Education on Education – Reclamation, and Other Mediations: Sasheej Hegde

Guest Post by SASHEEJ HEGDE

A thought is a tremendous form of excitement. [Alfred N. Whitehead]

We are concerned with the imagination, and the vaguely functionalist remarks we noticed before are not the sketch of an explanation, but an aid to the imagination, to make a different practice a more familiar idea to us, and hence to make us more conscious of the practice we have.  Seen in this light, … [t]he imagined alternatives are not alternatives to us; they are alternatives for us, markers of how far we might go and still remain, within our world – a world leaving which would not mean that we saw something different, but just that we ceased to see. [Bernard Williams]

This is an extended essay working off two official documents, and public ones at that: one, the voluminous draft of the National Education Policy 2019 (henceforth Draft NEP) authored by the K. Kasturirangan-led Committee appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, (MHRD) Government of India and, second, the brief report on ‘Promoting and Improving the Quality of Research in Indian Universities/Colleges’ headed by P. Balaram under the auspices of the University Grants Commission (UGC) [accordingly, UGC-Balaram report].  My interest is as much with the former as with the latter; and, although they can be commented upon independent of each other, it is the combined resonance of these two policy suggestions that I am interested to examine (especially as they bear on the higher education [HE] space in India).

Indeed, this combined resonance is one of the contentions underscoring my overall foray.  I am, of course, not privy to the criss-crossing contexts and channels of communication that could have happened between and across these two reports, although, on the face of it, the Draft NEP document made its appearance in the public domain earlier than the P. Balaram report (even as the latter makes explicit references to the former, and is restricted to the institutional context of universities and colleges in the country).

Again, the question that interests me, between and across these two reports, is less their shared ground – albeit, obviously, the Draft NEP has a larger mandate than that of the Balaram report, with the latter limited to higher educational institutions (HEIs) – nor even the ‘dramatization’ they presuppose, each in their own distinct ways.  Rather, my concern is with a matrix of reasoning specific to the contemporary academy – liberal, illiberal, nonliberal, neoliberal, call it what you will – which, while being brought to bear on the latter, also seemingly opens it up in directions that we can (and ought) explore with some perspicuity.  The ‘education on education’ which marks a part of my main title is not a form of intellectual hubris therefore; and, besides, is not to be confused with a meta-level reflection on education per se, the lineaments of which I have frequently commented upon in reflections elsewhere.  I must also hasten to admit that, for the purposes of this reflection primarily, I will be avoiding an overt historicization of the problem of education (including HE) in India.

Specifically, the first two parts of my foray work off ‘a thought’, propelled incidentally by the repeated reiterations of the Draft NEP concerning higher education (HE), whether in terms of ‘essential learning and critical thinking’ (as seen to drive intellectual development from childhood onwards through to university) and ‘a more liberal education’ as the cornerstone of HE.  This is a particularly striking emphasis, and I want to dwell on this matrix without getting too exegetical or interrogatory.  This will prepare the ground for the third and fourth sections encountering largely the UGC-Balaram report but implicating the Draft NEP as well.  There is a brief final section directed at a more composite and yet imperfect formulation incorporating the situated requirements of ‘justification’ under contemporary conditions.

  1. Ripples on education: NEP overtures and beyond

Following Alfred N. Whitehead, the English mathematician and philosopher, we announced epigrammatically “A thought is a tremendous form of excitement”.  I am drawn to it as I read diligently through the pages of the Draft NEP, so that even as I realize that the ‘critical’ of critical thinking and/or the ‘liberal’ of liberal education, including the very idea of ‘more liberal education’, are largely left unstated (and, where stated, largely left unexplored or given a distinctly ‘institutional’ cast in the form of proposals for ‘multidisciplinary universities and colleges’), the ripples created by the patterned expression of these ideas can propel the proposals in multiple directions and with new variations of interest.  In fact, as Whitehead would have it, “a thought is a tremendous form of excitement” precisely because of this ability to re-pattern, without which any thought would be most boring and tiresome.  Indeed, it is by way of responding to the ripples created by the Draft NEP that we are abstracting from it and from the trajectory of its articulation, while wholly unmindful of the breadth of the draft report’s reception in the public domain.  [Incidentally, this last half-point explains why I have delayed this contribution, while also enabling the juxtaposing of the Draft NEP with the UGC-Balaram report.  But that can pass, although surely something more than just being pedantic is being implied here.]  In the true spirit of disclosure, yet, I must admit that I have also been drawn to this line of thinking by the insightful education scholar, Krishna Kumar (KK), who in a short sharp reflection on the Draft NEP asks pointedly about its insistence on ‘critical thinking’ and ‘liberal education’ (see ‘The NEP and liberal arts education’, The Hindu, July 20, 2019).

