We live in times where the onslaught on universities has compelled us to rethink all that goes on towards the making of an academic culture. The piece that follows enables us to rethink the making of academic cultures in our universities.
Dr. Dev N. Pathak teaches Sociology at South Asian University, New Delhi.
Universities have been discussed for being at the receiving end lately. Researches on higher education too emphasized about the helplessness of the universities. Time is to ask another kind of question: did universities have academic culture, which could defy the logic of authorities? One would promptly think of a range of university-based performance groups, theatrical, musical, and culture of protest.
Even stronger, as we think of academic culture as more than mere pop shows of the hostel nights or the identity based celebrations of micro groups in a university campus.
A panorama of performative politics in the space of university comes to our imagination. It engulfed classrooms and beyond, lectures and conversations, protests and laughter over a cup of tea or any beverage that aided in the fun. There may have been glory of it all.
There was also a seed of self-destruction present therein. The academic culture of the then universities yielded insurmountable, politically correct, progressive rhetoric.
No problem, any variety of cultural politics will have its own vocabulary, set of rhetoric. The problem however began when these rhetoric reverberated nothing, they sounded hollow; when words meant only words, when ideas ceased to beget ideas, when nourishment led to malnourishment.
It all became obvious when there was nothing special about the dinner served in the ‘special dinner ‘at the university hostel. That was when academic culture looked reduced in nature and scope.
It amounts to celebrating petty things, such as a teacher becoming the head of the department, or a student walking down the ramp in a poorly done fashion show, or almost everybody yearning to have a photograph clicked on the occasion of the convocation ceremony.
This is when culture is separated from academics, the way it was separated in the bourgeoisie conceptualization from the practices of artisan, craftsmen, and workers.
Looking at such a scenario, a cultural critique such as Herbert Read mournfully exclaimed- to hell with culture. And yet it persisted, assuming novel forms as the markets opened, goods flew from faraway lands and wider in expanse. Many say, this was when the subject of modernity switched from being a producer to a consumer.
And hence, anybody to rejoice the so-called ‘cultural’ shall leave the intellectual mind behind, in the creaking cupboard of a hostel room. Only then, one can justify any variety of DJs in the celebrations on campuses. And since, it is politically incorrect to raise a finger on the consumers’ choice, in the wake of marketed version of freedom, no one daresay anything wrong about academic culture.
Given the widespread habit, an academic talk on academic culture will be either litany of lament or yet another round of dehydrated-depersonalized-deliberation. However, there are some other kinds of laments in which one operates with an alternative utopia.
It is experiential, and hence wet in emotion. It is about continuing to dream even though a Dr. Freud commands one to come back to conscience. This was a dream of many predecessors too that academic culture will be a panacea to the intellectual humbug, scholarly dehydration, and academic anorexia caused by the technicalities of higher education. It will provide with the much-needed chance to simplify what hours of slogging in libraries cannot. The coherence of thoughts would emanate from such an academic culture in which joy and work, vacation and vocation, romance and mathematics will unfold at once. Truly, it is akin to dreaming about the impossible, particularly when one looks at the imperiled universities today. No, a Vice-Chancellor, or a registrar does not do this today. It was in the making, thanks (due) to many of those who worked industriously to not allow academic culture to advance.
They were the residents of space in the universities- teachers and a lot of students, who did everything incorrect in the name of political correctness. They ensured that no freewheeling dreaming is permitted; they institutionalized the sacredness of some progressive slogans; they legitimized identity politics, whether in the name of Dalits or women. So much so that one cannot even thinks against the grain. Even if one can think, in the closeted spaces, one cannot sound a devil’s advocate. There is fear of being dubbed, with this or that label of identification. An army of likeminded progressive folk would jeer, hoot, and ridicule anyone trying to drive a slightly different way of seeing. No, academic culture of our time does not allow this pluralism. It can at best be tolerant to pluralism of other kinds of choices. Rest is, as they say, fascism of mind, soft Hindutva, Neo-Brahmanism, or repackaged patriarchy. We don’t have an academic culture in sight that allows dreaming beyond the markers of identification!