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Indian Higher Education and the need for critical knowledges


The construction of a reflexive modernity calls for people who can look back at their own society

and correctly identify its greatest challenges. Modernity may be weak and poorly rooted in India,

but this is just the situation in which more sensitivity is called for, not less. While many of the

contradictions created by nineteenth century industrialization are surfacing now in India, the risks of

late industrial societies, too, are making their presence felt. The weakening of social and normative

knowledges cannot be said to be a problem restricted to liberal welfare states and threatens India,

too. The dangers created by this weakening may take up special forms here, given the small ratio of

educated elites in comparison to the rest of Indian society.  The demand for critical and human

knowledges will never go away. The challenge now is for us to rework how we can meet that


The knowledges which gain currency in a society are hardly autonomous. We know that economic

and political processes intertwine with culture to create and to demolish academic disciplines. The

claim of modern academic disciplines to being the highest form of knowledge itself is the product

of a particular juncture of history. The late medieval university in Europe was primarily a site for

the study of theology and law (Rashdall 1895). The modern university emerged in the nineteenth

century with the growing power of non-religious institutions in society. The university was not a

puppet of the state, but yet could exist only with the blessings of the government. At several places

like Germany and France, modern universities were created by the direct intervention of the state.

The university's place in society was also cemented when alumni tried to monopolize the struggle

for jobs and postions of influence. Even today the university manoeuvres to control legitimacy

before the state and seeks to deny legitimacy to other forms of knowledge. The UGC must

necessarily maintain a list of universities that it does not recognize. Or else the prestige and power2

of those which enjoy its benevolence would weaken. This is not at all to say that all conceptions of

truth are equal and that it is power alone that decides their validity. At the same time, what is taught

as knowledge in higher education cannot be seen as absolute and pure, untouched by power and

social context.

The historicity of knowledge is seen in the way the new universities had given pride of place in

western Europe to the cultural knowledges which emerged after the rennaisance. In spite of the

industrial revolution, technical knowledges were still considered inferior in the nineteenth century

university. It was initially only in Germany and the land-grant universities of USA that professional

disciplines and technological research were made the centre of interest. Most European elites had a

cultural and legal education rather than a technical one (Ruegg 2004). It was as late as the second

half of the twentieth century that technology and science came to dominate most universities.

Meanwhile the cultural knowledges, too, have been transforming. They are being shaped into forms

that powerful actors find useful in organizing and controlling the workforce and society at large.

Teachers of English literature are now to be seen marketing their wares as courses on management


The pattern visible in late industrial societies is that of the continued growth of technicalinstrumental knowledges and a concurrent decline of other forms. Those pockets of India which are

connected to the global market mirror this trend. When universities are told to be relevant, more

often than not it is meant that they should produce more graduates who can fit into the workforce.

The market has held in thrall even our Knowledge Commission, and it focuses primarily on creating

“human resources” from the point of view of the economy. It is revealing that disciplines like

philosophy and sociology are entirely excluded in its report (NKC 2008).

The Darker Side of Instrumental Knowledges

The emphasis on utility, of course, need not be entirely a bad thing. As we move towards more

complex societies, the rise of technical knowledges is inevitable and necessary. However, there is a

darker side to their rise. Max Weber famously outlined it a century ago when he wrote of the

rationalization of the world. We built an iron frame to free ourselves from the constraints of nature

and history, he wrote, and then found ourselves in an iron cage instead (Weber 1958). The pathos of

Weber came from his despair that the grasp of the iron cage would eventually close down3

completely over the human spirit.

Scholars like the early critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have shared this

pessimism (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972) but others have been less  deferential to what they see as

mere nostalgia for the past (Giddens 1995). Juergen Habermas saw the future and present as capable

of being whatever we chose to make of them. For him the defining struggle was between what he

called the system and the lifeworld (Habermas 1981a, 1981b, 1996). The lifeworld was the domain

of meanings, subjective and shared. It was where what Habermas called communicative action

could take place. This was action through dialogues, resting upon relative equality between the

participants and upon shared aesthetics, emotions and beliefs. Communicative action had the

possibility of permitting reason, justice and fairness to be grounds for social arrangments. The life

world was where this could be worked out. The system, in contrast, was built up of objective forces

and walls. It was the domain of strategic action, resting not on dialogue but on reaction and strategic

choices in the face of non-negotiables. It was shaped out of social facts and proceeded through

much higher degrees of compulsion than experienced in the lifeworld.

