An act of unlearning

The University of Kerala building in Thiruvananthapuram.   | Photo Credit: S. Mahinsha

Moments of crisis often create moments for rethinking, when the basic concepts and institutions we employ are subject to critical scrutiny. Such a crisis haunts the idea of the nation state, the vision of democracy and, at another level, our model of the university. Such a crisis of change also produces a mimicry of original concepts, with mediocrity retailed as excellence, status confused for quality, and a few narrow indicators defining the existence of the new paradigm. Mediocrity in mimicking excellence subverts the very essence of the institution. One witnesses such antics masquerading as reform as one watches the struggle of the Indian university over the autonomy issue.

The grammar of reform

Merely labelling such a process will not do. Protest must be accompanied by scholarship which exposes in detail the logic and mechanics of the rituals of appropriation. One witnesses three at the outset. The first involves the attempt to appropriate the rhetoric of scholarship and to coat it with a sheen of scientism, through the use of rankings and indicators. Quality is now a numbers game evaluated by a separate directorate. Second, concepts of freedom, autonomy, the public good are bowdlerised and managerialised, transforming intellectual facts into a set of instrumentalities. Third, the public and the private are fused without any philosophical or ethical debate. One is opened up to privatisation under the claim that private institutions contribute to the public good. It narrows the notion of the public good from a democratic idea relating to welfare and justice to a market concept. The market replaces democracy as the grammar of this reform.


All this has been created through a simulated politics of urgency, a crisis inadvertently triggered by Pranab Mukherjee, then President, bemoaning the fact that there was no Indian university listed in the top 200 in the world. Suddenly, all India suffered from rankings envy and we decided to vie for the Olympics of rankings. Sadly, speed became a substitute for efficiency and mobility appropriated justice. What got projected was a sense of decisiveness which one mistook for judgment. The hollowness and superficiality of reform was startling.

This brings to mind two stories. The first is from the national movement. Patrick Geddes, the sociologist, biologist and polymath, designed one version of the ‘University of Benares’. Watching the outline unfold, people asked him out of curiosity where the administrative department was? He pointed to a little outhouse on the side and warned that if it got bigger, it would swallow the university. The prescient Geddes was warning against the bureaucratisation of the intellect and its great institution, the university. Today, sadly it is the bureaucracy that is defining the university, even dictating what autonomy means for us.

The second story is more apocryphal and is about the epidemic of rankings worldwide. The story goes that Snow White’s wicked stepmother went to consult the legendary mirror. When the queen asked, “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” The mirror replied, “According to QS rankings, you are fourth in the list for beauty and third for intelligence.” The wicked queen was struck dumb with dismay and confusion.


The bureaucratic rituals around quality and autonomy have to be read in this context. Quality in this would get reduced to productivity. The ordinary process of research as learning, as a craft game, with a sense of play and experimentation is sidelined. A leading scientist once told me that PhDs get discounted and risk-taking in terms of choice of topics comes down. The machine produces more convergers than divergers. Dissent is at a discount as one must adhere to textbook paradigms for guaranteeing high scores.

State’s abdication

If excellence is marginally defined, autonomy is reduced to a market instrument. The state seems to withdraw from education playing a reluctant Father Christmas. Institutions have now the right to change admission rules, charge more fees to attract more people. The idea of university as a public space, as a commons where subsidies allowed marginals to participate in education with dignity, is lost. The market creates its own filters and slowly the poor lose entry to a system.


This was the much maligned and misunderstood battle the students and faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi decided to fight. JNU as a public system represented both quality and equality. The new rituals of autonomy, the faculty argued, would pretend to give it agency on bureaucratic issues while denying it any real empowerment. Autonomy here becomes the right to play a rule game as dictated by the state. The right to plurality, dissent, critique will decrease.

There is also an illiteracy of history here as autonomy is regarded as some new invention when autonomy was always a part of the university tradition. The state might support a university while the rules of the craft were always in the hands of practitioners. The word peer group reflects solidarity, fraternity and a definition of quality in terms of collectively debated norms. Certification had an intellectual rather than clerical quality to it. The government`s insistence on divesting itself of its responsibility cannot be disguised in creating a few narrow entitlements for a few institutions. What we then face in India is a split-level world where the majority of institutions suffer from neglect and mediocrity, while a few parade their affluence as quality. It is an attempt to enforce a Darwinism in education while pretending to offer freedom. The rich can create captive institutions while the middle class watches helplessly as quality education in democratic spaces empties out. The JNU battle is a fight to define one’s future without having it specified to one in the name of an ersatz freedom.

Similarly, ranking is an act of fetishism where quality gets defined as a product than a process. The university loses its ritual right to initiate a student in terms of the rules of the craft. This world of creativity disappears as we instrumentalise education and reduce the university to a certification machine, a glorified tutorial college. All this is done in the name of acceleration where India hopes to manufacture two Oxfords without sensing the organicity or the tacit knowledges of education. Here autonomy as limited agency loses out to justice as a right to define and evaluate one’s situation. The academe becomes a passive receiver of diktats in the name of freedom. What one loses here is the creative pluralism of the university as the home of dissenting, as knowledge is standardised in the name of market efficiency. Also, freedom here is seen in the narrow sense of entrepreneurship. The creative tensions of the university get mowed down in this wave of standaridisation and managerialisation; market friendly freedom destroys many of the lesser domains of knowledge which are custodians of the value systems of the future.

There is another issue. The university is a place for dreaming, for following not the logic of productivity or fame but a vision of new possibilities, many of them which may not be majoritarian or market-oriented. Ranking, as one professor said, allows others to dream for us. Nothing can be more unfair.

Retaining plurality

The question is, how does a university as a plural, almost invertebrate institution react to such a crisis? There is a sense that the battle is different today. We must stand by the original vision, the culture of the university, re-emphasise its sense of play, its plurality, its sense of craft which challenges the assembly lines of knowledge. In this moment of crisis, the university must stand strong, telling society gently that democracy without the cultures of knowledge is doomed.

Shiv Visvanathan is a member of the Compost heap, a group of academics and activists working on alternative imaginations

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 7:03:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/an-act-of-unlearning/article23437302.ece

Next Story