The Idea of a University and the Invention of Culture: An Indian Perspective

[This is an excerpt from a longer paper I have been working on for a while. I have so far been unsuccessful in locating the graphic for the Cover Page  of  the country paper  prepared by India for the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, held in Paris in 1998. This cover page serves to demonstrate my hypothesis about the role of universities in India as a site for the production of a national culture. Comments are most welcome.]


Perusing Bill Readings’ article, “The University without culture?” published a year before his book, The University in Ruins (Harvard UP, 1996), one is impressed with his persuasive argument about the demise of the university’s original social and cultural mission and the reinvention of the university as an institution of excellence in the fast globalizing, ‘Americanizing,’ market-driven modern world. Readings conceptualizes the role and status of the university in the current scenario in three ways: “Either we seek to defend and restore the social mission of the university by simply reaffirming a national cultural identity that has manifestly lost its purchase –the conservative position, or we attempt to reinvent cultural identity so as to adapt it to the changing circumstances—the multicultural position. A third position is to abandon the notion that the social mission of the university is ineluctably linked to the project of realizing a national cultural identity, which is tantamount to ceasing to think the social articulation of research and teaching in terms of a mission (my italics)”.

But it is worth noting that Readings’ interpretation is informed exclusively by western discourses of university education. Readings’ eurocentrism allows him either to ‘reaffirm’, or ‘reinvent’ or outright ‘abandon’ the notion of a national cultural identity. In India, by contrast, the reconfiguration of the idea of a university with national culture is more complex and problematic. Readings’ cogitations on the ruin of the modern university delinked from its original cultural mission nevertheless is a useful frame for understanding the role and status of universities in India. Even though the university appears to have exhausted its socio-cultural mission in the West, as the use of the prefix re- before ‘affirm’ and ‘invent’ seems to suggest, the project of fashioning a national culture seems to have just begun in India. For Readings, one of the ways the university in the west could reinvent its cultural identity is by adapting to a multicultural position; such a position, however, is not readily available in India as it is , it appears to me, yet to invent a national culture.

Owing to colonial subjugation, the transplanted modern European university evolved very differently and served a very different function in India than in the west where the modern university emerged in the eighteenth century in the wake of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment world-view gave birth to the modern state and the university was employed for the practical purpose of consolidating national cultures (Readings, 1996; Hofstatter,  The Romantic Idea of a University: England and Germany 1770-1850. NY: Palgrave, 2003).  Readings argues that since the 1960s, the University in the West has gone through a transition from being the institution of national culture to the purveyor of global excellence (or ‘citizenship’ in today’s parlance). I will argue that the university in India has been used to facilitate a reverse process of forging and disseminating a distinct national culture. The resurgent Hindu nationalism in the 1990s tried to utilize the university for the invention of a national culture in the face of economic liberalization and globalization.

An example of how the university is conceptualized in a resurgent Hindu nation can be seen on the cover of the Country Paper (1998) titled “Higher Education in India: Vision and Action” prepared to be presented by the then Indian Minister for Human Resource Development and Science & Technology, Dr Murali Manohar Joshi, at the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century held in Paris, 5-9 October 1998. The Cover of the Country Paper bears the following words:

“Juxtaposing the ancient and modern, past and the present, the cover conveys the appreciation that India’s ancient civilization had for education at its highest level.

The visual at the top left corner represents our discovery of the “Shunya” — the zero. The lotus at the bottom right corner stands for knowledge and wisdom. The visual at the top right corner is of Nalanda University, a renowned institution of learning, visited by the famous Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang. The Banaras Hindu University, shown in the bottom left, is a premier educational institution today.

The graphic in the centre, represents the endeavours of modern India to embrace modern knowledge so that India can contribute to synthesis of science and spirituality which is bound to be the theme of the coming days (my italics).” (Country Paper, 1998)

The cover page is in a nutshell emblematic of the notion of culture that the Indian government would like to inculcate as unique to Indian civilization, which is a Hindu spiritual and cultural identity for every Indian irrespective of his/her ethnic, religious and linguistic identity. The emphasis on an exclusively Hindu past is the result of the sense of dislocation that the university system as imported by the British implies.

However, this sense of alienation is not borne out of any sense of inferiority due to the importation of a unique Western educational institution. Rather, the obverse is true. The visual of Nalanda University, founded in modern Bihar in India in fourth century AD, signals to the world that the university system as such is not an alien idea to India; rather India is the progenitor of one of the oldest universities in the world. In this context, it is interesting to remember that the oldest university in the Indian sub-continent was set up, in fact, in Takshashila in the sixth century BC. The antiquity of Takshashila is overlooked because of its location in modern Pakistan. Thus, for a resurgent Hindu government in India, the university system becomes a site to proclaim a distinct national cultural identity. This proclamation is starker in the visual of the Banaras Hindu University which was founded at the height of the Indian Freedom Movement to impart a distinct Hindu education to the Indians. The Human Resource Minister’s deliberate choice of the Hindu University on the cover page is an explicit statement of the future the Hindu government would like to bequeath to the nation. This revisionist perspective of the Indian nation differs from that of the Congress party’s avowedly secular position, which embraces a pluralistic and vague cultural identity of India. This position again is mired in controversy as the Congress Party’s secular posturing has at its core an implicit Hindu notion of culture. The final stanza on the cover page envisages a moral leadership for India which by virtue of its ability to synthesize science and spirituality will be able to arrest an impending crisis of civilization. Thus, the Indian university is entrusted to preside over the ruin of the university system in the world, which is headed for apocalypse due the over-techno-bureaucratization of Western civilization, supposedly plagued with an over-determinedly individualistic and materialistic culture. The project of the Indian university offers a counter-discourse to the theorists of the Western universities who harp on the demise of the social and cultural project of the university in a globalizing, market-driven, post-modern world.

The Country Paper prepared by the Hindu Right Govt. for the UNESCO Conference foregrounds the critical role of university in India in inventing a national culture. The growing concern with the lack of a value system in the wake of over techno-globalization in Indian life further invests the university with the task of promoting this invented national culture so that the university produces more than mere techno/bureaucrats for an emerging economic power.

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One Response to The Idea of a University and the Invention of Culture: An Indian Perspective

  1. Mary Ann Chacko says:

    While reading this piece I was reminded of Rabindranath Tagore and his vision and ideas about the University as “the center of Indian culture”. Both Tagore and the Hindu government can be said to be offering, as you pointed out, a counter-discourse to the ills of western civilization. But what sets them apart (among other things), I presume, is a difference in their affective response/attitude to the west. In the case of Tagore, his conception of the Indian university as a center of culture grew out of his disillusionment with the west. With the Hindu government, even while they seem to be offering a counter-discourse, it is not so much out of disillusionment with the west as much as a desire for the west, to be like, at par with or better than the west. This difference between Tagore and the Hindu government’s attitude to the west might have vastly different connotations for the University as a socio-cultural-political-economic space.

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