Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Delhi University

I was sixteen when I joined Delhi University. It was the most beautiful campus, with a season of flowers, heady in the late winter, early spring. Miranda House, where I studied had a great ambience. The arches of the college were persuasive, that we were as young women, embedded in some one else's dream. I spent three years taught by Dr Khadija Gupta and her team. They left us alone to grow, teaching us everything they knew, ambitious for themselves and us. My fellow students were from  Kamla Nagar and Kashmere Gate and its environs, traders' daughters who had been given a chance to get an education. There were others who came from Boarding Schools in the hills, who communicated both languor and urgency. There were people like me, who were middle class to the core, who either caught the  University Special at 7 am, or the Mudrika, a circular route bus which had just been started in 1974. It made commuting tedious but easy. It took me an hour and a half to get to college during rush hour, and forty five minutes before the traffic jams happened.
Our syllabus  in Sociology was interesting. We had eighteen case studies to master in three years. And we read the classics in the originals in third year. Some students did better than others, but we all got an education. One of the young women who sometimes asked for advice from me,  before the exams, in her broken English, shared a lift in a hotel in Madras with me in 1990, quite  by chance.  We had not met since 1977. I was going to my cousin's wedding, she was travelling from USA, with her husband. They were both computer trained scientists. We were delighted to see each other. She remembered our Sociology classes at Miranda House, and all our friends with delight.
 Delhi University has always had a very tightly run academic system. It went through several syllabus changes. Sometimes these were unaccompanied by scandals. Sociology for instance, always drew in the entire undergraduate teaching faculty, when there was syllabus revision. I remember Prof Amrit Srinivasan (now at IIT) and I were called in to advice the Department of Sociology on curriculum change, since we both taught at Hindu College for more than a decade each, and we had very strong opinions about what we wanted for our students.  Amrit would have taught from 1974 to 1990, and I taught from 1983 to 1997 at Hindu.The suggestion  that year, when we both represented our college, was that we teach excerpts from the Classics, and we flatly refused the suggestion, because we believed that at 19 and 20 years of age, the students were perfectly capable of reading and discussing the Founding Fathers of Sociology, (that is Marx, Weber and Durkheim.)  Several decades have passed since then, and the syllabus that the students now have at the Honours level, is even more interesting and demanding than it was when we taught it in the 1990s. The students who chose this are well able to cope with the 21st century, because they might choose different streams, but there might be a handful who actually go on to do reseach, and make a contribution to academic debates when they grow up. We don't know which that handful is, because all are treated equally, but the B.A Honours is designed for potential research force, and the Human Resources Ministry surely understands that.

The assumption that the Baccalaureate will change the University for the better, and that students want simplification and job orientated courses is something that will always be debated on. Maybe its a good idea, and only ten dissenters were to be recorded when the new syllabus was passed. However, the real question is, can one rush through syllabus change, without making amendments at the level of Parliament. Can one slam changes at the rate of two revolutions, administratively placed,  a year, without wondering what it does to the community? India is not America, and we don't need to be like America. We are a country where eighty percent of our people are rooted in the countryside though they may migrate for work elsewhere. That is the reality that Social Science works with. Industrialisation and the Greens Movement have always had a dialogue in India, and law court cases sufficiently represent the nature of that interaction.
 JNU did very well with the semester system, it does wonderfully with  varieties of levels of teaching material, because for forty years it made its cause celebre, the politics of integration  of the deprived communities, without being heavy handed about it. Policies and changes in the system included the students  and teachers at every level. How can Delhi University even imagine that it cannot take the teachers into account before making changes? There is a whole new generation which has tremendous potential. To have treated them as non entities is what makes the Elders so mortified. The next step no doubt be will be legitimation of contract labour in the next two and a half years, because America does it. Teachers come into the system with a great deal of energy and hope. To suffocate that resilience before it even expresses itself in young adulthood, is to negate the system totally.

It takes about a year or two to ask people their opinion, to work with local communities, and larger universalising ones, including human rights ones, before a decision is taken. Privatisation is not the only goal, though some people may think it is the answer. To make education freely available, the first step is to go through due process, which is clearly given in the statutes.  Delhi University belongs to the Nation, so whatever happens, there will be keen interest in the nature of change as it is planned or promoted. Keep the Honours system intact, and let the other parallel developments build around it slowly, with the right inputs from the teachers, who will be involved in teaching it. Ofcourse, the real vitality will come from the young teachers who will push Delhi University to its new vocation, that of integrating the communities who were deprived of education, whether they were  traditionally rich or poor. Education is the most liberating of vocations. One never loses it, however demeaning the tasks one might be forced to take for reasons of livelihood.
Academics do not become slaves because they have been paid equivalent to their needs. Most academics take four hours to prepare one lecture in the early years, and even towards the end of their careers, each lecture takes a minimum of two hours to prepare. All the bureaucrats who believe that a 9 to 5 job is the index of a good day's work should try holding an undergraduate student's attention for one hour, using the syllabus as his or her guideline. "150 pages per course", how can one teach with such a prescription on length? It is unseemly.

The success of Delhi University can be understood only if one takes the research paper quotient in to account. Delhi University has produced some of the best writers in the country. To oppress them with odd reforms which don't include their opinion is really a form of cultural destruction, and with the death of the University as India has known it, will come the death of free thought. First  the academics, then the's not that easy to commit intellectual genocide.
We thought that the opening up of hundred universities was a new step in the right direction, and that the hierarchy between metropolis and hinterland would dissolve, since academics are comfortable in all worlds simultaneously. Such is the Life of the Mind.
With the crushing of the teachers of Delhi University by taking their Honours syllabus away, and distracting Honours students with  myriad parallel interests, (all to be graded!) humanities research in India will be cordoned off to the elite, who can afford to stay in college till they are 22 labelled as Undergrads, or go abroad. The intelligentsia of the people will be stifled.  My grocer's shop assistant has a daughter who studies Hindi Honours, hoping to be a journalist one day. My street sweeper's son  in JNU, studies Sanskrit Honours because his education in Central School allowed him to score highest in Sanskrit. Maybe he will become a Sanskrit teacher himself one day. Education was the last Socialist bastion, in India ( we are Socialist in practice and by  the Constitution, whatever the Politicians or Industrialists might think!) and by dumbing it down, or generalising it to create a platoon of people who will serve the scions of Industry and Telecommunications, the real world of the University as a site of scepticism, creativity and freedom will cease. To be free, one must be able to question the structures and policies of the State, and the hegemony of those who believe that reforms can be imposed without dialogue or debate.

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