There were advantages in having a system on which to base our society. Communicative action all

the time or in larger networks was slow and time-consuming. It called for bonding, dialogues and a

creative exploration of shared meanings. The lifeworld was deeply meaningful, but doing things in

it in a just manner was laborious and painstaking. However, if just frameworks could be built for

strategic action, they could save huge amounts of time and effort in everyday activities. The

growing prominence of the system went hand in hand with the rise of technical-instrumental

knowledges. The latter helped predict causality and to guide the precise use of force. However, it

should never be forgotten that the system had to be just. This normative dimension was what gave it

legitimacy. And norms were best worked out not through strategic action, but through

communicative action. Norms that were imposed or the result of symbolic violence could hardly be

considered legitimate. Indeed, both the lifeworld and strategic action were needed in any given

society. However, the legitimacy of the system had to come ultimately from the lifeworld. The loss

of their connection led to the system taking up an oppressive and opaque role.

The danger posed to late industrial societies by the weakening of the social sciences and humanities

is precisely this - the creation of an opaque society. The market and state power embody certain

kinds of rationality while several others, too, are possible. Norms may be various, with the market

and state being built on only certain out of a large range of possibilities. The powerful tend to4

promote only the knowledges which they are able to use and which will serve them. Questions of

norms and rationalities that are not consistent with the rationality of the market and large

bureaucracies are destabilizing and slowly bled away.

The fissures of a technical-instrumental world

Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck argue that if modern knowledges are too close to the strings of

power, then a grave danger looms. Only those problems and consequences will be visible which suit

the powerful. However, the invisible threats are of no less consequence even if they have been

pushed out of sight. Examples of the consequences of being blind to trouble spots are already

around us. We have been witness to the triumphalism of corporate capitalism and a media entranced

by its successes. However, neither the corporate czars, nor their puppet media and nobel prize

winning economists were able to identify or warn us of the fatal flaws which have led to a near

collapse of the global economy and thrown millions out of their jobs and homes. In India we have

had a scandal of the magnitude of Satyam Computers, where a handful of managers, accountants

and board members seem to have pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. The culture of India's

corporate world seems to have norms that discourage critical inquiry of a deeper kind.

Giddens and Beck help us to understand what is happening through their concept of a risk society.

Ulrich Beck (1992) says that the kind of industrialization which had developed in the nineteenth

century is now undergoing fundamental transformation. Familiar concepts like class through which

we grasped the tension points of the old industrial societies are no longer as useful as they were in

the past. Beck says that a new social structure is struggling to emerge and we, too, are only in the

process of developing the concepts which can recognize it and help us to act. What we do see are a

series of fissures that reach out across the entire system. In this new risk society one of the key

fissures is created by the growth of science and technology. The technical disciplines have

demonstrated enormous capacity to impact our lives. It is in the character of these disciplines that

they look at specific, technical features of what they study. However, the most important

consequences of science and technology fall outside their own domain and field of vision. The

consequences are political, social, cultural and economic, to understand which other kinds of

disciplines like the social sciences and humanities are needed. Civil engineering, for instance, is illequipped to understand what happens to the life of the people when they are asked to leave to build

a big dam over their homes. The civil engineer is taught to measure the strength of concrete and5

stone. He has no concepts to measure the pressure and pains of human existence. The disjunction

between the highly developed technical knowledges and their inability to grasp their consequences

is one of the major generators of risk in technocratic societies.

The technical disciplines no longer have the concept of politics in their professional imagination. It

is at best something unsavoury which politicians indulge in or is a description of the underworld of

corporate manipulations. Yet, the very nature of technology is deeply political. When engineers

build factories that displace thousands, they are engaged in a political act. The growth of a system

of knowledge where people no longer have the categories to understand that they are engaged in

political acts, Beck argues, is itself a politics of knowledge.

Anthony Giddens (1990) makes a point similar to Beck's, even though he comes to it from a

different theoretical background. Giddens argues that the complexity of contemporary societies and

their sheer scale is unprecedented. Modernity rests upon several kinds of disembedding among

which one  is the emergence of a sense of time and space which is not tied to a particular context. It

is this which permits communication and collaboration across a global scale. Another of the crucial

forms of disembedding is the creation of expert systems. Now we no longer have to engage at a

personal level with different kinds of knowledges. For instance, one no longer need to know the

details of how to build a ceiling to have a house. It is possible to trust an expert whose realm it is to

ensure that the roof will not collapse over the resident's head. Trust, Giddens underscores, is at the

core of modernity. We cannot fully verify the abilities of the expert so we choose to trust him.

