Six Ideas of the University & Six Universities at which I have been

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Almost two hundred years ago, Thomas Carlyle wrote with magisterial certitude: “The true university of these days is a collection of books”.

Carlyle believed that the rise of print technology and the drive towards mass education in the western world had weakened the idea of the authoritative teacher. The ‘heroes’ of his time, he argued, were writers, not teachers, and aspiring students could go directly to books as repositories of learning.

Is the Internet, then, the ‘true university’ of the 21s t century?

Today, the radical effect that e-technologies have had not just on teaching methodologies but also on altering the ancient ideals of the Guru-shishya parampara , cannot, likewise, be overestimated. Students across the world can at present learn from Coursera whenever it suits them, rather than stumble to class bleary-eyed at eight in the morning. So, how have our attitudes towards the very idea of the university altered in an age where cell phones are our most constant companions and computers our most trusted guides to all three great worlds of the intellect, emotions, and entertainment?

To attempt to answer such a major question in under a thousand words is foolhardy. On the other hand, this word-count amounts to at least 50 Tweets, if we assume each to consist of about 15-20 words. Now that’s a lot of Tweets! Presidential and Prime-Ministerial pronouncements on policies ranging from immigration to demonetization in two of the world’s biggest democracies have been made in less.

For this inaugural editorial, Dhananjay of the Board of Student Publications specifically requested my “opinion on the differences (in teaching methodology, student culture, institution culture etc.)” that I “perceived between the various academic institutions” that I had “been a part of” and my “experiences of the same.”

I will try and meet these requirements in the form of a few pseudo-Tweets. Whatever your university, you are bound to hear words (not necessarily wise ones!) that remain with you for ages. The ‘Tweets’ below reproduce some of these enigmatic utterances with a view to sharing a few of my ‘experiences’.

Cambridge University: Upon my joining the Ph.D. program in Linguistics, my guide said to me: “Remember, a supervisor is just an umbrella to protect you from the administrative gods up there (he is not a crutch); style is just the icing on the cake (you cannot get away with pretty words and style alone); and you cannot do research without dirtying your hands (secondary texts are not enough; you have to do practical work in the field and create primary explanations for your data).” He then promptly vanished leaving me severely alone to figure out his gnomic mantras !

Singapore University: I taught at the NUS for 5 years. When I first went there, a colleague told me they had four language families in that tiny city-state – Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English. This made me think of the idea of “urban language laboratories” and the enormous amounts these sites could tell us about human community building and economic and cultural relations.

IIT Delhi: One of my students declared: “It is a waste of time to read a novel”. This casual remark spurred me on to write at least two books on why narratives were a fundamental evolutionary human resource for causal thinking and memory storage.

JNU: Another student at JNU told me: “In my state, we have no language.” He was from Nagaland and he meant that Nagami had no written script, so they wrote in the Roman script. But did this really mean they had ‘no language’? The remark focused my attention on how important it was to explore the rich traditions of orality as well as literacy in the Indian language economies.

Stanford University: “India is a great country in the southern hemisphere.” The Stanford students were gifted; many in my class were doing dual degrees in subjects as different as math and literature but some knew surprisingly little about other cultures. This made me realize the critical need to foster two-way exchanges between world universities.

The University of Washington at Seattle: “Across the lake, lives Technology”, I was told by a colleague who pointed to the Microsoft ‘campus’ across from the University. It was an apt reminder of how technology and all branches of ‘higher learning share a symbiotic relationship that is only poised to grow in the 21s t century.

All these academic institutions I have been at through the years actually showcase different models of the university. These are:  1. The standard-issue university such as Cambridge or JNU, consisting of “ a community regarded collectively… the whole body of teachers engaged at a particular place, in giving and receiving instruction in the higher branches of learning”, first English usage 1300 AD 2. The Institute, represented by IITD, which came into being after the French Revolution of 1789, privileging specialist skills in any branch of knowledge from engineering to music; 3. The ‘rights-based’ university is a newer model exclusively devoted to historically under-served groups such as women, Dalits or the physically disabled; 4. ‘Alternative’ universities like Vishwa Bharati founded by Rabindranath Tagore, for example, also offer structures of higher learning meant to challenge conventional grades-oriented universities, being open and environmentally friendly; 5. Then there is the ‘travelling university’, or peripatetic model of the university where it is the teachers who move all over the globe disseminating knowledge, popularized as long ago as the 4th century BCE by Aristotle and coming back into vogue today in times of frantic global travel; 6. And, finally, there’s the ‘Virtual’ University, already mentioned, whose wondrous potential for making us ‘perpetual learners’ we are still discovering.

I believe that all these ideas of the university – and others – need to be rejuvenated today as the world is at once exponentially expanding in terms of knowledge easily available and startlingly shrinking in terms of close and immediate communication. This is a time when the IITs – and especially our students – should take the lead in creatively interpreting the interdisciplinary relations between STEM and what I call LEAF (Liberal Education in the Arts Fields) courses. A vigorous – and rigorous – combination of the two could make a marvelous contribution to a ‘true university’ for our own times. I am honored that the BSP asked me to write this editorial.

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