It seems that humanity is perpetually in a condition of escape. Escape from the drudgery of it all, from the meaninglessness of existence, or perhaps from the jealousy and anguish that are natural. One tends to fuel this escape through imaginations of different forms. The most common form, not the least for the supposedly bookish Bengali, is the practice of reading. By reading, I obviously imply some form of engagement with academic or fictional work, which is strictly not technical or commercial in some sense. While this brings with it its own set of pleasures, I argue that the habit is not without its own set of problems and dangers. In the essay that follows, I briefly lay down my thoughts on what may appear to be a simple matter, but which nevertheless strongly drives my conviction against the pretensions of academia.
For one who is an introvert, and without ambitions of reaching for the moon unlike the millennial generation, reading and teaching appears to be a straightforward life choice. So, the means of reaching that would appear to be in some academic discipline. The logical assumption of such a person, yet unacquainted, would be: this is perhaps a field (unlike the corporate world, say) where a deficiency in the art of socializing or networking, would not necessarily place one at a disadvantage. Alas, how mistaken that presumption is, and how fantastically divergent are one’s expectations from the reality. In dealing with such forms of cognitive dissonance, I believe satire is useful. George Orwell, ends his ‘Animal Farm’, a brilliant satire upon the idea of the 1917 Revolution, with the following:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
The reason for this quote has nothing to do with the state of affairs in academia. Rather, I wish to use this as an entry point into some reflections over the meaning and purposes of teaching in the academia. But first the context of the earlier quote. Orwell was writing during the course of the Second World War, a period when the Soviet Union and Britain were in an alliance, and Orwell was clearly no fan of the Stalinist dispensation. His allegory of a rebellion in a farmland, where the humans are driven away by a band of discontented animals led especially by the pigs, is undoubtedly a representation of the 1917 Revolution. The animals, after their takeover, adopt a new creed known as ‘Animalism’, which is driven by an infectious idealism. What is more interesting, though, is the subsequent trajectory of the movement. While the early solidarities between the animals are strong enough to withstand assaults by the humans, hierarchies eventually start emerging. There are ideological rivalries amidst the pigs themselves. They eventually start asserting their own forms of superiority, with bipedalism ironically becoming a marker of superiority in the farm. Orwell submits a brilliant dictum, ““All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The writings of Orwell, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, have been instrumental in provoking the fascination of many a student with the subject of history. Indeed, the ideological contestations of the 20th century have forced strong debates over the appropriate forms of state organisation, market control and so on. The academia, in its obvious engagement with these issues, demands a clear and unwavering articulation on the part of the prospective academic of his/her ideological leanings. Academic disciplines are themselves strongly impacted by contemporary debates – the most obvious example in the context of history being the emergence of the influential Subaltern Studies collective, in response to the Naxal movement which was itself a fallout of the disillusionment with the promises of Independence. Let me now speak of a personal disillusionment here.The academia has always been prone to deploy fanciful vocabulary: ‘world-view’, ‘ideological commitment’, ‘social justice’ are to name but a few of the favourite catchphrases. Obviously, the contexts wherein these are used are usually political, and one would expect a certain form of personal integrity when one reads such influential and argumentative formulations. However, I believe a better characteristic would be the adjectives of ‘anxiety’, ‘performativity’ and ‘pretensions’. It may be clarified that I am not saying that the academia is lacking in people who genuinely make assertions based upon personal convictions. Indeed, a quick glance at the sociological composition of the professorial body of say, Delhi University, would reveal that it is dominated by people from two social profiles. Firstly, people from considerably marginalised backgrounds for whom the completion of a PhD, ie. the highest educational degree, is a significant achievement, and will certainly secure them the deserved recognition back home. The second category of professors, at least the ones who dominate the upper echelons of academics, are the ones whom I take issue with. (I am aware that this is a highly problematic generalisation, conscious as I am of several professors who are stellar, respected teachers of the discipline, and I believe for the initiated, it will be clear that my respect for them is not in question. Nevertheless, there is a certain intellectual culture that the academia promotes, and I believe that why I find it problematic is a highly relevant argument.) Like the colonial state that the historian seeks to study, the academia too is in dire need of legitimacy. This legitimacy is derived from the representation that academia fulfils an obligation of highlighting the different forms of marginalisation in society, with the avowed enemy being specifically any form of capitalist enterprise. For instance, academics within the discipline of history would claim that they have moved away from larger, statist histories, or ‘The big man in history’ theories, while the focus is now upon histories of the marginalised, or the subaltern. Since this is the political content of writing in the academia, one would expect a personal engagement with the politics that one apparently seeks to practice.The writer would like to suggest here, that this manner of establishing legitimacy is nothing short of an intellectual scam, and is quite like the farce that is Corporate Social Responsibility, just a necessary obligation that has to be fulfilledbecause it has been imposed.
