(Published in the Business Standard, April 30, 2013)
Back in my day, which was of course when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Delhi University suffered from a serious case of envy.
It had the St Stephens’ versus Hindu battles, the dazzling brilliance of the Kirori Mal dramatic society, the nerdy appeal of Sri Venkateswara, the steely intelligence of LSR and Miranda, the drama obligingly provided by Ramjas’s swaggering sons of the soil each year. But it remained dismally aware that it was not, despite all its hopeful bravado, anywhere near the twin towers of excellence represented—in those decades—by OxfordHarvard.
JNU attracted international students in reasonable numbers, even if those percentages didn’t come anywhere near the casually global feel of a US college campus. Delhi University gawked at the scattered handful of students who had strayed so far from home. The twin ambitions of students in the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated a sound grasp of Indian reality: you either sat for the government service exams, or applied abroad.
It was understood that those who went to an ordinary university in India had already failed, by being either too incompetent to clear the magic trinity of IIT/ IIM/ Medical, or being woolly enough to want to do a degree that could not be converted into instant cash. The only honourable thing to do was to either reach for power—hence the lure of the IAS—or escape abroad.
Underlying all of this was an inescapable truth: with a very few exceptions, Indian universities fail miserably in the area of imparting a real education to their students. Before you send me a flood of emails explaining how much you love your alma mater and what it did for you, consider how few Indian colleges encourage students to think for themselves, to prize and value their own creativity. Fewer still treat their students with respect, choosing to see students as overgrown children, rather than as young adults in charge of their own lives.
There are exceptions; in North India, JNU and Jamia consistently appointed teachers who taught their charges how to question, and open up to, the world at large. On campus, the Delhi School of Economics was one of the few institutions that encouraged students to air their views, and that trained them to consider the logic and structure of a debate, rather than judging an argument by its emotional force.
The National Institute of Design, the School of Planning and Architecture and at least some of the country’s art schools have been far more successful than most Indian colleges at encouraging their students to think independently and to explore their own creativity.
The IITs and India’s medical colleges, for all their success in other respects, produce surprisingly little original thought or writing on the sciences. The kind of analysis and writing on medicine that Atul Gawande or Siddharth Mukherjee have produced is neither nurtured nor understood in the Indian system. Nor do Indian science students write with the intensity and clarity that Robert Kunzig did about the oceans in Mapping the Deep, that Daniel Gilbert did about the science of happiness in Stumbling on Happiness, or that Mark Lynas did about the weather in Six Degrees.
Delhi University has always had fine individuals in the teaching profession. But they are all too often pitted against the administration, as has been the case with the recent outburst of anger with major syllabus and systemic changes, pushed through by the authorities without proper consultation. The new syllabus, which would replace the old degree system, has massive flaws that have been pointed out in extensive debates over the last week, and the conclusion that the university preferred not to consult its stakeholders, forcing these sweeping changes through without serious discussion, is inescapable.
But I would suggest that the problems with Delhi University—and many of India’s universities—go deeper than even this current crisis. The bookshops–or lack of them–were symbolic of the indifference surrounding the university. Most of the “bookshops” in the area stocked textbooks, photocopied notes, cheap guides called kunjis, and a smattering of classics. Though the pavement booksellers of Daryaganj in Delhi, Fountain in Bombay and College Street in Calcutta remain much-loved, pavement bookshops are no substitute for the kind of well-stocked libraries and intelligent, independent bookshops that act as an informal education for students in more privileged parts of the world. Their absence in Delhi University, and in other Indian universities, mirrors a wider absence, a disengagement with ideas and reading that is so embedded in our daily lives that we no longer notice these gaps.
Our universities do not train their students to think in these directions, any more than most of them really believe in giving young adults independence. The “boys” are often seen as unruly, disruptive forces, the “girls” as dangerously demanding creatures: both must be controlled and disciplined.
The idea that part of the job of a college or a university might be to help young adults handle their newfound independence, and to teach them to think for themselves, rather than as an extension of their families, their clans or their caste groups, has not found wide acceptance. In a speech that went viral across the Internet, the writer Neil Gaiman explained what students in the humanities were supposed to do: make good art. “Make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”
Make mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting than when you found it. These are great rules for life, but you’re not going to learn them at most Indian universities.