Wafting out of America and spreading all over worldwide social media in recent weeks is a curious word, civility—used and abused in an enraged battle between the responsibility of university professors to be circumspect about voicing their political opinions on the one hand, and their ‘academic freedom' on the other. What has emerged from the ongoing debates is not merely instructive about American governmental paranoia about Israel-Palestine politics, neoliberalism, the corporate university and much relevant else, but the uncanny conviction that university spaces all over the world are now afflicted by this malaise of propriety, a belief in a non-partisan, non-political, safe environment that will eschew the possibility of dangerous opinions de-stabilizing young impressionable minds. But is not ‘civility’ civil-speak for censorship? Is the rampant officious silencing of opinions and ideas that critique or interrogate dominant thought and function not the very opposite of what universities are meant to do, which is to encourage free thinking and speech and show students how best to articulate their own understanding, analyses and ideologies about the complex, fractious world around them?
The trigger for these renewed ruminations on academia is this: last month, Steven Salaita lost a new job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of his strongly-condemnatory tweets on the Israeli occupation in Palestine; UIUC decided that he had breached the decorum of his position as university professor by violating codes of civility in passionate public political utterances on American foreign policy, and so rescinded the offer in unseemly haste and panic. The Salaita affair boomeranged into a raging internet-world-wide debate on the uses, practices and politics of civility in the university. As intricate arguments on the case indicate, ‘civility’ appears to have increasingly become a tool to “perform communicative violence” and “silence oppositional voices” by “obfuscating real agendas”, as Mohan Datta blogs in culture-centred. “Is ‘incivility’ the new Communism?” asks Hank Reichman in the Academe blog, recalling “the great red scare of the 1940s and 1950s” when ‘Communists’ in American faculties were forced to forfeit academic freedom because they were deemed “subservient” to a foreign ideology.
But universities, across world and time, have never been abodes of disinterested scholarship; rather, always cleaved with contradictions. In 1852 Cardinal John Henry Newman, in a grounding document The Idea of a University suggested that in spite of the broad humanist neutrality vouched for by its community, at the heart of it lies religion, the soul of university training:
“Religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short… of unravelling the web of university teaching.”
The very idea of a clear, calm and accurate vision and comprehension comes with a belief in scholarship driven by a transcendental motive of religiosity. The material conditions of the outside world, the turbulence of history and political upheaval must not disturb the scholar; a supernatural charity and faith is placed against the littleness of the partisan and the prejudicial in everyday lives. Universities turn into guilds where codes and decorum of neutrality are maintained in spite of the quasi-spiritual, hierarchical nature of its day to day running: in actuality they are domains of esoteric cults run for and by the initiated.
Closer home, Madan Mohan Malaviya conceived of Banaras Hindu University for the promotion of a scientific, technical and artistic education combined with religious instruction and classical culture, and its aim was to bring the Hindu community under a system of education which would qualify its members for the pursuit of the great aims of life (trivaga) as laid down in their scriptures. Around 1911, Malaviya was in consultation with Annie Besant to plan for such an education through Sanskrit and Indian Vernaculars, enlisting the spirit of self-help which was beginning to manifest itself in India in the cause of education. To a great extent it was to be a fulfilment of the scheme propounded by Jonathan Duncan, Agent to the Governor-General at Banaras,
“for the preservation and cultivation of the Sanskrit literature and religion of the nation. Benares Hindu University or the Aligarh Moslem University, will tend to produce men who, if they are true to their religion, will be true to their God, their King and their country.”
On the passing of the Hindu University Bill, Malaviya made the following observations:
“My Lord, I believe in the living power of religion, and it is a matter of great satisfaction to us to know that your Excellency is strongly in favour of religious education… I believe that the absence of any provision for religious education in the otherwise excellent system which Government has introduced and worked for the last sixty years in this country, has been responsible for many unfortunate results.”
