Monday, February 11, 2008

The fate of humanities and social sciences at IISc

Caution: This longish post on IISc's prehistory is just a (quirky) summary of the first two chapters in B.V. Subbarayappa's In Pursuit of Excellence: A History of the Indian Institute of Science (Tata McGraw-Hill, 1992).

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The Indian Institute of Science owes its existence to that great 19th century industrialist and visionary, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. This great man's other dream projects included the Taj Mahal Hotel, which he lived to see the birth of, and the Tata Steel, which he didn't.

Jamsetji's vision for an institution of higher learning was articulated sometime in 1896. However, the Institute became a reality only in 1909. What happened between 1896 and 1909?

Let's take a look at some of the key events of this era, as recounted in BVS's book. All the quoted sections below are from there.

There are multiple threads in this story, but I want to concentrate on how the academic goals of IISc got the shape they did. In particular, humanities and social sciences figured quite prominently during the early stages of shaping the institution's academic mandate, but were dumped rather unceremoniously when the Institute became a reality. This fact was highlighted in a recent lecture by Prof. P. Balaram, IISc Director, and it piqued my curiosity. I went to back to BVS to delve a little deeper into IISc's prehistory.

* * *

According to BVS, Jamsetji had been thinking about creating a "real" university at least since the 1890s (and probably even earlier). He was also sure that such a university should be not just for the Parsis, but for all of India. While these thoughts were on his mind, he set up, in 1892, a committee to "select some brilliant students to be sent annually for higher studies in England" (p.20). In 1893, he met Swami Vivekananda on a ship from Japan to the US. He recalls this meeting in his 1898 letter to Vivekananda.

1896: Articulation of a Vision

However, it is in an 1896 letter to Lord Reay, the Governor of Bombay and Chancellor of the Bombay University, that Jamsetji presents his ideas for a university:

Being blessed by the mercy of Providence with more than a fair share of the worlds' goods and persuaded that I owe much of my success in life to an unusual combination of favourable circumstances, I have felt it incumbent on myself to help to provide a continuous atmosphere of such circumstances for my less fortunate countryment. [...]

I propose to ... [make] a Trust Settlement of property annually yielding between Rupees Eighty Thousand and a lac for this purpose. [...]

[Aside 1: The way Jamsetji proposed his "trust settlement" contained within it the seeds of an enormous delay. The assets of the university, he said, will coexist with those of his sons (and their descendents). Why? His sons would then be responsible for managing the combined assets, which Jamsetji appears to prefer over the alternative of the university's assets being managed by a bunch of a faceless trust. He said, "... I believe that property Trusts are very difficult to manage and liable to abuse when managed by bailiffs under large body of Trustees..." He offered a modified proposal in 1898, but the essence was the same. The properties would be managed together by one Trust, with the annual income being shared by the University and his family.]

1896 also saw the entry of Burjorji Padshah into the IISc story. Jamsetji invited Padshah to help him in his "national mission." He also bankrolled Padshah's travel through Europe for nearly eighteen months, during which he visited universities and interacted with scholars and educationists. The idea was to figure out what kind of a university Jamsetji's dream project should turn into.

1898: Teaching University of India

Armed with a lot of (conflicting) inputs , Padshah returned to India (probably in 1898). A Provisional Committee for Post-Graduate Education was set up in late 1898 to give a concrete shape to Jamsetji's dream. This Committee had 23 members; Padshah was its secretary, and Jamsetji himself was just an ordinary member! It started its work with a tentative scheme for a "Teaching University of India," prepared by Padshah himself.

According to this tentative scheme, the institution was meant for post-graduate teaching in the following schools:

  • School of Sanitary Service and Practice
  • School of Pedagogies
  • School for Higher Technical Studies.

1898: Imperial University of India

Well, the Provisional Committee went into Padshah's ideas, and converted them into a fairly detailed plan that included academic departments, administrative structure and financial requirements. Its final scheme suggested setting up three "departments" (which are more like schools or faculties in the present day university system) in what it called the Imperial University of India:

  1. A scientific and technical department
    • Physics and Chemistry, including its applications to Agriculture, Arts and Industry
  2. A medical department
    • Physiological and Bactereological Chemistry
  3. A philosophical and educational department
    • Methods of Education
    • Ethics and Psychology
    • Indian History and Archaeology
    • Statistics and Economics
    • Comparative Philology

1899: Curzon's concerns

Lord Curzon, the Viceroy-designate, met with the representatives of the Provisional Committee on 31 December 1898 -- just a day after his arrival in India! Even though he had no time to study the details of the scheme, Lord Curzon raised some questions. They ranged from whether India had enough students to study in this institution, to employment opportunities for its graduates. More importantly,

Curzon also had his doubts about the value of the Department of Philosophy and Education, including archaeology, ethics, psychology and methods of education, which would involve substantial expenditure.

This appears to be a key turning point. For the first time, questions are raised about the utility of humanities and social sciences, and they acquire a certain legitimacy and persistence because a powerful person raised them.

