Monday, February 19, 2007

Ram Guha on India's universities


As I see it, there are four principal ailments from which our universities (and colleges) suffer. These illnesses carry the names parochialism, dogmatism, populism and giganticism respectively. I think that many readers will recognise - and may even have experienced - the symptoms of each in Calcutta University. Is this the same university whose vice-chancellor once invited two young, talented, but then mostly unknown south Indians - one a physicist, the other a philosopher - and gave them both a professorial chair? Is this the same place where many of the best, and best-loved, teachers in undergraduate colleges were from places as far distant as Punjab and Kerala?

The parochialism that Calcutta University is subject to is not merely linguistic or regional; it is also ideological. Thirty years of Left Front rule have destroyed the pluralism of ideas in the university. One cannot say how many of the so-called Marxist professors really know their Marx or Engels. For their patrons, it is enough that they show their loyalty to the party. Certainly, those who question the tenets of Marxism on intellectual grounds or the policies of the Left Front on empirical grounds cannot hope to enjoy positions of authority and respect in Calcutta University.

The ailment of populism, meanwhile, manifests itself in the desire to treat all constituent units as equal, by bringing them all equally under the dead hand of centralized control. Rather than maintain some departments and colleges of excellence, and hold them up as models worthy of emulation, the attempt has been to drag down the high achievers to the level of the mass. Once, Presidency College and the university department of history were acknowledged showpieces; now they are indistinguishable from the herd.

Finally, there is the problem of giganticism. How can a university maintain standards - even minimal standards - when it has hundreds of affiliated units and hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in it?

Thanks to Rahul for the pointer.


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    I was in Calcutta last year and spoke to several academics of different ages from 30 to 70. The overall impression is similar.
    there is a wonderful quote from Feynman in Rahul's site:
    I wonder whether this sort of thing is at work.