Debate: Rethinking Inclusivity in Indian University Spaces

A response to Krishanu B. Neog’s recent article in LiveWire ‘Social Capital in University Spaces’, published on October 12, 2020.

Using sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories, Neog attempts to showcase how the ability to speak English, listening to niche music or consuming offbeat cinema are all forms of cultural capital that provide advantages to a class of elite students in universities. It is defined as having a “good taste”, a quality that allows these students to define themselves as better than the rest. Along with forms of social capital – like inherited access to powerful social networks – these forms of capital continue to promote class divide amongst students.

The questions that need answering here are: what form of reflexivity do we expect from elite students? How do we rethink inclusivity in university spaces? What form of change do we need in the reward system of universities?

At the outset, an issue that needs to be underlined is that students do not automatically become elite merely because they indulge in a practice of consuming obscure content. It is the ability to influence what constitutes “good taste” that makes a student ‘elite’. For instance, if having a taste for Indian classical music that I enjoy as an elite student becomes popular then, I no longer retain any novelty in my taste.

Mass culture is an anathema to my status as an elite. Or if the students from marginalised groups begin to define what constitutes novelty in university spaces then my taste loses its socio-cultural significance. Therefore, it is not the taste in any particular type of cultural artefact per se that defines me as an elite, rather it is my ability to continuously reshape and redefine “good taste”. It is the exercise of this exact ability that allows me to exclude others from my group.

Neog in the article also argues that for an elite student displaying “a liking for the cultural forms of marginalised sections can also indicate virtue”. In other words, the culture of the marginalised gets appropriated through the ability to influence “good taste”. Songs, stories or poetry produced by the marginalised can always become the new niche for the elite.

This presents us with a problem when it comes to inclusivity. How then can an elite student move towards equality without reproducing itself as the elite through cultural appropriation? The answer actually lies in actively sharing the ability to define “good taste”.

Here, we are moving away from the mere question of equal representation in higher education in India. Bringing the marginalised to the dinner table is important, but it is equally important that they are also able to decide the dish that will be served. A lot of political chatter has revolved around only the former, whereas the latter has been assumed to be the natural progression of giving equal representation. It is this assumption that has also led to systemic discrimination against students who come from marginalised groups.

Also read: On English Speakers and a False Sense of Superiority

The elite need to learn more about power sharing than just about their own position in the power imbalances in the society. If students have the agency to define tastes that marginalise others, then they also have the agency to affect those who define them. A cultural space can never be a product of a sole ingredient like government policies. Therefore, facilitating conscious attempts by students to share power is where the actual role of authority lies.

What does this facilitating potentially looks like? One area that requires rethinking is the reward system of universities. It is the nature of higher education (especially humanities) that it appreciates well-constructed arguments, know-how about diverse cultures and novelty in the production of ideas. These requirements for growth in a university can easily be dismissed as question of talent or merit. That these are not a consequence of having access.

We have learnt from the theories of Bourdieu that the definition of merit or talent can themselves be a product of having socio-cultural capital. Being able to speak fluently in English also means the ability to explore cinema, music or literature in that language. Even novelty in thinking is not a consequence of a genius gene in our bodies, rather a consequence of our ability to consume, reshape and produce a variety of cultural artefacts. Therefore, the rethinking needs to involve parameters other than those that have been traditionally upheld.

Perhaps it is essential that we begin to think about parameters like collaboration or group work as equally reward worthy and reflective of merit. This is a move which is a few steps away from the idea of an ‘individual genius scholar’. Could we also think about progress of individuals based on different baselines? For instance, your progress is not defined by your ability to out-compete your peers, instead by the progress you make in contrast to your own base skills as an individual.

Now, these ideas have often been termed as ‘radical’ or ‘unrealistic’. However, we will be stuck in vicious cycle if we do not push ourselves towards the exercise of finding solutions (radical or not) instead of the exercise of defining a problem well. This is a cycle of presenting nuances of a problem to the uplifted to understand better how they are uplifted. It only makes the uplifted more self-aware and does nothing for the marginalised. Finding nuances is essential, but it is also the time for presenting clear demands that threaten the existing power structures defining merit, talent or good taste.

Harsh Vardhan Yadav is a PhD scholar at the department of Sociology, University of Delhi.

Featured image credit: John Hain/Pixabay