Those who can, teach
Why do social sciences in India thrive best outside the university system, asks Pratap Bhanu Mehta, (‘Rigour in the margins’, IE, November 15), lamenting that India’s most creative writers and social scientists (with the honourable exception of history) have been housed in research institutes cut off from students. Surely this self-congratulatory myth-making has to stop? This constant devaluing of teaching and the refusal to recognise the heavy odds that undergraduate and postgraduate teachers work against while still producing world-quality research, accompanied by mutual back-patting between a handful of Boys’ Club members that has become common sense across the media, because the Boys’ Club has clout in the media.
First, is it true that creative scholarship emanates only from research institutes? Certainly names can be named, justifiably awe-inspiring names — Rajni Kothari, Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee. But take a minute to scan scholarship across disciplines other than history (which Mehta concedes does not fit his claim) — multi-disciplinary feminist work, sociology, literary studies, political science, economics — almost every name that springs to mind is a teacher: Sharmila Rege, Veena Das, Alok Rai, Zoya Hasan, Sudipta Kaviraj, Prabhat Patnaik. I invite those literate in social science scholarship to continue the exercise and reflect on the tenability of Mehta’s claim, especially when many high-profile members of research institutes neither teach nor publish.
Of course, Mehta is ignorant of the academic writing (not just newspaper pieces) in Indian languages produced by scholars who have primarily, if not exclusively, been teachers — Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, Suhas Palshikar, T.K. Ramachandran. Equally importantly, Mehta discounts the hundreds of serious scholars produced by teachers who, through their lectures, have introduced cutting edge philosophy and social science to students in places in India where even Economic and Political Weekly is difficult to come by, let alone international journals. These students then reach Delhi and Hyderabad and Pune and Kolkata, go on to do doctoral research, publish, and some may even join research institutes. Research institutes are not produced in isolation.
Second, if a thriving democratic culture pervades the Indian academy, it is hard won and daily battled for by thousands of teachers across universities, in constant conversation and quarrel with their students, in classrooms and outside. Whether combating religious right-wings or economic neoliberalism, or patriarchy and sexual harassment, it is teachers and students who drag the stodgy upper echelons of the academy kicking and screaming in radically new directions of theory and practice. The ivory towers of research institutes have contributed little to this ferment, and certainly no career researcher has faced any risk by taking anti-establishment positions. The majority of teachers, on the other hand, daily risk their autonomy, even their salaries, in protest. They have almost no say in how their institutions will be run and what changes should be brought about.
As I watch in increasing dismay and anger the systematic destruction of Delhi University by the vice chancellor and his bosses, I find it patronising of Mehta to describe the “push factor” from the universities as “dogmatism, factional politics and dispiriting institutional complexity,” for the first two appear to be the fault of teachers themselves, and the last is anodyne and meaningless. The push factor is in fact the deadening and monstrous bureaucracy over which teachers have no control whatsoever. Most teachers, even today, would prefer to stay in teaching, with short breaks in research institutes for a little breathing space from the enormous numbers and challenges of bilingualism in their classrooms; from the continuous grading of hundreds of exam scripts, an exercise that can take a third of the working life of a teacher; from administrative drudgeries career researchers can have no conception of. For, despite everything, we know that teaching is what keeps us from becoming complacent, and it is what keeps us creative.
Research institutes are critical components in the academic field, but only if they see themselves as organically connected to universities and teaching. There must be a dynamic exchange of energies between teaching and research — perhaps even exchange programmes between research institutes and universities in which teachers get time off to do research while the faculty of research institutes get to teach. But this kind of organic connection is possible only if people in research institutes have the clearsightedness and humility to see themselves as a part — and only a part — of the larger energies constituting the intellectual field.
The writer is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi