How do the institutes of higher education achieve eminence? Is it possible for an institute to be born eminent? A distinguished, grey-haired baby?
That seems to be an important question for India right now. But it’s also an unfair question. Universities in Europe or North America which tend to dominate the global rankings lists did not have eminence handed down to them by a superior authority. The achievement of eminence is not a top-down but a grounded affair, and sometimes, totally unexpected.
With universities in the US, it was practically an accident.
The medieval European university had lofty ambitions to be global and cosmopolitan. But its American counterpart in the 19th century was a modest and homegrown affair. Every little town worth a railway station, a church, and a post-office, also wanted its own college. The very opposite of global, these colleges, as they came into being, were deeply local, with organic ties to the community.
But as America moved into the last decades of the nineteenth century, something different began to happen. As Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California system has pointed out that it was around this time that two other models of higher education – both from Europe – appeared in the United States as defining influences.
The first was the Oxbridge model of residential learning and close attention to student life. The second was the German model of the research university, pioneered by Wilhelm von Humboldt at the reformed University of Berlin in the early 19th century.
The twentieth century brought the global dominance of the American university. But the three factors that came together to create this unique model in the history of higher education were unlikely bedfellows: Oxbridge pastoral care, German high research, and the deep community ties of the humble American college, articulated to this day by local alumni support and collegiate sports.
The union of the practical, the populist, and the elite. That’s what the Stanford education historian David Larabee calls it. Practical as in the solution of local community problems, populist as in the “fun” social aspect of undergraduate life, and elite due to the global ambitions of high research.
The small, church-led college of liberal arts, the pride of the village, was now a unique global force.
Next, to this, the modern Indian university is the result of serious planning, but many would say, of the wrong kind. 1857 again is the magic year here – when universities were set up in the three presidencies – Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. But on the Indian soil, the British neither wanted the German vision of high research, nor their own Oxbridge culture of intimate, residential student learning.
Their goal was simply to create clerks in massive numbers.
What is the quickest way to brand a large number of people? Examinations, of course. Enter a sprawling system of examinations, and a consequent culture of rote-learning that was to define the aspiration of an entire nation for the next decade and a half, through the years of Nehruvian socialism, into the New India of erratic boom and confidence in the 21st century.
Perhaps now’s a good time to ask: is it possible to redefine eminence and confer it as a title to institutes new and old, and those yet unborn?
(Saikat Majumdar, a novelist and scholar, is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. @_saikatmajumdar)