It is said that if all is well with the colleges, all will be well with society. Good institutions matter. Colleges have been for a long time agents of massive social transformation, housing teachers, who almost always challenged the established beliefs of their times, were questioned and even criticized, but were proven right when seen in hindsight. Such academia is today under threat, both culturally and institutionally. It is however, high time for the tides to change.
The modern university
The concept of a college or university is not new to our society. Nalanda and Takshashila are not a part of fable and folklore, but were concrete realities. The spirit of inquiry was supreme here. Ideas were debated, and through questioning, both the students and the teachers treaded the path of knowledge.
In our ancient society, universities were at places secluded from the general populace, mostly in forests. These were institutions for quiet contemplation and introspection. With the dawn of the modern era, and with the idea of education changing, the colleges and society began to merge.
Modern education system started as an aftermath of the French Revolution. On 21st January 1793, the king was not just killed physically but also in principle. Citizens knew that the throne can be left empty, and we can organize and govern ourselves. The idea of monarchy was dead. Since the king had always claimed his authority as a God given right, death of the king led to the death of God. No wonder the greatest western thinkers of the 19th Century – Nietzsche, Darwin, Goethe, Marx and Freud – all questioned the authority of God.
This led to a crisis. Religion, being the primary force behind mobilizing people, also taught humans to be humble, appreciate the power of the community, appreciate nature, and not try to control everything in their lives. With the idea of religion been shaken by the intelligentsia, it was envisioned that education and art will rise up to fill this void. Culture should replace scripture. No wonder most reputed universities across the world were started during this period. The modern university was born.
A failed cause?
Although the ideas of renaissance has played a major role in framing today’s educational values, it has also borrowed heavily from the industrial process. Students are today made to follow the same curriculum every year and move in batches similar to the assembly line of a factory. There are strict timings and quality check processes in place, all being borrowed from the industrial economic model. As the British educationalist Sir Ken Robinson puts it –
“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them; they’re not just lying around on the surface.”
This industrial model of education is not just demeaning towards the purpose of education in bringing out the individual talent and helping students cope with the pressures of modern life, it also alienates our educational institutions from the social purpose they are meant to serve.
Colleges have the potential to transform society, but for a long time have failed to do so. The problem is both cultural and institutional. Take the example of the high fees students have to pay for quality education today. According to American linguist Noam Chomsky –
“Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time they graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.”
Similarly, strict curriculum, frequent evaluation and a general blind eye towards the needs of the society – all contribute towards indoctrinating students into becoming conformist members of the society who are afraid to take risks, question, and look beyond their individual lives.
The road ahead
Colleges should play a greater role in society. It must be noted here that most colleges cannot function with the fees that students pay. A good fraction of their operational cost comes from funds or subsidies they receive from the government, i.e., from the tax payers’ money. This automatically makes them responsible to serve a larger social purpose.
Many colleges are already handling their social responsibility with great vigor. Back in 1985, IIT Bombay started a Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA) when some teachers realized that the institution is creating engineers who are well focused on their careers but suffer from a blind spot when it comes to implementing their knowledge and skills to create social impact at the grass root level. The department helps in developing technology which impacts the bottom 80% of the Indian population. The department facilitates students to work at the grass root level, and they are appointed to projects like survey the impact of NREGA in building rural assets, help water supply projects get implemented in a better way, build technology to solve rural household problems, etc. According to a student Nitin Singh of the department –
“We are made to spend time in villages and work with the underprivileged while focusing on how we can use our technical skills to improve their lives. I recently spend a few months in a drought hit village in Madhya Pradesh and helped in building a small dam there. My own project is about improving the lives of rural women who carry heavy pots of water on their heads daily. This leads to serious health issues, especially for young girls. It is also a gender issue, as men don’t want to help women in these household tasks. We have used technology to build a simple device using bamboos which distributes the pot’s weight across the body and therefore reduces the health problems these rural women face.”
Colleges have the potential to become the powerhouses of not just ideas, but also of action. Given their potential, shouldn’t colleges ensure that there is no illiterate person in their vicinity? May it be engineering, medicine, law or humanities, every branch of education has a social role to play. At an age when we are the least burdened and most energetic, isn’t taking up this responsibility a great idea? According to P M Krishna Raj, Asst. Professor at M S Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bangalore –
“Colleges become important because they give students a chance to explore, experiment, fail and dream without limits. In an increasingly closed and intolerant society that we are living in today, colleges should become safe-nests for blooming minds. It is not through buildings, courses or placements but by creating inclusive and sensitive campuses, colleges can transform young people into agents of social change.”
It is high time students break the myth and acknowledge that in India, much of our fate is decided by the lottery of birth. We belong to a very privileged lot. Out of every ten who join a school, less than one makes it to college. According to Teach for India statistics, 58% of our children don’t complete primary schools. They drop out to work in farms, raise cattle, work in hotels or become daily wage workers. The situation is much worse among the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and among girls.
With 356 million 10-24 year-olds, India has the world’s largest youth population. With the advantage of the demographic dividend that we have, a lot can be accomplished with action, and much more can be lost with inaction. India is a country of great irony, where on the one hand we have the world’s third largest GDP, third largest army and massive space probe, we rank 139th in life expectancy, 180th in world literacy, and are home to the highest number of hungry in the world.
Noble laureate Professor Amartya Sen once said that if things continue as they are now, parts of India would resemble the prosperous California and other parts will resemble Sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty and Prosperity cannot have comfortable coexistence. It’s time for colleges to fulfill the need of that they were envisioned to do – become agents of social transformation.
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