I would like to reiterate that there are exceptional professors committed to their disciplines, and who inspire by example through their own lives. There are also the first category, of professors who personally come from humble backgrounds and their personal struggle is beyond question. However, is success in academia really free of nepotistic influence? Is the teaching that is involved here strictly disciplinary, and is it not enmeshed in its own set of hypocrisies? The university space, in all countries is a highly politicized one, and most academics seem determined to keep it that way – in fact, they revel in the word ‘political’ and enjoy in challenging the non-academic population’s general assumption of the meaning of the word. While that is inevitable in any social science campus, how genuine is the politics that is preached here? If the ‘personal is political’, then I have my own set of personal perceptions, and I assert that there is a not-so-intellectual side to the way academia functions. Since the obsession here is always with one’s social position and what that implies in a hierarchical framework, I think it makes sense to be straightforward about one’s own viewpoint, irrespective of whether or not one subscribes to the larger academic ‘world-view’. Although I have been trained in a certain fashion of critical thinking, I have felt my own constraints. The whole discourse around the idea of ‘privilege’ and academia’s obsession with pointing that out in the face of diverse forms of marginalisation, ensures that one needs to be constantly made conscious of one’s sense of entitlement. Anything to the contrary would invite taunts, and impatient dismissals.Constant acknowledgement of one’s privilege is a must for acceptance in the academic community. So, in that sense, if one has been born as a Hindu, upper-caste, male, that perhaps is taken to mean there can be possibly nothing wrong with one’s life. The fact that is conveniently ignored is that the perception undergoes a complete reversal in the world outside the academic bubble – where one is actually judged for being unemployed, effeminate, and letting down all social expectations. While the writer is still conscious of his privileges, he would be more comfortable with the obsession over acknowledgement, if several of the proponents were so self-conscious themselves.
For an outsider peering into the world of academia, it may appear to be a different ‘space’: its function is apparently to promote knowledge, unlike the mad race towards capital everywhere else. The practical output is clearly a book – the repository of knowledge, the product of research, and of severe intellectual engagement; again unlike the corporate cubicle, the output is supposedly something more meaningful (‘perspective on life?’), and not some form of outsourced labour serving someone sitting in the United States. But is the academia really that different? Let me look at my own discipline of history, for instance. There is a reason why the philosophy of aBernard Cohn, or a Nicholas Dirks, or a Sanjay Subrahmanyamwill enjoy undisputed institutional legitimacy. The more one quotes them, the more one will enjoy social acceptance within the community. In a sense, no matter how much one critiques’ ideas of colonialism, or the phenomenon of Eurocentrism, one is invariably caught in the same loop. Rather, the more obeisance one pays to these very real structures, the more one is rewarded. In other words, if the software engineer in Bangalore feels like an irrelevant servant in the much larger food chain which is really controlled from Silicon Valley, the prospective academic in New Delhi might similarly imagine himself to be nothing more than a Research Assistant to the real centres of power which are in Columbia, and the like. The difference between the two, being that the latter is mostly unemployed, and has to put up pretensions of socialism and what else to cover that fact up. Because this ‘ideology’ is the lingua franca of the academia. Returning to the output of academics, the book, what an outsider sees is undoubtedly knowledge, research, and learning. Of course, I cannot deny the utility of the above. However, what the insider eventually also discovers is the reality of the process of that production: cut-throat competition for funds, and clashes of egos for achieving the approval of powerful peers.
For all the high-handed pretension of socio-political commitment, it quite frequently slides into a game of name-dropping and of competing egos. This is where my issue with the afore-mentioned second category surfaces. A student will usually look up to the teacher in not just an academic way, but also in a personal sense. Even if the professor does not feel the need to practice his preachingspersonally, there is a likelihood that several of the students will, especially those who are more reliant upon the education system and their books, unlike extroverts who are more sociable. Do the teachers not understand the considerable influence that they exert upon their students? Especially, when they present the world in terms of ‘ideologies’, and sell such lofty ideals from such a coveted dais? Perhaps, it is merely part of the job – perhaps it is just another necessary lesson that has to be taught mindlessly because it has been included in the curriculum. But what is the meaning of apparently committed ‘card-wielding’ Marxists, who will not travel to conferences below business class? What is the point of positioning oneself as ‘an inter-sectional feminist’, when one will personally never marry below an IAS officer? For all the fancy labels, this too is nothing but a game for and of the bourgeoisie, played mostly by those who never had to worry about finances(or probably were just bad at math in school), and can devote their minds unhesitatingly to all forms of theoretical formulation. While that may be as it is, I understand that critiquing the way the world works will not really lead anywhere. (So much for what the academia sets out do!) In conclusion, all I am saying is that there is a fine line between critical thought and practical wisdom, and the former needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.