However, the emergence of such expert systems may go hand in hand with the suppression of

knowledges that do not fit in. This may well lead to a situation where the expert does not have

access to information that the materials used in the ceiling are carcinogenic. Risk, Giddens, argues,

becomes a characteristic feature of modernity, along with trust.  

Both Beck and Giddens point out that that technocratic societies are sharply vulnerable to systemic

risks. The organization of technical knowledges is based upon the exercise of power in denying

other forms of knowledge. However, this leaves them exposed to the risks which emerge from

origins beyond their own particular domain. Modernity leads to a monolithic system of dominant

knowledges, which is incapable of responding to problems and issues which come from beyond

what these knowledges and expert systems have defined as rationality.

The answer, one must emphasize, is not the abandonment of modernity, but the development of a6

reflexive modernity. Giddens and Beck call this the radicalization of modernity and argue that it is

already taking place. The awareness of risk becomes the basis of a society which is continually

reflecting upon itself. Reflexivity permits actions in response which seek to correct modernity's

problems and which can overcome its fissures.

Knowledge and Modernity in India

The Indian context is quite different from the liberal welfare democracies of UK and Germany

where Giddens, Habermas and Beck situated their work. Here modernity itself is still struggling to

assert itself against the opponents of reason. Reflexivity is an even more distant, weak process. With

the majority of Indians struggling to make both ends meet, the perception of risks from the

environment is often an unaffordable luxury. Where Habermas saw the state threatening to choke

communicative action, here most often it is the non-functional or weak state that one encounters.

While reading theorists of modernity, one must weigh with caution their applicability to India. The

state in post-colonial India has had small centres of modernity (often of contested interpretations)

and a large hinterland where modern institutions negotiate and strike compromises with other social


The higher education which we see in universities, engineering colleges and management institutes

is primarily the offspring of modernity in India. Like modernity, it too has a weak foot-hold on our

soil. While there were several sources of an Indian modernity (Pathak 1998), hardly any of them got

institutionalized within the university system. The colonial Indian state had seeded and promoted

several institutions of higher education. In early post-colonial times there was a fresh thrust to

develop personnel for the Nehruvian vision of India. These institutions carried forward versions of

knowledge that drew directly from sources in London and New York rather than Wardha and

Auroville. While there continue to be attempts like dalit studies and feminism to break into new

discourses that express the life experiences of the under-privileged, they remain subalterns in the

university system.

The degree of inequality in access to higher education has been extremely high in India. As late as

2005-2006 the gross enrollment ratio of young people between the age group 18-24 was just 11.6


. In contrast most developed economies had a GER of over 80%ii

. There has been a huge gulf

between the educated with access to the emerging economy and state institutions and the7

uneducated who were left out.

Even within the educated there has been a sharp cleft between an elite on the one hand and an

internally differentiated non-elite section on the other. The basic form of social stratification

embedded in Indian higher education was much the same as in west Europe before the second world

war. There were a few elite universities from which came the managerial classes that ran the Indian

state and big industry. These were primarily a handful of metropolitan universities like Delhi,

Allahabad, Kolkatta, Madras and a very few others.  Most elite positions in India were taken up by

those who had had a cultural rather than a technical education. This, too, was close to the pattern of

elites one sees in western Europe and America in the nineteenth century and till relatively late in the

twentieth century.

One early exception in India to the preponderance of a cultural education among the elites before

the 1970s came with the setting of the IITs. The original intention of the IITs, now covered by the

dust of the ages, was to create the engineers who would build Nehru's temples of modern India. The

disappearance of that objective from the IITs is instructive of the changing balance of power in

India. Instead of looking towards service of the Nehruvian nation, the compass of middle-class

students has swung towards other poles. They soon began to focus on going abroad, then on joining

the corporate sector, especially IT companies and in recent years IIT students had declared

investment banking to be the most prized destination. To place their impact, it must be remembered

that they were a very tiny section of India. For many years the IITs were few and far in between,

producing less than a couple thousand graduates a year. At least part of their prestige came from the

scarcity of their graduates when compared to the size of India.

The overall size of higher education in India was very small, but within it the non-elite sector in

terms of numbers completely dwarfed the premier universities and institutes. What was true of the

rest of India's modern institutions was also true of India's higher education: there were a few centres

of excellence, committed to modernity, the rest were a mass of struggling and failed institutions. In

most of the latter only a ritual of teaching subjects like sociology and political science was

maintained. Across India we saw English literature being taught in Hindi or Tamil, etc. medium.

Here and there we can see courageous teachers struggle to keep a vibrant intellectual current going,

but they are the minorities within their colleges and universities. A sharp stepping down of rigour

and commitment towards reflection and questioning is seen when one moves away from a few

centres. In some of Kanpur's colleges, for instance, hardly any classroom teaching takes place.8

Young people who are holding down full-time jobs enroll in thousands in these colleges, knowing

that they do not need to attend any classes and that they will still eventually collect a degree in

sociology after just a few hours of mugging, supplemented if necessary by mass cheating. This is a

picture true of most of India – north, south, east and west.

But even all this seems about to change. There is taking place a decline of the social sciences and

humanities at both the elite and the mass ends of the system. And I will argue that not all the

passing of the old deserves to be mourned.

Behind the basic changes taking place has been the changing balance of power in India, with the

gradual growth of the corporate sector, especially after 1991. After “liberalization”, jobs in the state

sector stagnated while those in the corporate and informal sectors grew. One consequence of this

was a drastic alteration of priorities in higher education among the upper sections of Indian society.

The economic and prestige returns from participation in the developed economy far outstripped

most of what the Indian economy could offer. Globalization's effect on India's educated classes has

been to pull them in very large numbers into a global economy, leaving vacuums behind whose

impact we are still trying to understand.

One effect has been to drastically decrease elite participation in the social sciences and humanities.

We are now seeing people getting admission to elite universities who come from substantially

different class and caste backgrounds than the previous generations of students. The composition of

elite faculty too has changed with all major universities complaining about how difficult it is to

attract "quality" faculty. Within departments of social science and humanities there is a distinct air

of demoralization and of feeling that one is no longer relevant. Part of this is because the new

knowledges of power are so obviously something else. But the decline of state support, too, is a

factor and it has some independent roots.

The moralities of the state moved emphatically away in the 1990s from choices guided by political

and ideological concerns to choices made by the "invisible" hand of the market. We are told

continuously by administrators and heads of institutions that the research which matters is that

which articulates with the market. Studies of consumer behaviour draw large projects and make the

university administration happy, while studies of farmers' poverty languish for lack of support.

Departments of management mushroom while political science is threatened with closure.  9

The growth of the market need not always lead to the same consequences. The rise of the small and

medium bourgeoisie in England had been the backbone for the struggle for a liberal democracy and

the rise of these classes had been accompanied by an ideology of science and reason. In India we

cannot say that the same process is being repeated. Big industry has been the major beneficiary of

liberalization, with smaller entrepreneurs still suffering a licence raj quite similar to the old. The

modernity that is being cultivated in Indian higher education under the impact of those interests is

undoubtedly growing in size and impact. But it also displays a withdrawal from the social and

philosophical breadth of vision which characterized its earlier avatar of state socialism. Instead what

are promoted are the technical knowledges of management, organizational psychology and

industrial economics. These disciplines embed a system of power that promotes certain questions

over others. Elite MBAs and engineers fail to comprehend issues beyond what they have been

exposed to. When confronted by a Singur or a workers' agitation, their responses range from

irritation to embarrassment. Trained to be good employees, questioning the system is a

transgression of their corporate ethics. Even when some of them wish to engage with the grave

social problems they see around them, they are hobbled by the narrowness of their education. The

decline of critical systemic theorizing at elite levels portends trouble for that same system in coming


At the other end of the spectrum – the higher education available in small mofussil towns - the

fraud that was being conducted in the name of teaching sociology and political science is also

beginning to lose some of its steam. These subjects are still popular because one hardly needs to

attend college and can get a degree while also being a full-time worker. However, the proliferation

of self-financed colleges has made technical degrees much easier to obtain. In states like

Chhattisgarh it is difficult for some undergraduate colleges to get even a single students to study

sociology. One must admit that that is not altogether a bad thing to happen.

