A little while ago, Dr Avijit Pathak, from Jawaharlal Nehru University wrote an article criticising his fellow academicians for producing conformists, not original thinkers. It’s a condition we’re all familiar with. Be it assignments or examinations, students are expected to ‘refer’ to the works of great scholars and cite them appropriately. Our education more or less becomes a test of our paraphrasing skills – and not our originality, ability to analyse or our understanding of social issues. The number of seminal works a student refers to is directly proportional to her marks.
How original is original research if it only involves reiterating what other scholars said centuries ago? Some names deservedly become synonymous with certain path-breaking concepts. For instance, we can’t talk discuss labour without referring to Marx or write a paper on caste without mentioning M N Srinivas. Understanding these texts is undeniably important if we want to do research in these pioneers’ respective domains.
However, we should use these texts to further our understanding of social phenomena, but these texts should not be the only way to understand social structures. For instance, Jodhka did not create the caste system by writing about it, it was simply one way of looking at the system. Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’ and Srinivas’ ‘Sanskritisation’ are tools to understand social realities, not the definitive manuals on these topics. These scholars have given us new lenses to view society; these lenses should enhance our vision, not make us myopic. Students must not only be encouraged to read seminal texts but also critically question them. That’s how we build critical thinking skills, not paraphrasing skills.
At the outset, academia seems very intimidating to any young student wading into its muddy waters. it’s easy to feel like your voice is being drowned out under the weight of all these theories.
Professors teach core thinkers like Marx in a way that suggests each lesson is right and unquestionable. Armed with new concepts and theories, students begin to look at everything through a new theoretical lens. Suddenly everything begins to fit the theory, or maybe, more likely, you start conditioning yourself to try and accommodate everything around you into your newly acquired worldview. Although there is nothing wrong with adopting new perspectives, the problem emerges when students are forced to stick to these perspectives. Original ideas, no matter how right or wrong, will have a hard time even getting heard if we rigidly stick to the age-old ways of thinking.
Take economic models, for example. Consider Adam Smith’s absolute advantage theory and Ricardo’s comparative cost theory. Some of their assumptions are perfect competition, no transportation costs, constant returns to scale, absence of trade barriers, and a two-country, two-commodity model. In the real-world markets, these are practically almost impossible situations – which renders these theories impracticable. The most that we students can do is mention the limitations of these theories on an exam, but never dare to venture beyond that.
Referencing helps maintain research ethics. But in reality, it is also a useful way to camouflage the sophisticated plagiarism that we are constantly expected to execute in the name of education. The number of sources cited is a faulty parameter for judging the quality of any student’s work. Exhaustive reading is pointless if it is only done for the sake of regurgitation. Unless our universities produce critical, creative and original thinkers, they will continue to churn out sophisticated plagiarists. As for my fellow students, question the validity and relevance of everything that you read, and be courageous enough to articulate your critical observations in your work. Your professors might not be too happy if you challenge what great scholars have said, but Marx surely would be.
Aishwarya Bhuta is a 21-year-old writer from Mumbai. She believes in the power of the pen to change the world, one step at a time.