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Reimagining the Idea of a University in India

In response to the editor’s column, “University as an Idea’’ by Gopal Guru (EPW, 11 January 2020) and Swatahsiddha Sarkar’s article, “The Idea of a University in India” (EPW, 4 April 2020), this article seeks to begin a critical examination of the normative ideas that were presupposed in the earlier articles.

The editor’s column “University as an Idea” by Gopal Guru (EPW, 11 January 2020) and Swatahsiddha Sarkar’s “The Idea of a University in India” (EPW, 4 April 2020) that engage with the current scenario in Indian universities presuppose and build upon a pre-existing normative idea, eliding in the process any critical examination of the normative idea itself. Sarkar seems to provide an exalted status to epistemic knowledge and posits the quest for epistemic knowledge as the primary idea of a university, but the ­rationale for the same is not clear. A similar lack of critical engagement characterises Guru’s short column wherein he states, without explanation, that “Universities, in fact, are institutions that institutionalise ideas, which in turn ­embody in them universal human values.” This is a trend that can be seen across recent commentaries on Indian universities in the print media and academia, wherein both the left and the right take it for granted that their ideal of a university—either as a promoter of social revolution, or as a space to further “national interests”—is what the university ought to be. Taking a step back and thinking through our conception of the idea of a university is hence necessary not just for conceptual clarity, but also to open very real avenues for reimagining and redefining Indian universities. How can such an exercise be carried out?

One way (and others surely exist) is by continuing Sarkar’s engagement with Aristotle. Aristotelian teleology is a useful conceptual tool when trying to tease out the rationale or purpose behind something and, in that context, is particularly suited to a discussion on the idea of a university. Sarkar, however, chooses to engage with Aristotle’s “three-tier knowledge protocol”—episteme, techne and phronesis—and posits episteme as the primary idea of a university for reasons that are not clear. An ­Aristotelian approach to conceptualising a university would not unquestioningly privilege episteme but would raise questions regarding the telos—the purpose—of a university. This approach to conceptualising a university requires one to step back and think about how universities fit into the larger schema of a society while being guided by practical wisdom, that is, phronesis. Explaining phronesis as “practical wisdom where knowledge becomes utilitarian and is guided by practical, instrumental rationality and governed by a chosen goal” does not do justice to a term that Aristotle felt was exemplified by people who were good in managing city states. Phronesis is not just knowledge for Aristotle, but is
virtue-linked knowledge that is exhibited when one deliberates about a particular and takes a decision keeping in mind the general; what is good for the individual as well as humans in general (and hence exe­mplified by statesmen). In the pola­rised times that we live in, where a constant tension seems to exist between the state on the one hand and the university on the other, falling back on Aristotelian teleology seems imperative, not optional. But what exactly is Aristotelian teleology and how can it be used as a conceptual tool to understand the idea of a university?

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Updated On : 21st Sep, 2020

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