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War on ideas

Are the universities becoming centres of dogmatic orthodoxy? If they become a place of fear and intimidation, free discourse will become rare. The weaponisation of cancel
culture by the right is a worrying trend which bodes ill for the institutions of higher learning. The left is equally to blame

ASH NARAIN ROY | New Delhi |

With politics becoming increasingly a carpet of lies, broken promises and smoke and mirror games, the 21st century seems to be moving into a Dostoevskian paradise. Fyodor Dostoevsky perhaps saw it coming when he said, “don’t weep, life is paradise, but we don’t want to know it.” His words were prophetic. He had accurately predicted how Russia’s revolutionaries would behave once they came to power. Have we become a sort of “piano key or a sprig in an organ” as the celebrated Russian novelist foresaw?

Paradise it is. But it is for the billionaires. See what has happened in the US. If in the US, the university is vanishing for the less endowed, in India, it is starved of funds. Way back in the mid1990s, Prof. Upendra Baxi, then Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, had bemoaned that universities were on their “death-bed.” Many American universities are on the verge of a collapse.

With higher fee, the elite universities will become even more elitist. In any case, meritocracy in the US has become a caste system and a degree is a mark of one’s wealth. Didn’t Hannah Arendt warn us that “meritocracy contradicts the principle of equality” and that without equality, “it is no less than any form of oligarchy?”

The Covid-19 scourge has hit the American universities hard. With all higher education sectors experiencing an enrolment decline, colleges and universities are huffing and puffing. But that is only one part of the problem. As Scott Galloway of New York University says, the pandemic has “greased the wheels for big tech’s entrée into higher education.” The largest tech companies are all set to enter into partnerships with universities. “When governments are not able to bail out America,” Galloway adds, “billionaires step in. But it always comes at a price.” Maybe, this is the future of universities in India as well.

Higher education will soon be out of reach for the poor and the lower middle classes. In the best global universities ranking in 2019, eight of the 10 best were American in terms of academic research, academic reputation, international collaboration, publication and citations. But half the students of America’s 12 top universities come from the richest 10 per cent of families. A far bigger crisis is the war on ideas. At the end of 1960s and 1970s, the right in the US won the economic war. But the left won the culture war. Is the right, backed by corporate power, trying to win the culture war as well?

Universities are surrendering to the cancel culture. Hundreds of faculty and staff of Princeton University have publicly demanded the power to punish professors for research and publication that they deem racist. In 2020, a college instructor was boycotted for merely attending a propolice rally. A professor at the University of Chicago was relieved of important posts because he criticised Black Lives Matter.

Capitalism has turned everything including intellectual pursuits into a consumerist experience. Is the pursuit of truth still the guiding principle of institutions of higher learning or have they become what Daniel Drezner calls “ideas industry?” For capitalism, they are merely instruments of tentpole marketing. Capitalism’s goal is to educate people merely on the scale required by capital. As Pandit Nehru said, a university stands for “the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth.” It is an abode of critical thinking. The mottos of the leading American universities testify to such an ideal ~ fiat lux (let there be light), so claims the University of California. ‘Veritas’ (truth), ‘the wind of freedom blows’, and lux et veritas (light and truth) are the mottos of Harvard University, Stanford University and Yale University respectively.

Are the universities becoming centres of dogmatic orthodoxy? If they become a place of fear and intimidation, free discourse will become rare. The weaponisation of cancel culture by the right is a worrying trend which bodes ill for the institutions of higher learning. The left is equally to blame. Initially, the cancelling was a tool in the hands of the marginalized communities. Today, it threatens to undermine free speech and academic excellence. Some say it is cancel culture capitalism. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls it ‘obscene’ as it is “robbing a whole generation of the opportunity to develop their creative talents and to flourish as human beings.”

The cancel culture would be “a death knell of learning and thinking organisations.” There is also a frenzy of book banning from libraries as part of a campaign to cleanse libraries of works seen as “unwholesome.” Soon there will be a war on books and ideas. Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania and Yale University have experienced most cases of scholars being attacked and de-platformed. Mostly liberal arts like political science, law, history, English language, and philosophy have suffered in the process.

Universities in the 1960s and 1970s nurtured intellectual experimentation and intellectual thrashing of ideas. Sociologist Avijit Pathak says a university must be a place where students are intellectually challenged and made to feel uncomfortable. Today academic conversation is avoided for fear of triggering someone’s feelings. Institutions of higher learning have now become conformist and censorial. Apparently, academia’s golden age that fuelled the American dream is over.

Infantilisation of higher education is another worrying trend. A combination of helicopter parenting and social media has arrested development of youth. University administration has unwittingly become mental health counsellor. Referring to the practice of The University College, London, permitting students to leave class if they find historical events “disturbing,” Professor Frank Furendi says, “today one can’t teach the Holocaust without unsettling students.” All is of course not lost. Over 80 institutions of higher learning have endorsed the “Chicago principles” which state that “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”

The new university of Austin is being set up with the mission to create a “fiercely independent” school that offers “an alternative to illiberalism” on college campuses. It is planning to start its first course later this year called “Forbidden Courses” offering a spirited discussion about most provocative issues. The maladies afflicting the higher education sector are excessive financialization and the winner-takes-all approach. Will the billionaires rescue the American universities? American universities are already addicted to billionaires.

Farhad Manjoo writes in The New York Times that when a billionaire comes calling, “men in the ivory tower can’t resist lowering their golden locks to let the plutocrat climb aboard.” The billionaires have their own reason to go after the universities because the American “idea factories have proven to be susceptible to all their wealth.”

(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)