Idea of a liberal university

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Idea of a liberal university

It's ironic that a coterie of liberal voices, who provide inspiration for a culture of vandalism in JNU, should talk of the demise of the liberal university

Is Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), this monsoon, slated for a radical transformation of its traditional image of a liberal university? If one takes literally the opinions articulated of late by critics of professional education on the so-called 'demise of the liberal university in JNU', this development would cause anxiety to anyone who cares for the importance of social sciences and humanities in colleges and universities. But the fact of the matter conveniently ignored in these critiques is that that JNU has not been a purely liberal university. The idea of liberal education originated in 19th century Europe, when and where a liberal college or university aimed to offer an education which, unlike professional education, was an end in itself. Its goal was to produce individuals with free and independent thinking, as advocates of liberty of thought, speech and conduct.

Even if we, for the argument's sake, forget that there was an opposition to this ideology of education from within Europe with the Industrial Revolution and the emergent need for individuals with specific professional skills, we have to admit that the custodians of the so-called liberal university never cease to act as a disruptive force in JNU, whether it be the lockdown of academic blocks, the siege of the administrative building, the forceful confinement of university officials or an extreme intolerance of contrary ideas as seen in the violent disruption of events such as movie screenings and talks. Therefore, it is not only amusing but also ironical that a coterie of 'liberal' voices, who provide inspiration toand instigate a culture of vandalism in JNU should talk of the demise of the liberal university in JNU.

Secondly, it is a calibrated lie to say that JNU has been a solely liberal university. The university has had centres of learning in pure sciences such as the School of Life Sciences and applied sciences such as the Special Centre for Nanoscience. In recent years, these schools have won laurels and appreciation for their cutting-edge research. It is true, however, that in popular media narratives of the Left-liberal Press, JNU is primarily a university campus known for scintillating voices of dissent and hullaballoo over political happenings in the country. It is a university with schools and centres oriented towards the political lines drawn by the dominant ideology of the School of Social Sciences in these narratives.  The ideals of a liberal university expressed by such 19th thinkers as John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University (1891) are indeed worth emulating for any educational institution. As Newman said, it should be the objective of the university to develop the human intellect to be rational on all issues and pursue truth and comprehend it without any preconceived assumptions of self or authority. But should the objectives of the human mind in the 21st century be restricted to the milieu of 19th century England?

Even in Newman's own country, England, the University of Oxford has moved ahead and brought in professional education which are now in consonance with the traditional subjects of a liberal education. The university's department of Engineering Sciences boasts of being one of the largest departments producing 160 engineering graduates every year. It is high time that India's premier university, JNU, started its own department in this discipline.  It is unthinkable that education in the modern world could so consciously ignore producing talented engineers with different specialisations to develop the country's infrastructure which is needed to boost economic growth. 

Given the huge employment challenges of the 21st century, setting up of manufacturing companies is a must for the country. In such circumstances, ignoring professional education is no longer a choice that India can afford. In the past one year, JNU sought to transform its traditional image. The university attempted to establish an interface with society as well as industry and is exploring the possibility of incubating start-up programmes in the university.

Even as a small group of JNU teachers and students refuse to live in the present, are caught up in the past and shy away from taking up the future challenges of the Indian nation — whether it be employment or industrial growth — JNU has moved ahead by establishing a School of Engineering and School of Management and Entrepreneurship. The university is prepared with a unique course to receive its first batch of engineering students.

However, JNU is very conscious of its responsibility to take quality professional education to the marginalised sections of the country and at the same infuse an element of social responsibility in all its students including those in professional courses. In the words of its Vice-Chancellor, the School of Engineering will offer "a dual degree engineering programme as the students in their first four years will study core engineering while in the final year they will be doing their masters in one of the areas of social sciences, humanities or languages." As one of the most innovative ideas to influence engineering education globally, a student of the school might, for example, graduate with a B.Tech in Computer Science and Masters in Computational Linguistics or a Masters in Korean Studies. JNU is, therefore, uniting the best of the liberal university with the social and national ideals of professional education.

(The writer is Professor, Centre for English Studies, JNU)

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