However, where KK is interested to raise a pertinent question about whether the “draft’s endorsement of critical thinking would have gained credibility if it had promoted liberal values”, I am interested to explore some other implications here without getting either too dramatic or expansive about the same (a more extended assessment, sounding the limits of the Draft NEP, is by Sundar Sarukkai, ‘A Blinkered View of Humanities Education?’, Economic and Political Weekly, August 10, 2019, pp.10-12).  In fact, quite apart from abstracting the scope of the ripples on education patterning the Draft NEP – specifically, the proliferating order of its expressions about ‘critical thinking’ and ‘more liberal education’ – there is also a mode of recognition proper to the Draft NEP that is given over to judging the importance of ‘multidisciplinary education’ for the 21st century, where moreover support for the ‘liberal arts’ comes with a resounding demand for its increased public funding.  The particular paradox of this mode of recognition and demand need not concern us here – and I am certainly not being ideological in evading this thought – but it is equally interesting to note that the Draft NEP is not exclusively reverting to old positions about national reckoning and relevance.  To be sure, the Draft NEP has its order of anachronistic pronouncements, in effect invoking the legacies of Takshashila and Nalanda as “definitively emphasis[ing] the liberal arts and liberal education tradition” and urging that the country “brought back this great tradition to its place of origin” (pp.223-24; see also pp. 29, 206, 208, 220, 249).  But this celebratory mode is laced together with pronouncements about effectively judging the importance of HEIs according to another pattern, one that is relevant to the structuring of academic disciplines and transformative of the institutions to which they are connected.  In effect here, the Draft NEP visualizes a matrix of “3 types of HEIs along the research-teaching and university-college spectrum [to be] developed in accordance with the needs of the country” and in terms of a scenario where “Single-stream HEIs will be phased out, and all single-stream HEIs will move towards becoming multidisciplinary” (p.207).  There is more postulated certainly in the Draft NEP, and the reader is guided to approach the policy document accordingly.  At any rate, to my relatively policy-naïve eyes, it is striking that the Draft NEP, howsoever habitual and celebratory – as is the wont of most policy pronouncements – is not wholly and effectively subscribing to what has been termed elsewhere as the ‘shadow conception’ of education’, where specifically the authority of the liberal arts in particular is linked to a broader concern with educating citizens for a democratic polity.  [I am afraid I cannot get into the details here, but those interested may see my ‘Do we (still) need a concept of university?’, Social Scientist, Vol.46 (7-8) 2018, pp.29-40, for the relevant references.]

Without doubt, all this is certainly not to imply that the Draft NEP is a foundational statement; in fact, if it were so, one would have urged that one pour over its text, to discover its ‘drama’, as it were, and not simply as possibility but also as requirement.  All the same, if there is always something of a paradox in all official declarations, one needs to get their measure, not quite in a celebratory mode but in the very spirit of all ‘critical thinking’.  At the same time though, nothing could be farther from the latter spirit than instituting a new excitement about ‘critical thinking’ – or even ‘problem-solving’ – as if both ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem-solving’ were ever a neutral operation to be carried out purely in the realm of thought and ideas.  Pushing this thought further, let me now get on to our register of the ‘education on education’.