The scale of this change is dramatic. In Uttar Pradesh there has taken place a mushrooming of selffinanced engineering colleges, very much like Andhra Pradesh. In 2007-8 there were more than

49,000 seats in undergraduate colleges under the nodal Uttar Pradesh Technological University (as

per its annual report 2007-8). In 2008-9 newspaper reports say that there were over 55,000 seats and

it was proving very difficult to fill all of them. Virtually anyone with a passing knowledge of

science and whose family could borrow about Rs 60,000 a year could walk up and occupy a seat in

an engineering college. For those who couldn't pay that amount, apart from the usual reservations,

the UP government would also be paying the entire fees of all students whose parents declared they10

had an income of less than Rs one lakh per annum. Thus almost everybody who was likely to have

the personal skills and social background to do even moderately well in science at school would be

acquiring a technical degree. And for the rest there were also degrees in commerce and


What we are seeing at a sociological level is that, firstly, there has occurred a relative expansion in

opportunity, in comparison to the past. Where twenty years earlier it was very difficult to get

admission into an engineering colleges, today in several states of India that is no longer a constraint.

To be sure there are bottlenecks and strata within engineering graduates. But at a systemic level,

opportunity does appear to have increased.

Secondly, unlike any time in the past, the majority of the future service class would possess a

technical education and not a cultural one. The contribution of their higher education to the political

and social vision of this section would be of a very narrow kind. It may be argued that earlier, too,

the weakness of institutions had also made the humanities and social sciences ineffectual. However

that was not true at elite levels in the past. Now the nature of the elite itself is changing.

As an illustration consider the case of the Uttar Pradesh Technical University which was the nodal

university till just a few months back for all the engineering courses in UP. The cultural education it

offers its undergraduates in even the best of its colleges is illustrative. When a students joins

B.Tech. in Civil Engineering, the discipline which educates builders of public roads and dams, in

the first two semesters there is half a course on “Environment and Ecology” along with a mandatory

course on “Professional Communication”


 After that, till the end of their degree there is only a

course on Industrial Economics and a course on Principles of Management (which seems to be



 . That half a course on environment and ecology is supposed to provide an adequate

socialization into political and civic morality for our engineers. Little can be expected of even the

highest rated institutions in the state. On top of it most professional colleges in UP pay very little

and have a body of demoralized and weakly trained faculty. It should not come as a surprise when

the graduates from such a system across the country demonstrate complete ignorance of basic


Habermas in Towards a Rational Society (1970) pointed out that there were several expectations

from a university in contemporary times. One was that it reproduced and advanced the technical

knowledges on which the economy rested. Alongside this there was also the learning of cultures of11

work, for instance, the values and orientations upon which the work of the medical professional

rests. The university, thus, whether in terms of technical or cultural knowledges was closely

associated with work and the economy. However this did not exhaust the role of a university in

society. It must include, said Habermas, another key role which was the reproduction, elaboration

and criticism of a society's culture. Societies have systems of meanings which circulate through a

variety of cultural sites like films, magazines, kitty-parties and beer pubs. They are more numerous

and broader in scope than work and are no less important in their impact on human life. An

important aspect of higher education is to participate and reflect upon those meanings. The job of

universities stop here either. For the cultural domain includes learning how to participate in the

political system. A key aspect of university life must be to teach about power and its dynamics.

Young people must learn about what processes drive decision-making in our society, must learn to

reflect upon them and to participate in them. This is no less a part of the university's functions than

initiating them into the economy. A university has the advantage of bringing to politics a spirit of

reflection. Leaving political education to the media is a path fraught with danger. 

By failing to develop a serious engagement of higher education with culture - political as well as

non-political, we are creating a certain kind of "educated" Indian. The educated wage labour is

making up a growing proportion of India's population, with the decline of agriculture and rise of

urban employment. The culture of this section will have many consequences for the future of India.

It is they who will have access to technology and it is from them that supervisory and managerial

positions will be filled.

At present too many from the professional and supervisory classes classes seriously believe that the

main danger to India comes from politicians and democracy. These classes feel more and more

frustrated in their efforts to influence public life, but still are reluctant to engage with debates on the

nature and processes of democracy. If these middle classes tend to opt out of a political system,

among the consequences are an even greater loss of legitimacy for the processes of power.

