University and Society

In this short piece I will try to submit some issues that are of critical importance when we start thinking about Universities and their relationship with the society and their duty towards the community around them.

The concept of a university is not new to our society.  We created, on our soil, some of the best centres of learning on the planet.  Nalanda and Takshashila are not part of fable and folklore.  They were concrete realities of our ancient society.  They were true universities.  They had seekers of knowledge from different parts of the globe.  The Preceptors, or the Acharyas, were of world class.

The spirit of inquiry was all pervasive.  Every position and proposition was debated, disputed, and questioned.  And through disputation and questioning, both the learners and the preceptors tried to arrive at facts and truths.  We always made a distinction between a fact and a truth.  Fact is of lower order and Truth is of higher order.  I will give you an illustration of the distinction.  The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  That is a Fact.  But the Truth is that the sun neither rises nor sets.  It is always there but it is the earth which goes around the sun and gives us the impression that the sun rises and sets every day.  Our university system was capable of making such a fine distinction.  We solemnly undertook to adhere to fact as well as to the Truth:

Rtam vadishyami

Satyam vadishyami

was our prayer.

In our ancient society universities were away from the hustle and bustle of the society.  They were places away from the general run of life activities.  They were places for quiet contemplation.  That is why they were mostly in the forests.  One had to remove himself from the day to day activities of the mundane life and go to the universities.  Even kings and princes used to forego their luxury in order to obtain instruction and knowledge.

Learning through instruction by the preceptors was only one part of the education.  Our method of education in the university system gave equal emphasis to other sources of learning.

Acharyat Padamekam Syat

Padam Saha Brahmacharibhihi

Padam tu Medhayaa

Seshaa Kaalena Pachyate

If we divided the learning process into four parts, one part is imbibed through the instruction of the acharya; another part is imbibed from the pupil’s interaction with the peer group; yet another part is through one’s own intellectual prowess; and another part through the passage of time and gaining of experience.

In this kind of an arrangement, where the university was away from the main centres of mundane activity, the possibility of a university impacting the society was much more than the chances of the society impacting the university.

Away from the society, drawing the learner as well as the preceptor away from the day to day activity, the universities carried on their search for truth and knowledge undisturbed.  They were able to send rounded individuals into the society.  To a large extent universities remained insulated from the general upheavals taking place in the society.

But we have moved away from that ideal model.  The reasons could be several.  And its effects on the university as well as the society are probably mixed.  This is not the place to dwell on the reasons and the impact of the transformation.  In the modern times, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect the society not to impact the university.  It is not possible to insulate our universities.  Some might even argue that it is not desirable to insulate them from the changes taking place in the society.  Today the dynamics of our democratic society are such that the universities to a large extent faithfully reflect our society, warts and all.

Pandit Nehru once said that if all is well with our universities, all will be well with our society.  I am sure you will agree with me that all is not well with our society today.  If we apply the logic of Pandit Nehru the other way round, the conclusion is inescapable that all is not well with our universities.  It is one thing for the universities to reflect the social reality.  But what is more important and more desirable is that the university should be an agent of change in the society.  In a positive way.  In a dynamic way.  And in a fulfilling way.

Today many educationists feel that the universities are at variance with the needs of our society.  The needs are of many different varieties.  There are needs of production, there are needs of cultural reproduction and refinement, and there are needs of providing guidance to the civil society for bettering its standards of life.

One need not make a sweeping statement that the universities are not able to fulfill their duty towards the community.  It is clear that if there is any institution that is involved in the task of nation building it is the academia and the university as an institution.  But one need not at the same time hesitate for a moment to say that the efforts are not enough.  The universities are probably doing their best.  But even thier best is not good enough.

The challenges that our society is facing today are gigantic.  If universities do not help provide solutions to the problems and strategies to meet those challenges, then who will?  What is the rationale for the social responsibility of a university?  With the advent of globalization and privatization, probably the social responsibility part of the university’s mandate is gradually fading from the consciousness of the academic as well as the student community.  It used to be uppermost in the minds of the university communities earlier.  It is perhaps well to restate the proposition of social responsibility once again.

Those who entered the portals of a university are a very privileged lot.  It is a fact that out of every hundred who join a school, only less than ten make it to the university.  The rest drop out to tend cattle at a very young age, to take up some trade or job to earn a living for themselves and their families, and to look after their younger siblings and engage in unproductive work at home.  The situation is much worse among girls, and among the scheduled castes and tribes.  Given this societal reality, those who are sitting in the class rooms of the university are indeed a privileged lot.  Free, democratic Indian has been able to give this privilege to them.

It is important to understand the strength of our young.  India is blessed with youth power.  In fact, no other nation has the advantage that India has today.  More than 30 per cent of our population is within the age group of 15 to 35 years.  There are nearly 300 universities in the country and they turn out about thirty lakh graduates every year.  In addition, there are several thousands of teachers and professors.

Indian students and youth are appreciated everywhere in the world.  A distinguished German Editor said that the “Indian youth, with its open mindset, is not only the potential of the country but also its strength.”  A distinguished American scholar and Executive Director of the US Educational Foundation in India (USEFI), popularly known as Fulbright Commission had this to say about the Indian students: “Indian students who go to the US are highly motivated and top performers.  In addition to their academic ability they are valued in the US classrooms for the perspective they add to the class.”  This is the strength of our student community.  If social responsibility is added to this strength, the result cannot but be total positive transformation.