  1. Education on education: further mediations on NEP

Certainly, as already sounded out, by ‘education on education’ I do not mean a meta-level mode of inquiry given over to reflecting on the nature and purpose of education; nor do I imply by the term an order of institutional critique employing some specific theoretical concepts.  The persona that one embodies – whether in critique or in simple matters of exposition and commentary – is certainly important for our purposes here; and when this is combined with the fact that the one who is embodying the persona is her/himself involved with HEIs in a specific way (as I am, and as indeed the committee that instituted the Draft NEP), then the whole practice of ‘education on education’ comes to acquire a ‘praxical’ resonance.  I am, in a sense, a pedagogical subject, and I wish all those given over to the task of education (whether as students, teachers, researchers, administrators, parents or whatever) positioned themselves so, without necessarily denying the specific relations of knowledge and power within ‘educational’ institutions.  Indeed, what makes ‘education’ a public space is precisely the order of these mediations.  In fact, precisely on this enlarged register of pedagogical subject, if ‘education on education’ consists essentially of both introduction and initiation into (if you will) ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ and their multiple modalities – even ‘liberal values’, although this latter can be a touchy matter (as KK has urged in his short reflection called attention to in our previous section) – it is also always about more than just looking and adumbrating: it is always about looking ‘justly’, adumbrating in the appropriate manner, and getting it right and not wrong.  [I hope I am excused the inherent didacticism of these remarks/mediations.  But that’s a hazard that confronts anyone given over to both thinking about and doing ‘education’.  There is, yet, a more subtle point lurking here about a possible interface between ‘liberal arts education’ and ‘aesthetics’ as a form of ‘practice-based education’, but that is for another occasion.]

Transposing the order of these remarks to the terrain of the Draft NEP, one can say that the latter’s insistent emphasis on ‘critical thinking’ and ‘more liberal education’ requires, and makes possible, an ‘education on education’ in the sense primarily that a certain ‘knowledge’ – the right view or even the right ‘point of view’ – can be transmitted from the institution onto the ‘public’ (the latter, certainly, not being limited to only those receiving the education).  Not surprisingly, the draft report also cites ‘employability’ as a justification for ‘liberal arts education’ (see also Ch.16 of the Draft NEP on ‘Professional Education’).  Significantly, as we shall see in the section to follow encountering the UGC-Balaram report, the order of these proposals finds articulation explicitly through (I would like to think) ‘pedagogy’ in its many forms and mediums.  Simply put, educational institutions mediate – and the Draft NEP envisages a complex and elaborate panoply of institutions that can do so at all levels and types of education (in fact, the ‘integrating’ function of the document is writ large across the space of all its proposals, across all levels) – and as such ‘pedagogy’ is not an additional function of the institution but constitutive of it; indeed, it is how the ‘institution’ institutes both its subjects and objects of knowledge.  I am afraid I cannot examine this line of thought further, and evaluate the Draft NEP in this light (although, as already noted, we traverse parts of this ground in institutional terms primarily in the following sections of our examination).

All the same, it would not be an exaggeration to assert that the ‘education on education’ as envisaged in the Draft NEP is as much about (as current theoretical fashions would have it) ‘enlightening minds’ as about ‘disciplining bodies’.  But the more important point for the Draft NEP, it seems to me, is that for the ‘education on education’ to translate into the right view or even the right ‘point of view’, it is not to be enforced on the public but, through the panoply of its institutions, offered to them as an amalgam of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘more liberal education’.  As most public pronouncements go, therefore, the Draft NEP is as much about ‘cultivation’ as about ‘corrective’ vision.  Indeed, with specific reference to what the draft identifies as the ‘fundamental attributes’ of HE – namely, “It must provide students with broad-based multidisciplinary education and 21st skills, while developing specialised knowledge with true disciplinary rigour.  It should engage faculty and students with local communities and with real world problems, and function in collaborative, inclusive, and cross-disciplinary ways. …” (p.202) – it goes on to name a complex of ‘multidisciplinary’ institutions, with their myriad of disciplines, functions and governance techniques, all of which are, by definition, ‘pedagogic’ (in the sense just inscribed of cultivation and corrective vision).  A friend and disciplinary colleague, Chandan Gowda (CG, of Azim Premji University) has astutely commented on the absence of the words ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’ in the Draft NEP and pointed out that this not only marks a departure from the previous education policies but also ‘impoverishes the learning experience of all Indians’ (see his ‘Missing secularism in new education policy’, LiveMINT, 26 June 2019).  I am afraid I cannot be so sure about the pedagogical function of ‘secularism’ per se, although CG is quite correct to draw attention to the overall pedagogical mandate of the Draft NEP.

