Tropical universities and knowledge production / University rankings and India / University rankings and Indian academia

[ Daily News and Analysis, 16 Sep 2013; Kashmir Reader, 17 Sep 2013; Millenium Post, 20 Sep 2013; Shillong Times, 21 Sep 2013; Hitavada, 22 Sep 2013; Echo of India, 25 Sep 2013]

As world rankings of universities are being discussed, we are back to that sad truth. No university in the subcontinent figures in the top 200 universities in the world. However, one would not realize this when one looks at the cocksureness and pomposity of desi academics in the subcontinent. There is a Bengali idiom called ‘Bon gaye sheyal raja’ which means that in a far-way forested village, even a fox can be king. Such is the state of affairs around us.

Some would have us believe that it was not always so. Around the time of the great uprising of 1857 led by the mercenaries of the East India Company, 3 universities were also established in the 3 presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. In no small way the result of a 1854 dispatch sent by Charles Wood, a top dog of the Company, to James Broun-Ramsay, the then governor general of Company territories in the subcontinent, these 3 institutions continue to be important institutions of higher learning in the Union of India.

Founded in the same year, all these institutions celebrated 150 years of their existence, with a lot of pomp. I graduated from one of these afore-mentioned universities and I was present at more than one such ‘celebration’. Four years after 1857, on the other side of the globe, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the institution I am affiliated to at present, was established. I was also present at its 150-year celebration events. Thus I had the opportunity to compare what I had seen and heard in the subcontinent and in Massachusetts, USA. The difference could not have been starker. Much of what I heard in the sub-continental anniversary celebrations was about a supposed glorious past, long-standing ‘heritage’, a lot of talk about famous personalities associated with the institutions and gloating over all this. At MIT, almost invariably I heard about plans about the future – new avenues of research, newer expansions, and newer challenges. There was not much mention of personalities in the institute that has produced 78 Nobel laureates till date. Neither is MIT peppered with ‘museums’ dedicated to Nobel laureates. Museums are same as temples and mosques – places of praying for things to go right miraculously, not places of action.

In the subcontinent, when one thinks of MIT, a centre of excellence for research in engineering and technology is the typical impression. While that is true, according to the 2013 update of the well-regarded QS World University Rankings published last week, in the whole world, MIT is second only to Harvard in Biological Sciences and Economics. What this means is that it has not simply stuck to its one-time strengths but has actively diversified its ‘priorities’. In doing so, it has also shut down departments and divisions whose shelf life was perceived to be over. These are signs of a living institution in conversation with the cutting edge of knowledge production – situated squarely within the social needs and agendas of the society it derives meaning from.

In the QS rankings, MIT tops the list Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Princeton are also among the top 10. It may be news to some readers that not one of the top 10 universities of the world has a department of botany at present. In most cases, they ceased to exist decades ago. All that remains are museums bearing that erstwhile department’s name. Contrast this to the large departments of botany in most universities of the subcontinent. May be there is something we get that ‘they’ don’t. Given that the occidental university system and department making is something that ‘they’ taught us, could it be that there is something they get that we don’t?

It is worthwhile to continue with the example of botany. When the white colonial powers set up universities in the subcontinent, why did they set up departments of botany? What knowledge did they seek to produce? For whose benefit? What made them wind up or fuse certain departments? To cut whose loss? All knowledge production and prioritization exists in a societal context – the colonizer’s societal context fashioned their decisions, at home and in the colonies. Given that we are not only inheritors of such university systems but also active perpetuators, do we have an appreciation of our own reasons to do so? Why are there so few institutions like the Indian Statistical Institute that was conceived in a social context, whose agenda is in conversation with the society it derives funding from and blooms in and also is a centre of excellence?

But then this is part of a bigger problem. So let me broaden the ambit a bit.Why do certain things, like homeopathy and psychoanalysis, have long after-lives in the once-colonized tropics compared to places from where they were imported? Lets hone in on psychoanalysis. To understand the mind, one needs to study the mind and yes, people are studying the mind. Much of these studies are not aimed towards illness or pharmaceuticals, in any foreseeable way. If some have a muse in the form of psycho-analysis, an outdated fad which has all but died except in ‘fields’ insulated from currents around them, they can have it. Just not with people’s funds. The tropics can ill afford it. Understanding the mind shouldnt be a dead idea but unverifiable tracts cannot replace inquiry and can hardly be called a knowledge project. And again, the social context is crucial to all these things. The question in the piece is, why do such things continue to live in tropics long after they are dead in their places of origin. The answer may partly lie in the very skewed class-caste composition in the academia of the subcontinent – this enables socially insulated indulgence to a dangerous degree.

When the site of knowledge production is far off and they cater primarily to needs of alien societies, transferred knowledge and ideas create a sense of awe. This results in a lack of confidence to manipulate, to break, to discard. In so far as universities are fountainheads of societal knowledge yearnings, what do our societies want to know? Have we even asked? We better start doing that. Otherwise we risk becoming expert cleaners and preservers of other people’s furniture, even lacking the confidence of changing the arrangement. However the cleaner’s wage is paid by our own brown people. This is how the third world continues down the path of being  2nd class at the 1st world’s priorities and it is mightily proud about it.

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Filed under Acedemia, Education, Elite, Identity, Knowledge, Science

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