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Education must be more than mere consumption of knowledge, says Saikat Majumdar

Saikat Majumdar advocates the pursuit of ‘contra-disciplinarity’.   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Novelist and academic Saikat Majumdar’s new book, College: Pathways of Possibility, is a bold critique of our higher education system. Following from the American example, Majumdar explores how a broader, more conceptual “liberal arts” education could greatly enliven the experience of college in India and make it more relevant to further study, work or just an imaginative life. He expands on these ideas in an email conversation. Excerpts:

College is a very impassioned plea for a more expansive and creative approach to undergraduate education. In India, at the undergraduate level, we either have a general education apparently disconnected from both life and the job market, or a highly specialised professional education of the kind presented by the IITs and IIMs. What needs to change here?

The existing B.A./B.Sc. system in the large public universities, as we know, is largely the legacy of a colonial system, designed by the British to train and certify government employees. College proposes a shift away from this understanding of education merely as the consumption of existing knowledge verifiable through examinations. It has three main elements: a shift from the complete preoccupation with the consumption of knowledge to its production in the form of research; the cultivation of at least one discipline as different as possible from one’s primary specialisation — what I call “contra-disciplinarity”; and finally, an expansive general education that combines some exposure to a range of disciplinary methodologies with deep specialisation in one subject. Many things might follow such an expansive edifice of undergraduate education — academic research in a particular discipline, further specialised training for a particular profession, or even a direct entry into the job market.

You question the ‘coverage model’ traditionally followed in Indian universities — the focus on covering the history of a subject rather than understanding what you call its soul. This is a very enlightening distinction but for the study of a subject like literature, don’t you need both — that is, to internalise the poem as a work of art in language, as well as understand the circumstances and politics of its production?

By the ‘coverage model’, I simply mean the compulsion to cover the entire canon of the discipline. Reducing this would allow time and energy for a more creative exploration of its key nodes and features. To let go a bit; focus on a few key things rather than to cover “everything”. This is a principle of intelligent selection rather than the prioritisation of the micro over the macro. To understand a literary text, both are equally important: close reading its features and distant reading its larger historical matrix. Combining the two is more important than ever to understand key epistemic moments in history. For example, the modern understanding of individual authorship in the 18th century. My sense is that the existing literary curricula in many Indian universities seek to provide an equal and ‘factual’ coverage of the entire canon, rather than a selective and strategic emphasis on its key structures and transformation.

I am fascinated with your description, following the writer Howard Gardner, of the kind of intelligences valued today. The intelligence needed to analyse symbols and codes is now highly sought after, and the one that renders a person a ‘master of change’. It seems to me that both are manifestations of the corporation. Should we anticipate the complete rule of the corporation?

Symbolic systems are fundamental to all intellectual and artistic labour by human beings. Language, mathematics, and computer codes are all different symbolic systems. The corporation has no special or unique claim on it. The other kind of capacity, which Gardner calls the ‘master of change,’ it is true, is especially crucial to institutional or organisational life.

But the free-market corporation is not the only kind of institution, right? This kind of intelligence which enables institutional leadership plays a role in all kinds of social, civic and political organisations, as well as in those driven by profit.

More and more Indian universities are becoming settings for acute political polarisation, which among other things could also be an expression of disenchantment with the very idea of a general higher education. It seems unable to address the questions of the present. Would you agree?

Absolutely, and with great regret. But in this, the universities symptomise a larger, acute, and painful polarisation in Indian society and politics, at large; perhaps, in the world at large — the left and right, liberal and conservative, local and global — whatever we choose to call them. This polarisation grows bloodier and more violent every day. Having lived in the U.S. for many years, I must say the sense of being abandoned, ignored, left behind, felt by disenchanted groups — the rural, the provincial, and the working class — for which they blame the cosmopolitan neo-liberal class, is quite real. That’s my fear.

An excellent university system, including the pioneering system of liberal arts education, has not prevented this polarisation in the U.S.; and according to some rural right-wingers, it has rather aggravated it. Ironically, in spite of the far larger poor and illiterate population in the country, Indian universities, and Indian academics, it seems to me, are more connected to the public sphere beyond the academy, as opposed to the Balkanised American university. This is a real cause for hope.

You say to the ambitious young person in 21st century India, “If you are attracted to different disciplines, don’t choose between them. Go for them both.” Where could they go, within the country, to fulfil an aspiration of this sort?

Potentially anywhere. Back in college at University of Calcutta, an English Honours classmate of mine had mathematics as a “pass” subject. It is not so much the system but the mindset that prevents it. We already have the scaffolding of a liberal arts-cience system in our public universities, but not its real spirit. A radical mindset can infuse it with the spirit. Even the IITs make something of a bid for the humanities and the social sciences, as MIT has done so beautifully. New universities like Ashoka provide a more encouraging environment to pursue contra-disciplinarity. But more than anything else, it is attitude that needs to change. It would really be a lot of fun!

The writer’s latest book is The Cosmopolitans. Her new book of stories, A Day in the Life, will appear shortly.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 11:23:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/education-must-be-more-than-mere-consumption-of-knowledge-says-academic-saikat-majumdar/article22430074.ece

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