To be sure, the corporatisation in managerial and perhaps even governmental terms is writ large across the space of its proposals especially in the context of HE (including ‘Professional Education’).  Could it be that the public pedagogical thrust of the Draft NEP in the ways just outlined above can offset the managerial/governmental cast of its advocacy?  Perhaps this division that we are instituting between the pedagogical and the managerial/governmental is an impossible one; and where the matter concerns ‘multidisciplinary HEIs’ – considering that the ‘main thrust’ of the Drat NEP regarding HE “is the ending of the fragmentation of higher education by moving higher education into large multidisciplinary universities and colleges, each of which will aim to have upwards of 5,000 or more students” (p.206) – the pedagogical and the managerial/ governmental both require to be and are pivotally intertwined.

But, and this is important and does not necessarily contradict the last point: might it be that the pedagogical thrust can be retained independent of the managerial/governmental?  It is as an exploration of this possibility that we move to the next part of our sortie, this time engaging the critical aspects of the much smaller UGC-mandated report authored by P. Balaram.  Before a final flourish, appended as our last section, we will strive actively to tie together the parts of our examination.

  1. A transposition: keying into the UGC-Balaram report

Having advanced a thought leading up to the ‘pedagogical’ function of the Draft NEP, let me now proceed to look at another policy document – a miniscule report of 14 pages compared to the 484-page Draft NEP – namely, the report on ‘Promoting and Improving the Quality of Research in Indian Universities/Colleges’ authored by a Committee headed by P. Balaram under the auspices of the UGC.  The ‘Public Notice’ issued by the UGC [F.No.1-12/2018 (QIP-Quality Research) dated 31st July 2019] speaks of the report in two parts: (i) ‘Improving the Quality of Research by Faculty and Creation of New Knowledge and Strategies for Improving Research Culture in Colleges/Universities’, and (ii) ‘Proposed UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedures for Award of M.Phil./Ph.D. Degrees) Regulations’.  We will restrict our examination only to part (i) of the report, which we have referred in short as the UGC-Balaram report.  [Ostensibly, part (ii) is directed at tweaking the regulations already in place about M.Phil./Ph.D. degrees, and has no direct bearing on part (i)].  Obviously, the UGC-Balaram report has a much more limited mandate; and even as its proposals do not sidestep the considerations forwarded by the Draft NEP – in fact, both the documents call for a 4-year undergraduate program, coexisting with 2-year postgraduate programs, while also insisting that all undergraduate programs must be ‘broad-based’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ – the effort in the former (that is, UGC-Balaram report) is a more expedient one directed at ‘promoting and improving the quality of research in Indian universities/colleges’.  Indeed, given its focus on ‘strategies for improving research culture in colleges/universities’, the UGC-Balaram report seems to work with a tacit understanding of university/college practices (embellished of course with the relevant quantitative data about enrolment to M.Phil./Ph.D. in terms of gender and disciplines, including the numbers about Ph.D. degrees awarded).  Clearly, then, in devoting attention to this short document, we are not striving after an alternative sketch of an explanation about the HE scenario in the country, but rather as a way of modulating our pedagogical thrust trying to articulate (in the spirit of the Bernard Williams quote cited at the beginning of this foray) ‘alternatives for us’ and not ‘alternatives to us’.

