India has 11,443 colleges and 789 universities. Yet the education they impart to its lakhs of students are incomparably lower than accepted global norms. Of the tens of thousands of graduates of ‘English literature’, for example, a majority can’t express themselves clearly in the language, nor would they be persuaded to learn. Most graduates, moreover, of science and humanities courses are unemployable. How is it that over a century of ‘modern’ education has yielded so little dividend? Saikat Majumdar’s College: Pathways of Possibility picks out our diseased system and charts an ambitious path for undergraduate education.
The fact that Indian undergraduate arts-science education—as different from professional courses—is considered a cesspit of mediocrity is spelt out at the beginning, after a recounting of engineering students cramming in Kota’s coaching dungeons: As Majumdar notes in comparison, the prestige of a degree from MIT or Caltech does in no way overshadow that from Yale or Princeton. His goal here is to “find some new avenues for art-science education in India today”. What ails such education is an ingrained prejudice against original thinking, a system that rewards expert swotters. The roots of this are well-known. In the words of Andre Beteille, who is quoted: “The first universities that came into being in 1857 in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were set up primarily for conducting examinations and awarding degrees, and not for undertaking research or even teaching”. Known for ignoring scientific education, it was a gateway to clerkdom. Independent India did little to change this structure, and with the setting up of specialised centres for research in the pure and social sciences, art-science colleges are pushed further into making their drab journey through “India’s examination-centred pedagogy”.
Majumdar talks about how the Department of Computer Science at Stanford initiated two dual majors—Computer Science and English, and Computer Science and music, bemoaning the popularly assumed divorce between the ‘liberal arts’ (originally containing the sciences, now erroneously equated with the ‘humanities’) and science, leaving both streams impoverished. As in medieval varsities, where philosophy and nascent physics/maths sat on the same desk, nourishing each other’s growth, it’s time again, says Majumdar, for such happy commingling. While supporting the demand for education to be more profession-oriented, he rejects the old opposition between ‘fusty humanities’ and ‘progressive sciences’, saying they have no relation to the needs of the contemporary global economy.
In his quest to chart a path for an ideal inter-disciplinary liberal artscience education, Majumdar takes the help of developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, which helps obtain a glimpse into the “soul of disciplines”, bypassing the obsession with monochromatic canonical content in undergraduate disciplines, and into answering ‘big think’, epistemological questions that form its foundations. For example, in English literature pedagogy, we are obsessed with an exhaustive study of its evolution from Old English to Modernism and after, but neglect epistemic questions about the shifting nature of the worldview about literature itself, and about authorship, text, readership and consumption of literary works. The major flaw here, says Majumdar, is the project to equip every undergrad for post-grad education—a handicap for the current global marketplace for jobs, which only rewards an agglomeration of skills.
Elite colleges such as St. Xavier’s, Calcutta, were, crucially, agents of social change and modernity, but basically remained an awarder of degrees even after independence.
Majumdar argues this can only be through a happy interplay of the various intelligences—linguistic and logical-mathematical, as well as spatial, body-kinaesthetic, naturalist, spiritual, moral and existential—that help in understanding contrasting epistemic forms. This contra-disciplinary approach, where a qualitative discipline is paired with a quantitative one (like philosophy with physics), can be the only model for next generation student to keep him or her primed for the widest variety of careers. To achieve this, he repeatedly insists, current undergraduate courses have to relinquish some of their rigorous specialisation.
Education like this ignites a passion for learning into those who decide to go further into the disciplines. To trigger the latter, production of new knowledge, or research, is essential, in addition to teaching and acquiring of established knowledge. Undergrad research is crucially important as exercises in the deployment of received knowledge. In India, where generations pore over the same syllabi, this seems to be a brave new world. Majumdar’s lucidly advanced and convincingly argued ideas on college education are radical and might take decades for it to spread evenly across the moth-eaten landscape, but a tentative start somewhere should be a cause for hope.