most of the catching up would be a wave, a smile, and a nod), but it would suffice. I would be reassured that the liberal intellectuals of Patna are still hanging in there, still hopeful, still carrying within them the glowing embers of spirit. The late Vinay Kanth would have probably greeted all of us with a quiet smile, a roomful of people on the wrong side of forty, still carrying our torches in the face of  a darkening storm that aims to snuff out the very memories of the Age of Reason, as we know it.

Yes, yes, some who read this will be quick to point out that there were also a ‘significant’ number of youngsters present, all willing to listen to the lecture and perhaps reflect upon it.

Professor Satish Deshpande from Delhi University spoke on the changing philosophies of education across three ‘ages’ in the context of Universities and their existence in such ‘chaste’ Hindi that it left at least two media students in the audience bedazzled and of course, completely baffled. ‘He spoke such great Hindi that we couldn’t understand at least half of what he said,’ said one. That’s it for you. Whatever may be the arguments or the logic on Universities, its clear that a considerable number of university students have no language skills.

So did the learned professor say anything earth-shaking that could be splashed across the pages of the local newspaper?  Not really. He didn’t meant to. No pandering to the press with some quotable quotes, or even a teeny weensy bit of Modi bashing.

There was a point he made that got me thinking. While talking about access to higher education (University education in the Indian context), he spoke about how four generations ago, people sold of their land and valuables to invest in their sons’ education. So, in effect, those from the higher castes were able to invest in their children’s education. These children went to study in a ‘liberal environment’ where their caste was invisibilized. That generation actually believed that they had wiped out caste. That caste no longer mattered. They were ‘secular’ and above notions of caste and class. But in reality, caste was merely made invisible. Everything was well with our Indian Universities during that golden period.

It was only in the 80’s when the Dalits began entering the reals of higher education – they were landless and had no land to sell, so they entered the university on the back of reservations and special privileges – that there was this great upheaval and questions of ‘merit’ and ‘propriety’ were raised within universities. Strife and campus politics, government interference increased. A new discourse, a powerful one, making the caste lines clearly visible, emerged.

Interesting line of thought, there.

What is of concern to most people in education today is the changes in curriculum, the new courses, the quick acceptance in certain circles that education, especially higher education, is a commodity, or, at its best that teachers are service providers, students are clients, and that education must conform to some quality standards. There are many who propose that a curriculum or a course of studies or even a college is only successful if the greatest number of students get jobs. ‘Placement’ is the buzz word, the end product of the new era of education, developing the human character or producing a well-rounded, articulate , aware citizen is no longer required. What the Modi Era demands from the university is another cog in the machine, another brick in the wall.

On the whole, it was an evening well spent. Everyone present, in their own ways, were reminded of  Professor Vinay Kanth and his immense contribution to some key educational policies and developments within Bihar, and also for his great interest in the skill building of young people, and the protection of children’s rights.