by V Vinay
The next time you meet someone you care about, engage them on this question.
A question I frequently ask students is to share a view which they believe is controversial. The puzzled look on their face is a sight to behold. Many openly admit that nobody has asked them this question. Despite being from the best institutions, many have not even thought of anything remotely interesting and controversial.
One of the primary roles of a university (beyond supplying manpower to industry) is to teach students to think for themselves. This involves another important aspect – that of questioning authority. Universities provide an ideal playground (in the sense of an isolated environment) to learn these skills without fear of
A key necessity for this is diversity. In the absence of conflicting thoughts, there is really nothing to mould. In fact, I would go as far as to say the greatest gift a university can impart to a student is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas without short circuiting their brain.
Political parties (whether in power or not) want followers but not people who question. Discipline and conformity is what parties seek. We are told the Janata experiment failed as there were too many ‘thinkers.’ Even a new entrant with claims of being different, the AAP, cannot support multiple points of view. The Congress enjoys discipline and conformity as a direct consequence of dynastic rule. Add to this a poor country where a degree is a way to get a better salaried life. In this scenerio, conformity is so much more easy on everyone.
The real world is messy. Universities cannot and should not isolate themselves from what is happening around them. However, the cost to being a contrarain voice is high. We may want to pretend the universities are playground but you never know when a bottle is thrown at a player. In a more heated moment, even a pitch invasion cannot be ruled out.
Let us take the recent IIT Madras episode. An anoymous letter is sent. The undersecretary could have ignored it, but didn’t. Instead she decided to ask for comments. The IIT could have ignored the letter or said something along the lines of “we will look into it.” Instead, they decided to act. They could have initiated a conversation with the forum under scrutiny. Instead they unilaterally suspended them. The reaction was immediate: a pitch invasion was imminient. One voice spoke of “touching a nerve” and another of “a civil war”. The ministry smartly washed its hands. Media and political parties jump in to complete the polarisation.
But really, where are the players in the playground? Empty playgrounds is an apt metaphor to much of our elite institutions. They just don’t seem to be engaged enough. Outside, we have a different problem. How can we have an informed debate when all sides give us ready made conclusions? And who is to participate in this debate when we are compartmentalised into one dimension as left or right.
What we need are political conversations in our society and in our elite institutions. Currently this environment does not exist (without grave costs). It needs to be created. As a first step, the directors of elite institues have to isolate the rest of the institute from their political masters. Second, they need to encourage students to open up and state their views, have an opinion, take a stand, construct arguments around it. One possilbe way to do this is to offer a credit and have students discuss current events in the class. (If you already dismissed off the idea, you now know where the problem lies!)
When dissent is no longer a novelty, you are unlikely to have anonymous letters being sent to the ministry.
But what I do not want in elite institutions are political parties creating camps that cannot and will not talk to each other. This may seem like political activity but is really conformity without logic or reason playing a role. It at best makes a dysfunctional campus. This may be how the real world is, but it is not for an institution to mirror reality, but seek to change it.
Let us get back to the need to hold some controversial views. You don’t have to defend 3 times 4 as 12. (Maybe Russell has to, but hopefully not you.) For anything else, you have to articulate a cogent argument to defend your views. Unfortunately most students have no idea how to because they have never been challenged. Let us make a small beginning. The next time you meet someone you care about, engage them on this question.
Indeed I should be asking you: what is the most controversial view you hold which you believe to be true?
V Vinay is a curious academic entrepreneur.