Filial devotion, asceticism and an idea of confraternity is at the heart of this brand of modernization. An indigenous mode of ethical living is married to the idea of a disinterested study of various disciplines. The very idea of the passionate or the political is assiduously kept out of the echelons of this argumentative universe-unto-itself. There is no sense of solidarity of an everyday nature, cutting across social strata. So how is this dissimilar to what we are witnessing in our universities today, in India and in the west? In India, the arguments for ethics and soul-cleansing range from the rabid to the sophisticated, depending on where they are coming from. When they are part of governmental policy, they mimic the voice of the ruling party, but significantly the UPA and the NDA are in broad consensus on the need to make students apolitical, amenable, responsible citizens. To that end, students can never be encouraged to think for themselves, to be wildly experimental in their lives, to make mistakes and to pay for them; they must instead be led by serious respected teachers to many-fold paths of goodness and productivity. Even more significant, perhaps, is the quieter, deeper consensus among the revered, wise and intellectually-superior of the teaching faculty and administrative bigwigs of most leading universities in India (often supported by a large number of students themselves) to make the student a non-political being traversing ideals of ‘civility’, neutrality, safety, moderation, responsibility, and gravity.
In fact, one may trace a rather alarming agreement between the overt rabidity of the Hindutva brigade when it makes pronouncements on the goals of higher education, the more polite noises that were made by the Congress before the current regime, and the overarching sense within universities from administrative and teaching personnel on the dangers of nurturing a politically-aware-and-active student. The UPA government negotiated this in two ways—first through consensus, when any public or political issue was made scholarly in order to be neutralized, so that the fraternal markers of the university system remained undisturbed. If this did not work, the next best recourse was law, invoking and laying down procedures by which material concerns would be addressed. By these routes, the administration could of course clamp down at any given moment on members of its own community when found lacking in civility and neutrality.
In January 2013, allegedly on the recommendation of the National Integration Council (headed by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) via the MHRD, the University Grants Commission sent out a directive to colleges that all science and technology students be made to take courses in the humanities and social sciences for there was a dire need in the country to “stop radicalization of youth”. It was revealed that the PM had said at the NIC meeting which had decided on this step that "the problem of terrorism and Left wing extremism constitute two major challenges that our society and polity face today.” The soft answer that the Congress had devised was to educate hardboiled tech students in the soft subjects of a college curriculum, never mind other interpretations of non-science disciplines which assume that they usually have ‘radicalizing’ effects instead.
The NDA, of course, has no such qualms about airbrushing their concerns, which are overtly political and partisan, and no garb of liberal do-gooding is maintained. Universities, they avow, should be places where the value system is broadly nationalist and the work-ethic capitalist. The BJP’s intellectual and philosophical think-tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation, declares its goals in its mission statement and states,
“These are objectives that fall under a broad head called `nation-building’ and often come within the purview of universities and institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to those who manage them, these academic bodies have not been able to attend to these tasks.”
It then takes unto itself the task of providing the necessary intellectual input to lead the nation to
“improve governance, strengthen national security, integrate India’s foreign policy to the nation’s long-term objectives and bring about much-needed functional efficiency in parliament and other representative bodies and in public institutions.”
Their website carries, unsurprisingly, a slew of articles from VIF advisory members and distinguished fellows that regurgitate two main obsessions—how to “catch up” with China and how to “turn its back” on Pakistan, calling the latter the “Neighbour from Hell”. The only politics it knows and valorises goes down a road paved with a heart-wrung, pure envy or hatred of the Other. And we know that the MHRD has begun in right earnest to attend to its tasks of curriculum and institution re-building from the primary stages of learning onward: the saffronization, or the sanskritization, or the sanitization, of education will ensure a nation of hard and soft pracharaks in its future generations.