Indeed, in the spirit of Williams as just disclosed, if we are to be ‘mak[ing] a different practice a more familiar idea to us’, we have to be ‘mak[ing] us more conscious of the practice we have’.  Transposing this to the space of the UGC-Balaram report, we may then from within the latter state the following:

  1. Admitting that the “question of quality of research in India has to be situated in [a] complex social milieu” characterized by multiple “social, linguistic, regional, economical, locational (metropolitan, urban, mofussil, tribal), infrastructural (rich, moderate, poor), and aspirational (international, national, and regional) diversities”, the report maintains that “the question of quality of research has come to the fore due to enormous growth of research which is produced mainly as a part of doctoral research (Ph.D.) in the University system during the last few decades” (p.1). [Pages 2-4 of the report reel off numbers to this effect.]
  2. About the ‘present state of research in Indian universities’, the report states emphatically that it is “far from satisfactory” and that “indeed, in many institutions, the quality of research is alarmingly poor” (p.4). This is attributed to the ‘increasing numbers’ being admitted into M.Phil./Ph.D. courses, “lack of qualified human resource for research guidance and poor physical infrastructure and inadequate funding” and an ‘institutional framework’ that prioritizes “teaching over research”, “rigid admission rules”, “lack of inter, multi, and trans-disciplinary culture in universities” (pp.4-5).  The report further highlights poor ‘publication ethics and peer review culture’ for the low quality of research, calling attention in particular to the “proliferation of predatory journals and conferences, which have abandoned classical peer review as a method of quality control” (p.5).  Moreover, with reference to the ‘quality of students seeking admission in Ph.D. programs’, it is acknowledged that “students often drift into academia for various extraneous reasons and drift out of it or stay put for want of a better option” and that many Ph.D. students “carry with them accumulated deficit of disciplinary knowledge and research methodology and often even lack communication skills and linguistic competence” (p.5).
  3. It is stated emphatically that “institutions must take the responsibility for ensuring academic standards and for emphasising … the importance of maintaining the highest standards of integrity in academic research” and that “centralised rules and regulations … cannot serve as a substitute for strict and vigilant internal academic processes at our institutions” (p.5). Undeniably, with reference to ‘Research quality and culture of innovation”, the report is categorical that “the strengthening of research culture in Indian higher education requires multi-pronged activities beginning with a bottom-up than a top-down, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to introduce a culture of research which is anchored in robust classroom pedagogy and curricula designed to arouse intellectual curiosity and its appropriate channelization and imparting of research tools and techniques to ensure that it eventually reaches fruition” (p.5).
  4. Indeed, consistent with the Draft NEP, the UGC-Balaram report urges that while it is true that the “research activity in Indian University system is still largely governed by the age-old disciplinary boundaries in which academic departments function”, it is “imperative that disciplinary boundaries break down to pave way to inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary and even trans-disciplinary research” (p.6). Further, in this connection, the report also visualizes across the sciences, humanities and social sciences a ‘Research and social connect’ directed at “mak[ing] the community of researchers from all major streams of knowledge and also various academic and regulatory bodies including the funding bodies, sensitive to the idea that the social, ethical, and legal aspects of their research activities are of emerging concerns worldwide” (p.6).

Based on this diagnosis/prognosis of the state of affairs afflicting the ‘quality of research’ in universities/colleges, the UGC-Balaram report goes on to classify its ‘recommendations’ into ‘specific’ and ‘general’.  Quickly, with reference to the ‘specific recommendations’, the call is for ‘Capacity building’ (whether in terms of improving ‘classroom pedagogy, curricula and system of assessment’, ‘developing writing skills, research aptitude, and awareness of peer review culture’, ‘encouraging … a robust translation program’ devoted to producing quality textbooks and journals in ‘various Indian languages’ and so on) and ‘Promoting a culture of research amongst faculty and students’ (which would involve, among other things, ‘re-examin[ing] current practices in recruitment of faculty members’ and making it possible specifically for ‘candidates with interdisciplinary backgrounds’ to apply, ‘sabbatical leave’ for ‘mid-career teachers’ especially in ‘state universities and affiliated colleges’, ‘postdoctoral fellowships in humanities and social sciences’ and so on).  The report also calls for a ‘Performance-based strengthening’ of such UGC schemes as Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS), Department of Special Assistance (DSA) and Universities with Potential for Excellence (UPE) and the ‘reform of academic administration to promote research’ in every university, as well as recommending a scheme for ‘Inter-institutional [research] collaboration’ among state and central universities/national institutions and colleges (pp.6-10).  The ‘general recommendations’ include ‘Academic leadership and appointment of Vice Chancellors’ (VCs), with a call to ‘seriously review the mechanism’ by which VCs are appointed and ensuring that the ‘governing bodies of the universities … have eminent academics as members’, timely ‘filling up’ of vacancies in universities, creation of ‘Regional research consortia’ to ensure ‘interaction with colleges and universities/national institutions’, and ‘Introduction of four-year undergraduate program’ with a ‘strong research component’ alongside the ‘existing two-year M.A./M.Sc. programs’ (pp.10-11).

