It is that time of the year.
The mercury soars. The sky, malleable in the summer-heat, is stretched out all white and shimmery. Thunderstorms arrive on cue, crackling with tension, leaving in their wake a patina of longing on every single surface. Everything everywhere is reminiscent of other lives, other things. If I try and put a name to that, it feels, oddly enough, like the future.
At least to two sets of people, parents and school-finalists, it tastes fully of the future. In the peculiar way the future appears from a distance, a vast, inchoate but clever version of the present, reflecting the logical, best-case manifestations of the choices made now, but sparkling with fairy dust. After all, over the summer, parents and the school-finalists will find themselves thinking obsessively about the future, and which of the many roads – each road presumably filled with forks and seasons of its own – they ought to choose for that fairy dust future.
It’s no small matter, the question of education after school – perhaps I should say Education – and it is invariably a collective decision. Parents have their theories, children, their aspirations (sometimes inspired by sources as diverse as Suits or Grey’s Anatomy). And come results day, the gods of CBSE, ISC or IB will have their own say in the matter.
Therefore, it is natural that summer – with the rumblings of results and futures – becomes an apposite time to read Saikat Majumdar’s College, an elegant, erudite volume on undergraduate education, which begins with the memorable line: “College Street in Calcutta is a real place, but it is also something of a myth.” I pride myself on being a bona fide College Street-educated person (every single time I stepped out of Presidency College in my undergraduate years, I would get distracted by the dizzying stalls, and always stop and forage until a whole cosmos of second-hand books became my true preceptors, each book bought with saved-up commuting money leading on to other worlds and other books). I was hooked immediately.
College is a unique book, one of its kind. While most books on the nature of education or policy fall in the realm of academics, College brings the debates on undergraduate education firmly into the mainstream, marrying philosophy with narrative, anecdote with history. The first chapter, even as it sneaks in a few of the big ideas the book will eventually wrestle with – “is there such a thing as a liberal arts subject, or merely a liberal arts education?” for instance – reads like narrative non-fiction, where an entire time and place, Majumdar’s college days in the mid- to late-1990s in Calcutta, are recreated with remarkable feel for detail and history.
In his other life, novelist Saikat Majumdar (his 2015 novel Firebird is now being made into a feature-film, and his first novel Silverfish was published in 2007) is a professor and academic, with nearly two decades of teaching English Literature and Creative Writing in universities around the world. In 2016, he left Stanford to join Ashoka University, which is a one-of-its-kind institution in India, offering a four-year liberal arts degree that allows for fascinating specialisations – you can potentially major in Biology and minor in Creative Writing there. Himself a product (and a purveyor) of both Indian and American educational systems, Majumdar is thus well-equipped to tackle the thorny questions that plague India’s undergrad system, which, in many parts of the country continues to remain exactly where it was in his time.
Using a mix of humour and personal history, Majumdar first peels the skins of the nature of this kind of learning, which a large number of Indian colleges continue to hawk: rote-learning, a focus only on consumption of knowledge rather than its production, and a degree-leaning rather than knowledge-seeking outlook. The BA/ BSc programmes in many of the disciplines are still very much legatees of our colonial past, whose chief motive had been to train government clerks. The element of certification also trumps the pursuit of knowledge; the mandate of most educational institutes in India seems to be for students to acquire “existing knowledge verifiable through examinations” rather than interrogate the canon on their own.
After close and sensitive analysis of the higher education systems in India and the US (the two primary loci of Majumdar’s work) and drawing from the pioneering work of psychologists, linguists, economists and social thinkers, Majumdar suggests a paradigm shift in pedagogic policy. In my view, three broad points stand out.
First, it is key for professors at undergraduate colleges to move away from an obsession with the passive “consumption” of knowledge to active “production” of it. Even amateur scholars must be encouraged to produce original – if not publishable – work. This often goes against the grain of the way the BA/BSc degrees are awarded in many places – where the candidates are mostly tested upon their grasp of a fixed syllabus, rather than writing papers or developing hypothesis of their own.
