Ruchir Joshi

We don’t need no thought control

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Today, in India, models of educational excellence that were adapted from the best universities in the world are under serious threat from the government

There is a slightly lunatic argument that says that humanity reached the peak of civilisation at some point between the 1950s and today. This peak, the argument goes, was enjoyed by the more privileged countries (read: Western Europe, North America and Australasia) where wide sections of the population managed some semblance of equality, and a good quality of life to some degree in all its aspects — ample nutrition; good health care; human rights; freedom from war; scientific and artistic achievement; spiritual, but not necessarily religious, sustenance; and happiness.

Worse off or better off?

Facts undercutting this notion jump like filings to a magnet. These were the same decades when there was widespread poverty in the rest of the world. Inequality continued from the colonial era and increased during this period. There were massive famines, supposedly ‘natural’ in Africa and man-made or Mao-made in China. There were endless wars and genocides — so what if they avoided touching a few pockets? This was when our hacking away at the fragile branch we sit on, the environment, reached critical proportions. Ergo, the seeming ‘happiness’ of the ‘North by Northwest’ was poisoned by the means by which they had achieved it.

From another direction, the idea is shredded by the following contentions: apparently, as statistics tell us, never before has there been a lower percentage of humanity suffering starvation, malnutrition, or general poverty than today. Modern technology, especially computing and communication technology, has made it possible for more humans than ever before to access knowledge and information. Despite the dark manipulations exposed recently, never have the powerful controlling the world been forced to be more transparent. Even as humanity is hit by new diseases that are resistant to modern medication, we have defeated more diseases than ever before. Humans have a higher average of literacy and general education than ever before. Ergo, we are in a much better place now than at any time in the last 70 years, and that too because of several important ruptures from the 50 years that immediately followed the Second World War.

Revolution in education

Whatever the merits of the argument, one phenomenon stands out when we look at the second half of the 20th century. Post the upheaval of the Second World War, there was, in North America and Western Europe, a huge revolution in education, especially in higher education. Through different routes, those from poorer economic backgrounds were able to access learning and knowledge for the first time. This wave had a seismic effect on the class structures in these societies. Part of the revolution, for it was exactly that, meant that not only was there a democratisation of knowledge but also an opening of debates on how and for what purposes these different kinds of knowledge should be used. The modern technologies (including modern medicine) from which we benefit today are a direct result of this phenomenon, but so are contemporary ideas of equality, of human rights, of racial equality, of the equality of women and men, of the need to protect the environment. The other direct beneficiaries of this education revolution were generations of young Indians who were welcomed with minimum obstacles into western universities. Whereas, earlier, studying abroad was an option available only to wealthy Indians, increasingly from the mid-1960s, young ‘middle-class’ English-speaking youngsters were able to make their way out of India and into the wider world.

Freedom and threats

The college campuses these Indian youngsters landed in followed different models, whether it was a certain capitalist Ivy League model at MIT and Harvard, or one of the top medical schools, or a more public-funded template at an American liberal arts college, a British university, or a European one. Whatever the institution, the main thing required from all students was that they look their subject straight in the eye and study intelligently, mindfully, and hard. Their deans, departments and professors didn’t care about what they ate or about their religious or political views. There might have been some tacit need to ‘fit in’ in terms of clothes, food, etc., but no authority cared about the students’ personal lives or lifestyle choices. At higher levels of study it was entirely up to the student when they studied, whether they slacked off during the day or pulled all-nighters at the lab, week after week. What ultimately mattered was that the students could provide evidence that they had absorbed the required knowledge and the methods and techniques of processing further information in their chosen discipline. This was the even playing field (or, at least, far more even than before) on which every student played. The degrees students gained from these famous colleges were recognised and respected the world over because there was no corruption, no milavat, in the education being delivered. In the best institutions there was no question of interference by a government, or of a political party being able to influence the syllabus or the ideology of a university.

Today, in India, the models of educational excellence we’ve developed along the same principles are under serious threat from this government. It’s useful then to remember that the NRIs, home-based oligarchs, and many in the ruling party, who are now standing by and watching our best universities being hollowed out, have all benefited from the kind of education they are eager to deny today’s college students.

-The Hindu

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