There is another angle to the social responsibility.  A university cannot be run with the paltry sums that students pay towards the tuition and other facilities that are extended to them.  Not even a small part of the salaries of our teachers can be paid with the monies that the students contribute in terms of fees.  Most of it comes from the state.  Which means that it comes from the tax-payers’ money.  In our country, most of the monies to the exchequer accrue from not direct taxes, but from indirect taxes.  They come from the poor.  The common agricultural labour, the rickshaw puller, the housemaid and the little artisan.  To put it bluntly, it is these people who finance the university.  It is they who pay our don’s salaries.  It is they who pay the students’ tuition fees.  Even if they don’t stand at the university’s gate and ask questions, should the university community not feel accountable to them?

One way of paying them back is of course to study well.  To master the skills that we are instructed in, and to become experts in our respective fields.  That anyway, most of the students are doing and doing very well at that.  That is the nation building activity that we referred to at the beginning.  But we should explore whether the university community can do more.  If it can stretch a little more.

It is worthwhile to look at a university as a powerhouse.  A powerhouse of not only ideas, but also of action.  The university should formulate a programme of intervention in the societal processes, in the developmental processes.  Can a university collectively resolve that there should not be a single illiterate in the radius of a hundred kilometers of its location?  Can it not be achieved in an year’s time?  Is it really a tall order?  Can the massive army of the students not make it possible with the help and guidance from the teachers?  Can the relevant departments sit down and work out a strategy, and an action plan?  Can the university community as one man rise and accomplish it?  Should it be left only to the mercy of the bureaucratic red-tape?  If it can be done, is not doing it an abdication of social responsibility?

Can a university community collectively resolve that there should not be single child labour in its vicinity?  If the university resolves, is it impossible to eradicate the shameful evil?  All of us cannot treat a sick person.  Only trained doctors can do.  But all of us can see that people do not fall ill for want of sanitation know-how, nutritional know-how and hygiene know-how.  It is possible to see that people in the area where there is a university remain healthy.  Is it impossible to see a day when people say that there is no child labour in the area because there is a university there?  Is it a tall order to expect to see a day when one says that there is no illiterate in the area because there is a university there?  Is it not possible to see a day when every village and community is lively and healthy and well nourished because there is a university in the vicinity?

These challenges should not remain mere wishes and goals.  They have to be transformed into concrete and palpable reality.  Which institution is better equipped to design strategies and plans to translate our dreams into reality than the universities?

It is possible that each department of the university draws up a plan of action.  It can study the local conditions and formulate suitable social interventions.  Let there be clear syllabus worked out for each intervention so that the students and the teachers can together follow a systematic path to transform the society.  For instance, can the university not formulate a specific time schedule and work plan for the students to go into the villages and educate our masses on health?  Can the departments of education not draw up a scientific plan of action for the youngsters to follow and teach basic skills of literacy to our large unlettered population?  Can we not integrate such action plans into our regular syllabus and make the youngsters act as change agents while they are at the university?  For example, in a three year degree course of a university, a specific time period can be fixed for the students as part of their course work to go to the society in batches to implement the plans.  The universities can have well formulated five year or ten year plans.  Each batch of students will work to fulfill certain pre-determined mileposts.  And at the end of the period, the goals will be reached and every student and teacher would have done his or her bit in the larger scheme of social transformation.

This formulation of interventions as part of the syllabus has another advantage.  It will transform our youth into a socially aware group.  Each youngster will familiarize himself or herself with the social reality.  When they leave the university, and become administrators, social leaders, doctors, engineers, scientists and other professionals, they will not lose sight of the social reality.  Their experience with the social action will stay with them throughout their life.

When universities are in the jungles and not in the midst of the society, probably one cannot expect these things.  But our universities are right in the middle of our civil society.  Yet the communities remain untouched and unaffected by their presence.  Is it not odd?  The university community should ponder over this.

In ancient society, universities radiated learning and knowledge from the woods.  That was probably difficult.  But they were able to achieve it.  Today, universities moved into the society.  But it seems that they are overwhelmed by the society rather than they overwhelming the society.

The challenge before the university is to overwhelm the society.  To transform the society.  To become change agents.  To make the entire community around it like a university, rather than the university becoming like the society around it.  With concerted effort it is possible.  Our younger generation is capable of bringing this transformation.   And the teaching community is capable of inspiring the young to take this task upon themselves and fulfill it.

The noble laureate Prof Amartya Sen has said that if the things go on as they do now, parts of India would resemble the prosperous California and some other parts will be like sub-saharan Africa.  Poverty and Prosperity cannot have comfortable coexistence.

Knowledge cannot survive in the midst of ignorance.  Prosperity cannot survive in the midst of poverty.  Decency cannot survive in the midst of brutality.  Health cannot survive in the midst of disease.  Knowledge should spread and overwhelm ignorance; prosperity should spread and overwhelm poverty; health should spread and stamp out disease; and decency should overwhelm brutality.  This is the mission of the university in the modern age.

This mission will be able to transform the entire society into a university.  This is the only way for the university community to repay its debt to the society.

The motto of the university community should be this noble Upanishad mantra:

Deergham Pasyatu

Maa Hrasvam

Param Pasyatu

Maa Aparam

Let us look far ahead, not at the nearer goals

Let us look at the higher things, not to the lower ones.

One Response to “University and Society”

  1. October 14, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    Very concisely & clearly put. But perhaps stress should be also laid on such aspects of education at the school level too, as it lays the foundation for the character of the student. It is true that your article on education does cover some aspects of all this, especially what the Parents need to take responsibility for, but more emphasis is needed. Please keep up your efforts to get people to see things more practically & to get them to do what they can to improve matters. Best Wishes..

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