Inter-disciplinarity (history-literature/ political science-international relations/ economics-statistics) which the BA/ BSc honours-pass combination seems to bring to the table ought to be replaced by the far more radical notion of “contra-disciplinarity”, that is, “the cultivation of at least one discipline as different as possible from one’s primary specialisation” as possible, bringing in a delicious sense of creative disruption that an obsession with one discipline can potentially induce. It is in the spirit of contra-disciplinarity that in September 2014, the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University, a renowned hub of tech startup initiatives, proposed a five-year degree of two dual majors: Computer Science and English, and Computer Science and Music.
And finally, Majumdar introduces the “ideal liberal artscience graduate” or the T-shaped individual. Jeffrey Selingo advanced this concept in his book There is Life After College and drawing on it Majumdar shows us how to re-imagine the educated person as someone with both depth in a specific field, i.e. the vertical bar of the T, and a robust general education that allows for a sophisticated sense of exposure to a wide range of disciplinary methodologies, the horizontal bar of the T.
(Note: Potential employers just jumped up in joy.)
84 Summers Ago
As I read College, I was reminded of a hectic summertime correspondence between a father and daughter, from a long time ago. It was about much the same themes that Majumdar writes about: education, choosing the right subjects to study, the right college, and the larger scheme of things that education implies.
On 15 June 1934, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote from Dehra Dun Jail:
“I am sending you a prospectus of Shantiniketan. This will give you a great deal of information. On p.13 the subjects are given. Among the compulsory subjects I think you should choose Hindi (as an Indian language) and French (as a modern language).
There are several interesting optional subjects – the three sciences, Botany, Physics, Chemistry, and Music, Fine Arts, etc. You must choose two of these. I am rather partial to science as the modern world is based on science. At the same time the Fine Arts department of Shantiniketan is very good and if you have any inclination that way you should join it. You need not decide yet. Go there and see for yourself and then decide.”
His daughter, Indira, the recipient of the letter, had just Matriculated from “Pupils’ Own School”, a progressive boarding school run by a nationalist Parsi couple in Poona, mostly for the children of freedom fighters. Indira was a voracious reader – but had no definite idea yet about what her public calling would be.
On 16 July, 1934, Indira replied to her father from Shantiniketan:
“Regular classes have begun. The History class is by far the most interesting and I look forward to it. You know my subjects are English, Hindi, History, Civics and Chemistry. Chemistry. Chemistry seems to be out of place, unless one takes the science course. The Principal suggested Logic instead, but as you wanted me to take it up and I also like it, I attend the Chemistry classes.
I have also joined the painting classes and dancing.”
It seemed to me both fascinating and natural that Tagore’s vision in Santiniketan, approximating the truly modern yet deeply Indian education system that was created as an alternative to the British model, resonates today with cutting-edge thinking in pedagogy (though, paradoxically, Santiniketan now suffers from many of the same woes as the other Indian universities.)
If pedagogues and parents – and politicians for good measure – read College, and even if a few of the ideas outlined there begin to enter the bloodstream of the Indian education system, perhaps we might be able to rejuvenate a moribund model. The roots of the diseased system are deep, of course. In a country where school education is complicated and extremely diverse, not merely because of the divisions of class and location, which are powerful barriers, but also because some mother tongues/ first languages are far more powerful than others. Access to education is also mired in the politics of language.
To conclude, though, I want to return to a sentence from Nehru’s letter of 15 June, 1934 that keeps circling my head: “I think I have told you,” he wrote to Indira, before discussing Shantiniketan,
“…that it has long been my desire that a part of your education – and every boy’s and girl’s education – should consist of real honest work in a factory or the fields. Unfortunately this cannot be arranged in India under the present conditions but this idea of mine will give you some notion of what I think of education.”
And that remains my worry. In the final analysis, I wonder if a truly liberal artscience education is to be had without a connection to the real world around. And whether a government institute of excellence or a private one, even if they were to achieve revolutionary contradisciplinarity, would either be able to break out of the hermetically sealed environment of “education” and find a wider relevance where empathy, progressive thinking or epiphanies need not be cultivated in (air-conditioned) classrooms.
College: Pathways of Possibility, Saikat Majumdar, Bloomsbury.