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More than an academic bent

The Statesman | September 20, 2016
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Despite recent  sweeping reforms in Indian education at the school level, reviews of the country’s college education structure have been long overdue and in need of an overhaul for a while now. The demands to “liberalise” college education have leaned on the need for new investments at a critical juncture of India’s growth. For the young demographic to compete globally, the need for updated choices, access to research resources and trained faculty have all justified the national push to liberalise education. Despite the din about growth rates and new markets, excellence in college education cannot be represented by enrolment ratios and consumer choices, but by the quality of graduating classes.

True liberalisation would go beyond viewing education as a sector only in need of better regulation and enhanced investment in scale, to tackling the bigger and more elusive challenge — creating and upholding excellence in the classroom. While early professional specialisation, privatisation of infrastructure, and mass testing through competitive examinations were perceived as answers to bridging the gap between outdated curricula and current needs, all those measures fall short. Such measures barely begin to confront questions of student-teacher ratios or afford the time needed to fully explore options and strengths in the quest for true graduation. The sheer scale of India’s youth ought to invite honest reflection on what it means to liberalise the quality of college education, especially since, above all else, it is this quality that remains in short supply.

It is in liberal arts colleges across the country that one should seek to address the question of quality. By “liberal”, I mean not only some version of an American education but an individual-centric pedagogy that is flexible and current. The small faculty-student ratio, the ability to design one’s own course of study and the mentorship and responsiveness of faculty to students are, to me, the hallmarks of such a system. In this environment, the teaching raises fundamental queries about individuality, reflexiveness and social context. In an Indian scenario, while curricula have been variously confronted with nativist or orientalist slants, the fundamental contradiction that a new college curriculum throws up is the contest between knowledge as inheritance versus the acquisition of knowledge as firsthand experience.

In liberal arts universities, one is allowed to ask the uncomfortable questions that no one has the answers to like in an era of competing media has the fundamental purpose of academic knowledge changed. If yes, how do we impart learning since inter-disciplinary research has changed, as has traditional practices of academic disciplines? And. finally, in these times of Facebook and Twitter, how do we properly contextualise the embodied processes of reflection and mastery that education seeks to deliver?

By not only viewing education as a tool of futile regurgitation via summary or the re-reading of facts as “true/false”, we may begin to address the divide between embodied and textual knowledge. Given how unfamiliar Indian college classrooms are to original research, one of the serious challenges one faces is the accusation of “lack of rigour”— an allegation frequently applied to the realm of the subjective. It is through academic programs that focus on the individual that one will manage to appraise forms that exceed formalised academic expectations like final exams.

The challenges for beginners is with making academic space for “artistic research” and truly querying the “how we know what we know” question. As Arjun Appadurai said in his 2006 article on the “Right to research”, it is the idea of research that needs to be deparochialised. Through a longer argument, Appadurai highlights that the meaning of research may not necessarily only entail the production of new knowledge. For outsiders to this aspiration, it may simply be “the capacity to systematically increase the horizons of one’s own knowledge”. Even more significantly, in the current context, it would mean knowledge of one’s immediate location and the forces that impinge upon it. In the dynamic environment of contemporary India, there can be no more important goal for education at the college level.

The academic endeavour required for responsible curricular design and informed choice entails a recuperative effort of the kind that G N Devy refers to in his work, After Amnesia — an effort that is multilingual, non-hierarchical and takes more than an academic orientation. The motivation for such an orientation would be based on a curiosity that is larger than what seems to immediately speak to the present. In fact, it would argue for a concerted effort toward an invisible horizon. For if Indian education in today's liberal arts classroom is premised on an unprecedented freedom with a clean break from a colonial past, even then, the motivation to know oneself needs to seek out spaces that we didn’t even know existed yet.

One immediate example that comes to mind is the effort of the Murty Classical Library of India. The projected 500 volumes to be translated from Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Persian, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other Indian languages include fiction, poetry, non-fiction and religious texts from all Indian traditions. While the project began in 2015, it is absolutely astounding that such a multilingual library had never been assembled under one roof till now. I believe the MCLI has offered a significant challenge to the new liberal arts classroom in India.

Often students these days will have some resonance with a lived knowledge more than an academic one and should be encouraged to draw more on the experiential facets of texts. One is faintly pointing towards a future that deprivileges only the privileged knowledge towards inviting inspiration for research and produces real authors who have a sense of their place in the world.

(The writer is Chair, Department of Humanities, Flame University, Pune)

(Source: http://www.thestatesman.com/news/supplements/more-than-an-academic-bent/166007.html)