Who’s Afraid of the University?

Empires are still throbbing with life in the heart of modern nation-states. The latter behaves, more often than not, in the manner of an empire especially in its use of repressive mechanism against any kind of dissenting voice.

Such acts of crushing dissent are usually turned into a performance, a performance of violence, so as to set an example for other such voices. It is in such acts that state repression and spectacle of violence merge and become one.

The group or gathering of fairly politically conscious people, acquainted with their fundamental rights and duties in a democratic set up, staging a protest is then viewed as a mob: unruly and disruptive. This branding helps the government justify its own violence against its own citizens.

It is in these instances that the state begins behaving like a mob itself, going on one rampage after the other. It is in these instances that even a legitimately elected government, swearing by the oath of democracy, resorts to some of the most undemocratic means to restore the status quo.

It is in these instances that the modern meets the medieval. Indeed, medievalism is still throbbing with life in the heart of modern democracy.

How does a modern nation-state deal with such ‘other spaces’ which are present within its geopolitical boundary? How does one deal with spaces like Kashmir, Balochistan, Hong Kong, Chechnya or Catalonia? How does one deal with the ‘other’ within?

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These regions are peculiarly inside as well as outside the system. The regions mentioned above have undertaken a long struggle for independence, that is, azaadi (Persian for ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’) from the domineering nation-state and become a nation-state in their own right.

But this azaadi is very different from the azaadi that the university campuses in India are asking for. Rather than freedom from, the students of various universities across the country are calling for freedom of and for the marginalised sections of societies who have long been suppressed and repressed by majoritarianism.

One way of looking at the recent students’ protests in India is to see it as anti-majoritarian in spirit. It is not a movement for separation, of moving away, but of union, of coming together. This movement is part of a grand debate and the government in power must understand that not all vivaad (‘counter-argument’’) leads to vibhed (‘disunity’).

The spaces which were hitherto ostracised by the mainstream as the spaces at the margin are now trying to jostle and reclaim what was denied so far. It is the fight for the fundamentals; it is the fight for the basics.

The idea of truth

Like India, in many countries around the world universities are truly ‘contact zones’: a space where the mainstream and the marginalised, the privileged and the pariah, the inside and the outside meet.

It is also a space where the higher education, primarily meant and designed for the privileged, meets the lowest stratum of the society. A university is above all a site of debate, of argument and counter-argument, where a constant effort to reach the ‘truth’, though highly contentious, is made through the process of dialectic.

A university never ensures but only shows us how to get to the ‘truth’: an incessant but satisfying journey. In this regard, the idea of what is truth differs vastly across disciplines in natural sciences, social sciences and humanities; but it is in this synthetic ‘whole’ of all these heterogeneous ensembles which give the Latin universitas a worthy meaning. The ‘whole’ of the university is always greater than the summation of the parts.

The students’ movement across the country, for gender justice or caste justice or religious justice, is in keeping with the spirit, therefore, of what a university stands for: the raison d’être of university. The dialectics at the ideational level is not only desirable but necessary for the universities to remain relevant in times like this.

A university is a space where nothing is taken at face value and everything is questioned: at times, the unknowable and, at times the most banal of things. It is even expected to question the society to which it belongs. It is also supposed to be critical and not complacent toward the funding agencies: be it the government or the corporation or both.

Since the inception of universities – with the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1810 – modern universities have always been given the task of nation-building and production of citizenry. The narrative of nation-building and citizenry have, over the course of the period, paved the way for a more intensive narrative of corporation-building and continuous production of workers/employees.

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This again has given rise to another narrative of relentless pursuit, of ‘institutions of imminence’ and ‘centres of excellence’, catering aggressively to the need of the market.

“Universities now operate,” as anthropology professor David Harvey pointed out, “in a much more Darwinian world, where the fit survive and others flounder.” In his review of Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, Harvey goes on further to diagnose the predicament of a modern university:

“Complaints about excessive administrative powers and burdens, ‘corporatization’ and ‘proletarianisation’, are everywhere heard. And difficulties attach to applying corporate logic when the ‘product’ is something as undefined as ‘an educated student’ and when there’s a modicum of significance to the distinctions between getting an education and getting a qualification, between thinking and mere information processing, between producing knowledge and consuming it.”

These predicaments notwithstanding, since Sorbonne in 1968, universities across the world have played a pivotal role in taking up social and political causes, generating a public opinion, and turning it into a viable movement of some sort.

The recent protests in India, Hong Kong and Columbia, for equality and freedom, have their epicentres in various universities. The students in these universities, with due support from the academic and public intellectuals, are helming the affairs and bringing about substantial changes in the usual smug and complacency of the masses.

From the idea of citizenship to climate injustice to capitalism, students are vocal and it is the university which is providing them the space to train their thought and voice their opinion fearlessly.

It is of utmost importance that the sanctity and inviolability of this free space is preserved unconditionally. We must not forget that academic freedom is the soul of any socio-political system; meddling and damaging it is tantamount to corruption of the soul.

If universities will not be sensitive to the issues of our times, then who will? If universities, with all their analytical tools, will not decipher the truth in the age of post-truth, then who will?

If universities will not show us the path for a sustainable future, then who will?

Jayjit Sarkar teaches in the Department of English, Rajganj University, West Bengal.

Featured image credit: Reuters