  1. Outreach: towards an ‘alternative’ ecology

Now, of course, neither the diagnosis/prognosis nor the ‘recommendations’ offered by the UGC-Balaram report is new or earth shattering; ‘insiders’ like me and interested observers have known it all along.  And yet, in devoting this brief report the attention we have, one is trying to command an alternative matrix of reasoning about the contemporary academy – one that works with rather than against the logic of ‘pronouncements’ and is consistent with the suggestion (underscoring Bernard Williams above) about imagining ‘alternatives for us’ rather than ‘alternatives to us’.  To be sure, as already maintained, if we are to be ‘mak[ing] a different practice a more familiar idea to us’, we have to be ‘mak[ing] us more conscious of the practice we have’.  I must reiterate that this manoeuvre formed the basis of our flirty engagement with the Draft NEP in the earlier sections of our essay and our sustained working through of the UGC-Balaram report in the immediately preceding section.  Quite certainly, there are also antagonisms other than those that might exist between ‘(pure) academics’ like me and ‘scholar-administrators’ like P. Balaram or even K. Kasturirangan (as also the other members of the committees’ they each headed), or between the intentions of ‘policy’ as reflected largely in the Draft NEP and/or ‘institutional guidelines’ as encoded in the UGC-Balaram report on the one hand and the practicalities of mediation such as what we are attempting herein on the other hand.  In effect, there are also antagonisms, as we already mentioned toward the end of our second section, between the pedagogical and the managerial/governmental.

But in pressing upon the pedagogical question all the same, both in the context of the Draft NEP and the UGC-Balaram report, the ‘education on education’ that we are striving to consolidate is certainly not a form of speculation or even a reinforced ‘rhetoric’ of participation.  Indeed, even as the pedagogical need not always achieve its goal or end – since both the ‘subjects’ and the ‘objects’ of the ‘educational mission’ are not always responsive or responsible, and may even be indifferent or rebellious – it suffices that one is present in the very space and time of the event of education and/or its practice.  ‘Education’, on any register, requires only the slightest participation to be recognised as a public form of activity – although, not surprisingly enough, it has also become a traffic in trade and profit.  I realize I am being lapidary in my formulations here, but that is deliberate.  Whether or not the exclusions of education – at whatever level, whether in India or elsewhere – are active or passive, perceived or real, is hardly the issue at hand here.  Quite emphatically, it suffices to say that the ‘pedagogical’ cannot be thought of in isolation from its practice – I urge my readers here to the insightful probing of the philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford, specifically his The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (London: Viking, Penguin Group, 2009) – or even institutional policies for that matter, such as is inscribed in the Draft NEP and in the brief UGC-Balaram report.  I realize that the pedagogical, as inscribed in specific institutions and in institutional policies, can also be approached as a performative mode of address that produces its publics and their constituencies, both for better and for worse.  But that is not my brief here.  At any rate, we are talking specifically of an ‘alternative’ ecology that can run parallel with the professed intents of the two documents we have been getting a measure, namely, the Draft NEP with reference to HE per se and the UGC-Balaram report.  In what follows, I shall try and concretize this formulation without necessarily getting into the specifics of its detailing.  As an ‘insider’ within HE, I believe, I am already privy to practices that have hopefully been enlifting to my limited groups of students, although it is the thought about their scaling that absorbs my lingering moments.  In many ways, then, this is my form of ‘outreach’ that one is expected as an academic and compulsive teacher/researcher.