We would contend, though, that these are identified and identifiable ideologues, whose politics to push educational institutions in directions that will annihilate the possibility of producing dissenting students who resist governmental norms and policies are expected, if not understandable or acceptable. What is far more disturbing and dangerous for the future of the university is a wave of intellectually repressive measures and ideas that are increasingly coming from within the university, not merely from the administration (again perhaps expected if they are stooges of the governments that appoint them) but from respected and admired academics. The most radical of material—be it literature, or political thought, or history—is reinterpreted, repackaged and critiqued ethically, spiritually, morally, dovetailing peculiarly with ideas that Newman or Malaviya had floated on the ‘true scholar’, now overlaid with other veneers of sophistication. University spaces are sanitized with the collusion of professors who themselves are yet young enough to remember their own salad days in college corners, canteens and classrooms but will deny them to present youngsters, supporting the installation of CCTVs and corporatized security guards everywhere on campuses in the name of safety and expunging any opportunity for students to relax anywhere.
Continually, all possibilities of a democratic life within universities are curtailed, mocked, denied. The most fair and gracious of professors and heads of faculty deem it unnecessary that decisions at either faculty or student meetings should be by vote; fraternity requires the gentle mode of agreement, civility decrees that no one ought to be seen winning or losing in combat. The most blatant administrative insult elicits intense heartburn among faculty about the politest, and most legally legitimate way to frame a response. Because, above all, no one on campus—teacher or student or tea-maker—must be seen as being ‘political’. It must be said, of course, that there are huge numbers of students in these universities (and sometimes, the brightest of them) who also believe that studies has nothing to do with political ferment (in the mind or on the campus) and that they would rather be taught to do the right thing in the best way by redoubtable minds, and be safe and protected in and through that rite of passage.
This patronizing, slithery mode of education is precisely what Jose Marti’s excellent essay ‘A False Concept of Public Education’, written for La Nacion in 1886, refutes. Marti argues for love and openness in education in the true utopian spirit, but without sacrificing diligence and rigour, which is spontaneous, not crafted:
“Why improve public instruction in its outer form and in the material resources—a labour of constant and impassioned tenderness—if the teachers who transmit it… have not been able to save themselves from the malign influence of this national life so lacking in expansion and love? Why accumulate rules, distribute texts, grade courses, erect buildings, pile up statistics…which hardens and embitters, or discontented or impatient young people who are like flocks of birds outside of school….”
The Kantian idea of neutrality, Marti realized, is a facade for smuggling in confraternal notions of ruthless guild hierarchies. Straight talk, direct communication and love can never be a part of such kind of spiritual-professional-ethical endeavours. Marti is asking for a much more fundamental change in our institutions: the power to say no—a politics of total and wholesale negation not just of schools and universities as we have known them but of a mentality, a culture of competition—and the ability to sensually, joyously relate learning to the very materiality of life itself. He is asking us to reject the grand project of sterile and repugnant knowledge accumulation for mere human growth. This is what our successive governments want, whether dressed in green or red or saffron. The intermediaries, the scholars working patiently to implement their own safe ideas of scholarship, are neither negating these goals nor instilling a feel for the joyous and the sensuous. We must rethink the university radically and reject reptilian scholars and teachers who seek to argue for inclusive, expansive notions of time and thought, and create, instead, possibilities of radical antagonism by an utter and total rejection of powers at the helm of think-tanks, VC’s offices and classrooms where students are being lured into quietude and compromise.
It is with a similar aim that Jacques Rancière proposed the idea of an “equality of intelligence” in his superb work on education, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Equality is the starting point and the schoolmaster need not know anything; nor are the students culturally deficient, needing to be salvaged by the master. A collective educational exercise means channelling ideas and aptitudes, distributing them equitably. It is in this way that one can come close to asking the real, tough questions about the world: not in the garb of neutrality but in direct, subjective, passionate ways. The university and the world outside might then merge—as all of us are equally ignorant in this game of negotiating within and without. And these need to be ‘uncivil’ ways, ways in which we question and demand and fight and shout and rage every inch of the long road, ways that will frighten the status-quoists and the safe-players among policy-makers and professors and students alike.
Brinda Bose and Prasanta Chakravarty teach at the department of English, Delhi University. A shorter, edited version of this appears in print.