What does an Indian University do?

William Deresiewicz sounds like a middle aged man from Madras’ middle class in his new book Excellent Sheep. The kind of man whose argumentation isn’t as good as his argument. He spoke to a sympathetic Pamela Paul last week. Deresiewicz’s basic point is that the American University doesn’t produce thoughtful individuals any longer because it doesn’t give space for thought in a system that’s all about building credentials for a resume. This week he’s sort of been taken to cleaners in the most genteel of ways by Nathan Heller.

One might think Universities ought to build nations, create leaders, produce innovation and supply capable workers to a growing economy. But as Nathan Heller implies, those are nice to have outcomes that aren’t the primary purpose of a University. In fact, both Deresiewicz and Heller agree, concentrating on any one or all of the outcomes is counter-productive.

One could extend that line of argument and ask why building a just society should be a University’s objective. If it were, the University would likely fail in its primary objective which is to impart and improve upon knowledge. This argument, however, is a bit problematic in the Indian context for two surprisingly silly reasons: (i) there really are no Universities in India that take in students to promote thought for thought’s own sake (ii) the right wing brigade wanting to guard its institutionalised advantages of status quo has co-opted this quandary with a political slogan of ‘merit first’ which, even if it were magically true, defeats the original purpose of a University far more.

For instance, consider the JEE. It is possibly one of the most epistemically dishonest things a teen in India could take up. It tests students on aspects that are often not taught at all or well enough in high school. In fact it can safely be assumed that a student who does not have special preparations that are both expensive and targeted has negligible chances of clearing that exam. So, in a sense, it’s an exam whose merit is that it safeguards the gates of upper middle class existence in India. Further, it’s an exam to get into an engineering school; one that does not even pretend to impart knowledge for its own sake or provide space for thought. It is, in Deresiewicz’s definition, what takes not merely jumping through hoops to get in but makes its students jump through some more hoops after they get in the hope that they’d find a place whose entrance criterion is jumping hoops.

This, looked at from a Dalit activist’s political perspective is prime target for dismantling. But what should be the replacement? Fixing the demographic distribution is certainly not sufficient; but is that even a necessary condition? The only advantage that one can think of is that demographic diversity is likely to bring in diversity of thought to the classroom. Which in turn is likely to enrich thought itself. But of what value is this diversity if the University itself is merely making students jump through hoops? At which point, the Dalit activist may well ask: the University is now acting merely as a gate to economic activity; so why are you denying this lesser gate in the hope that one day you’d have what ought to be?