It is no surprise therefore that I am fond of recalling Whitehead’s fleeting observation that “A thought is a tremendous form of excitement”, which formed the basis of my wading through the first two sections engaging with aspects of the Draft NEP.  My grafting through the UGC-Balaram report had another framework of justification.  But it is true that the latter report is largely consistent with the programmatic pronouncements relating to HE of the Draft NEP.  There is a presumption still, shared across both the documents, about the ‘internal rationales’ that can (or should) govern the logic of HEIs.  Of course, in the context of the draft NEP and its larger, more substantive mandate, this focus on ‘internal rationales’ is made both in the name of and in order to comply with ‘external logics’ (whether it be needs of the country or the ethos of its values, or even ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem-solving’ as facilitating ‘employability’ and more), whereas in the context of the UGC-Balaram report the imperative is to ‘promote and improve’ the quality or research as an ‘internal rationale’ definitively of HEIs.  Be that as it may, the logic of ‘internal rationales’ is as much carried forth by the emphasis within both the documents for a ‘multidisciplinary’ focus within HE and placing a restraint on disciplinary knowledge and training.  To be sure, I am not interested to review the order of such proposals incorporating ‘disciplinarity’ and inter- or cross-disciplinarity here – although one may yet, pointedly, ask whether purely ‘disciplinary’ capacity, that is to say, a grounding or training in one’s own discipline, could envisage alternative perspectives which by definition a disciplinary capacity cannot occupy, a matter, at once, of the very genealogy of our disciplines and their epistemology and, not the least, a question of the contextualization that could be productive of, yes, the ‘quality’ of research/inquiry.  I have engaged this ground extensively in my work over the years, and therefore will not elaborate further.

There is yet, with reference to the focus on ‘internal rationales’, a concern which both the Draft NEP and the UGC-Balaram report seem to take for granted, namely, the integuments of an ‘institutional’ way of thinking.  Both the documents, each in their own way, seem to narrow the ‘institutional’ to the ‘practical’ and the expedient (although the Draft NEP does break some new ground here, albeit ‘blinkered’ as Sarukkai has urged in his appraisal which we alluded in the first section).  Moreover, to my policy-naïve eyes, this is a limit that one needs to cross and decisively as part of a very ‘institutional’ way of thinking.  To be sure, our emphasis on the pedagogical – the ‘education on education’ that we have been outlining – is constitutive of our ‘institutional’ way of thinking, evidently one inscribing as much ethos as disposition for thinking and thoughtfulness about all matters including the practical’ and the expedient.  It should not, accordingly, come as a surprise that the question of pedagogy – or what the antique philosophies of both the East and the West called paideia (or variants of that last term, be it in terms of kalas or even anviksiki) – obtains as crucial to the ‘institutional’ way of thinking.  But that can pass; let’s move across another register.

Strictly, the ‘alternative’ ecology that I am gesturing at here has no recourse to transcendental reasons, or to universal principles capable of providing a rational justification for the choice of our particular practices.  To the contrary, our particular practices as part of the ‘institutional’ way of thinking function as a kind of ‘pragmatic test’ – the demand, precisely, not to shield oneself behind general justifications (as most policy pronouncements or even ‘minimum standards and procedures’ and ‘guidelines’ are wont to do, as evidenced both in the Draft NEP and the UGC-Balaram report and the wider set of formulations with which they come encapsulated) and to address the kind of difference that the present and/or the contemporary makes possible and indeed requires.  What demands to be expressed is not therefore the truth behind the general reasons that would authorize the ‘institutional’ way of thinking – whether in the terms inscribed by the Draft NEP and/or the UGC-Balaram report, or alternatively our own matrix of reasoning that we have brought to the aforementioned documents – but the problematic situation from which all this order of reflection and commentary is flowing.  I ask therefore (without herewith forging the grounds of an answer): what would our ‘institutional’ way of thinking, concerned as it is with the possibility of cultivating an (alternative?) ecology of practices, each endowed with their own requirements and obligations, mean in abstraction from the many deficits and resentments that fuel the ‘Indian University System’?  This question remains high in my current teaching and research practice; I am also trying to share this question with many others – including the main authors of the two documents we have scrutinised here – through this submission.

