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Path to Knowledge

The principle of universality which belongs to the idea of a university, has to be balanced by what may appear, but only appears, to be an opposite idea.


Did you know both Jagdish Chandra Bose and Einstein came up with their great theories while working outside the university system; Ramanujam worked on most of his deductions while working as a clerk in a South Indian post office; Jayanti Narlikar almost touched the Nobel Prize while working in a Western university but on return home did not join a university department; most of the quality research outputs in India are coming from IITs, IIS and similar institutions and not from the universities? Why? The answer lies in the fact that our university systems have, by and large, failed to nourish scholarship and academic excellence. They have turned themselves from temples of academic excellence to mere teaching centres without making efforts to build and develop knowledge based on the hierarchy of thoughts. They function as if they are not meant for advancement of knowledge. Higher knowledge is a joint product of direct and indirect cooperation of scientists and seekers of truth all over the world.

By this worldwide cooperative enterprise of a very special kind, the frontiers of knowledge are guarded and extended continuously in all vibrant societies. This is an enterprise in which a university must participate with all its heart and its strength. The principle of universality which belongs to the idea of a university, has to be balanced by what may appear, but only appears, to be an opposite idea. The quest for the universal must be married to a sympathetic interest in what concerns our immediate neighbourhood, what Gandhi and Rabindranath understood by swadesh. While pure knowledge aims at the universal, applied knowledge is concerned with problems at hand. The university must be as open as the sky, yet as close as the nest. This is the spirit that Tagore sought to capture and encapsulate in the motto for his university, yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam. A more moderate slogan, “Think globally, act locally”, carries a similar resonance.

When we talk of science and rationalism, we should be careful that science does not consist in imitating the West or even gaining its condescending applause. It consists rather in a systematic and innovative application of reason for overcoming the problems that we confront. From these facts emanate the idea that the main object of university education should be to produce sufficiently competent teachers, scholars, and researchers. Needless to reiterate, a large number of people should take up productive work of different kinds rather than enroll themselves in the universities. While universities are recognised as producers and distributors of knowledge and are vested with authority to assess and certify the acquisition of such knowledge by those who seek such things, it would be a pretentious folly to imagine that all such knowledge originates within the precincts of universities. The fact of the matter is that traditionally Indian society respects teaching skills more than scholarship or research.

While we emphasize teaching, there is less time for research. When we have less regard for research, we tend to forget about sparing time or effort for contemplation. And when we have no time for contemplation, naturally there is the dearth of ideas, thoughts, or philosophy. The result is before us. Gone are the days when people used to define “professorship” as a position where the incumbent was supposed to profess knowledge and wisdom. Today, it has rather become a capacity to ingratiate and politicize one’s activities and alliances. Today we have allowed all kinds of non-academics ~ politicians, bureaucrats, past criminals ~ to rule the university bodies.

Since the 1960s, AIFUCTO and other teachers’ bodies have entered the arena, but never to raise academic standards. In fact, they have demanded equity between excellence and deficiency in education. We have confused ourselves between campuses and learning, between chairs and knowledge, between degrees and wisdom and between height of position and depth of wisdom. We are in the process of forgetting that the real university is not a material object; it is not a cluster of magnificent buildings; it is far from being a place of organising fanciful seminars. If the temples of learning have lost their credibility, nothing physical has changed. But we are left with only the remains of Nalanda, a two-thousand-year-old institution, and, still, we remember it with pride.

The suggestion is that the real university is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought process that has been brought down to us through centuries and which does not exist at a sky specific location. It is a state of mind which has been regenerated throughout centuries by the body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even the title is not that part of real university. The real university is nothing less than the continuing and growing body of knowledge. The concept of university may be divided into two parts~ as the basic and the subsidiary in terms of its purpose, and its location and structure. The first part is that which may be defined as a state of mind. The second part is a kind of legal corporation which cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge, or evolve ideas.

It is a legal entity approved by an act of Parliament. It is a non-profit corporation, a branch of government with a specific address. It pays salary and receives grants and responds to all kinds of legislative and other pressures The primary goal of the real university is always like Socrates’ goal, the truth in its all forms as it is revealed by the analysis of reason and ideal of truth itself. Everything else is subordinate to truth. Normally, this goal is in no conflict with the subsidiary university ~ the locational part. The locational goals may be that of improving the citizenry. But conflict may arise when the government and the other funding agencies take points of view in opposition to the prime goals of the real university ~ the search of truth and the advancement of learning based on truth.

Let us look forward to a day in our new India when power worship vanishes from the subsidiary university campuses and the basic university asserts itself. It is a welcome invitation to our real intellectuals, knowledge seekers and worshippers of truth on the campuses to come forward and retaliate against the chaos created by misguided sycophants and opportunists and let the true university establish itself. For three hundred years the British produced clerks and for the last 75 years, we are in the process of producing ignorant, educated incapables. It’s time we rise from our deep slumber, rub our misty eyes, and see the decay on their faces, for no one’s benefit but our own.