Padshah and other Committee members offered a valiant rebuttal:

... Justice Candy [Chairman of the Committee] explained that ... although they scarcely hoped to provide for all of the subjects at once, they thought it best to include such subjects as philosophy and education. ... Two other members of the delegation ... pointed out the importance of training in philosophy and education for strengthening the teaching faculties in secondary and higher education. [...] Padshah stated that he had found during the course of his enquiries in Europe that Ethics and Philosophy were invariably associated with instruction in the methods of teaching.

This, then, marks the beginning of the end of H&SS in the institution that would later become the Indian Institute of Science. This is also the beginning of series of attempts by Padshah to get H&SS included in the institution's mandate, only to see them scuttled.

1899: Indian University of Research

After a bit of back and forth, a conference was held in Simla, with Thomas Raleigh (who was later to lead the University Commission set up by Curzon) as its chairman. This conference too favoured "a gradual development" of the institution, with priority being given to scientific, technological and medical branches. The preferred name became "Indian University of Research."

1900 - 01: Ramsay's suggestions

The government suggested -- and the Provisional Committee agreed with it -- that the scheme for the institution be examined by an outside expert. Prof. William Ramsay, who was to win the 1904 Chemistry Nobel, was their man; he toured India for over two and a half months, visited over a dozen educational centres, and submitted a fairly detailed report on the academic, administrative and financial structure of the institution. On the academic side, he was clearly in favour of science and technology. His preferred structure consisted of Departments of General Chemistry, Engineering Technology and Industrial Bactereology. In addition, he also suggested hiring a junior faculty Electrical Technology.

The dream of a university was effectively dead at this point. What remained was just a "scientific research institute."

The IISc story goes through some weird contortions at this point, involving Curzon, Raleigh and George Hamilton (Secretary of State for India). At one point, Raleigh suggests that the institute be "merely a kind of college with Fellowships", where the Fellows would go through research or special study, and be examined by the Principal and the institute's Council. Jamsetji's response to this was a clear and unambiguous 'no'. At the end of these messy negotiations, the government decided that a fresh evaluation of the scheme was necessary! Professor Orme Masson (Melbourne University) and Col. Clibborn (Roorkee College) were chosen for this purpose.

1901: Indian Institute of Science

Masson and Clibborn [1] were the first ones to call the institution by its present name. They didn't like the "Institute of Research", suggesting that it was "somewhat pretentious." "By all means," they added, "let it earn the reputation for research, but let it not claim it merely on the strength of good intentions."

On the academic side, they too stuck to the science and technology areas. They recommended three schools to start with:

  • School of Chemistry

  • School of Experimental Physics

  • School of Experimental Biology

[Aside 2: From this point on, the scheme went through several years of tortuous negotiations, mainly because of the financing plan proposed by Jamsetji. As we saw earlier, Jamsetji's contribution to the institution was tangled up with the finances of his family, and the government had serious objections to this messy arrangement. In the event, the scheme finally saw the light of day only after the Institute's finances were separated from those of Jamseji's family. That happened in 1904, and the government gave its approval in February of 1905. Sadly, Jamsetji didn't live to enjoy this moment; he had passed away in May 1904.]

* * *

Effectively, our story -- with its emphasis on IISc's academic mandate -- ends here. The years from 1905 to 1909 were devoted to getting the financial and administrative structure in place, hiring IISc's first Director, and wrangling over the relative powers of the Director's office, the government of India and the House of Tatas.

There's just one more episode that deserves mention. As I pointed out earlier, the original inclusion of H&SS was essentially due to Padshah, and he kept trying to revive that idea even after it was killed unofficially by Curzon and semi-officially by Ramsay [2]. Interestingly, he made one final attempt. Along with Dorab Tata (Jamsetji's son), he urged Morris Travers (IISc's first Director) to open a School of Social Studies at IISc. BVS says:

Padshah also pleaded with Travers that efforts should be made to investigate such areas as dietetics, archaeology, anthropology, women's education and, specially, tropical medicine. [p.80]

This happened in 1910, in the first year of IISc's operation. Students started arriving in 1911, the same year Padshah resigned from the IISc Council to take charge of Jamsetji's other dream project: Tata Steel.

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[1] Here's yet another interesting aside: Masson and Clibborn suggested an annual intake of just 15. They thoughtfully considered the possibility of drop outs to conclude that IISc was likely to have a steady student population of about 45!

[2] To be fair, the IISc scheme that was finally approved did say that the institution's object was to promote "original investigations in all branches of knowledge." I think it is equally fair to conclude that the word "Science" in the institute's name has had an enormous influence on whether it developed a strong program in H&SS.


  1. Fëanor said...

    Hi: interesting summary. Just wondered if the lack of social studies at IISc prompted the creation of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay? Does BVS say anything about that?

  2. Abi said...

    Fëanor: Padshah is the one who kept insisting on H&SS programs at IISc. But he left IISc in 1911 to take charge of the Tata Steel project. And TISS was created at least a couple of decades later. Thus, I don't see any link between TISS and the lack of H&SS at IISc.

    And I haven't seen any reference to TISS in BVS's book in the first 150 pages or so.

  3. Unknown said...

    Is it really documented that
    Curzon's doubts about H&SS had to do with the ``substantial expenditure'' they would involve? In comparison to science and engineering?? Hard to believe. It seems much more likely he was afraid of the underlying potential for subversive thinking. Curzon died in 1925; TISS was established well after, in 1936.

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