In what follows, I explore a further thought bearing on the above question.  I hope my readers will be patient, and hear me out.  In a manner of speaking, the ‘ethopoietic’ function of this writing – where the ‘truths’ affirmed are transformed into ‘ethos’, and whose effect is no other than to transform the subject who risks thinking with them – requires this final flourish.

  1. Another ripple, finally: on justification

I must reiterate that nothing, in the way that we have rendered the case or traversed its ground, is meant to prevent a critique of the ripples that the Draft NEP has generated or is capable of generating in the entire edifice of formal education in India.  This is true of the much briefer UGC-Balaram report as well.  But, of course, these are proposals, formulations hanging as if in air, and the way things actually unfold will hardly adhere to their script.  This has always been so, and will always remain so.  And, as always, there can and there will be always paradoxical outcomes, which we can and must anticipate and encounter.  There is yet a question central to our times – which even, in a manner of speaking, form the basis of both the Draft NEP and the UGC-Balaram report as ‘public documents’ – namely, the question of ‘justification’.  Indeed, our neoliberal times, as fraught and deleterious as it might seem, requires us to pose this question, not quite in the sense of a transcendental truth to which all must adhere (or succumb) but necessarily in the sense of, if you will, “who wants the true, when and where and how much?”  The imperative to think therefore cannot be dissociated from the situation that induces us to think, although this does not require that our thinking must conform to its milieu.

This immediately foregoing thought forces home, yes, an ‘alternative’ practice of justification.  In fact, ‘education’, including HE, as a form of institutional project requires justification, which in a society like ours would mean their subsidization.  In a country as diverse and ridden with inequalities as India, and in the context of a HE scenario as envisaged in the Draft NEP and the UGC-Balaram report, any subsidization can also mean further consolidating antiquated and nonaccretive practices (although the two documents are not themselves endorsing these practices, even as they entail a plea for increased public funding).  Obviously, ‘justification’ becomes all the more pressing when vast amounts of capital are at stake, a matter as true of public money as of private capital (or even philanthropy).  In fact, broadly in the light of the Draft NEP 2019, one could say that it has gone from treating education itself as a ‘public good’ that needed to be protected to treating ‘critical thinking’ and ‘more liberal education’ as the good that needed to be protected.  The rational explanation, regulation and justification of that ‘prescription’, as it were, is certainly instrumentalist and disinterestedly humanist – so also the UGC-Balaram report, notwithstanding the latter’s more limited mandate – and, consequently, may yet allow us to make practical and economic decisions with some degree of rationality.

I suppose this is equally true of our ‘education on education’ – although I baulk at the idea of our being either instrumentalist or disinterestedly humanist – which has been concerned with offering an ‘alternative’ (I repeat, an ‘alternative for’ rather than an ‘alternative to’) mediation for all proposals for HE and accordingly another practice of justification.  It should be clear that the concept of ‘justification’, for us, is to be distinguished from the notion of ‘legitimization’ or even ‘legitimation’.  The inspiration for this move is obviously the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot.  As they have astutely observed in their joint work, On Justification: Economies of Worth (2006): “To provide a basis for association, the parties involved … need to have access to a principle that determines relations of equivalence.  This process of shifting to a higher level of generality … could be pursued indefinitely in the quest for an ever higher principle of agreement”.  But, of course, the plausibility of our alternative and, as we have been emphasising, equally ‘institutional’ way of thinking may yet require a more effective historicization of education in India (including HE).  But that is for another occasion.  More poignantly, yet, our last word can be with the inimitable Lewis Carroll of Through the Looking Glass: and What Alice Found There

‘The time has come’, the Walrus said,

‘To talk of many things:

Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax –

Of cabbages – and kings –

And why the sea is boiling hot –

And whether pigs have wings’.

Sasheej Hegde teaches sociology at University of Hyderabad.  He can be contacted at <sasheej@gmail.com>

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