For any political system to function without violence, it must have at least some minimum degree of

justice and the people must have a level of faith in it. We see the absence of these all around us in

the form of more and more recourse to violence and social disruption as the way to resolve issues

and seek benefits. Little faith remains in the machinery of the state to guarantee fairness or justice.

While violence in our polity is due to many reasons, the withdrawal from informed reflection by the

upper wage labour only exacerbates it. Conversely, it is also the educated wage labour and12

professional who has the possibility of bringing to bear the accumulated wisdom of history. It is

through learning and access to academia that one is spared the effort of having to reinvent the wheel

every time. Or having to discover the evils of fascism only by personal experience of what happens

when a society closes its mind. An education suitable only to creating good technical employees for

corporations is inadequate for creating good citizens for a modern democracy. 

The struggle to expand space for critical knowledges

With the decline of the social sciences and humanities is decreasing our ability to imagine

alternative forms of human existence. It was these disciplines which taught us that human

possibilities were linked to history and to social structure. Their decline ensures that there are

progressively fewer spaces for critical reflection on many key issues. Most adults now have no

opportunity to study them after school. The school, however, has its own reluctance to engage with

larger issues and controversies. The study of political and social processes is mostly reduced to

memorizing rules of institutions. Controversies and debate are embarrassing for those who run

Indian schooling. Even there it is most convenient and causes less trouble with the powerful to

simply focus on rules, maths and physics and ignore the larger human questions of justice and

freedom. The general trend is the same as that seen in modern institutions worldwide: a preference

for technical knowledges that lead to individualization, a loss of a social and historical imagination

and an increasing ignorance of basic human processes.

For instance, consider the way we teach about the social and political arrangements needed for a

good society, in school textbooks. This is the central issue around which rotate at least 2500 years

of debate, struggle and revolution. It is what Plato and Aristotle wrote about, as did Gandhi and

Marx. It is intricately tied to the struggle for power and conflicts between classes and interest

groups. However, most teachers and the education bureaucracy reduce this to a bland recital of

procedures and rules - rules of elections, rules for the formation of the government and so on. There

is no resonance with Gandhi's insistence that freedom calls for developing our own ability to control

and harness our selves. There is no link with the loss of freedom which happens to workers when

they lose control of their labour. Aristotle's warnings against giving too much power to any single

group or individual seem to have never been made. The issues and debates disappear, all that

remains are rules. The reasons for this are obvious. To talk of anything more is to talk of politics

and that invites the ire of superiors and the education ministry. There is hardly any professional13

group of educationists which can stand between the ministry and the school. In a country with

millions of computer programmers, very few scholars exist with the authority to insist on a proper

approach to school education. The result is a bloodless textbook, devoid of any contentious issues,

as if there exist no interests in society and all that is to be seen around us is the result of a hidden

but benign disposition. 

The changing face of knowledge in our society increases the threat to reason and freedom. At this

juncture, there is an urgent need for the social sciences and humanities to ask themselves difficult

questions about their relevance to society. The first frontier is that of rethinking the content of the

social sciences. It is from within us that there must emerge a new form of knowledge that speaks to

the hearts and minds of the people, free from the guiding channels of commerce and domination.

An important aspect would be the fusion of normative and empirical knowledges. It is futile to

teach sociology without a political and and ethical trajectory to it. If one studies caste, one must also

ask what purpose it had in the past and to ask what kind of society we wish to build in the future.

The second frontier is that of building new institutional spaces for this new social science. Most of

the old undergraduate and post-graduate programmes are fading rapidly. It is essential to create

viable support systems that protect their graduates from the vagaries of domination through the

market. There will never be a businessman who will want to support studies of why exploitation is

bad for human beings. That has to be supported by institutions and mechanisms that do not work

through the logic of the monetary market.

At the same time, we have to find niches within the institutions of the new technological society

where we can continue to speak truth to power. At present we try to teach critical knowledges on a

full-time basis to young people who are consumed with anxiety about their employability. It is only

to be expected that they will not be able to develop a commitment towards these disciplines. In

contrast, when made available alongside the security of a vocational education, students

demonstrate a fascination for larger philosophical and social questions. The humanities and social

sciences are taught in the IITs and the immense popularity of those courses (when taught well) is

evidence of this.

However, there is a vast audience which the critical academic disciplines completely overlook. As

people grow older and experience more of the vicissitudes of modern life, they ask more and more

penetrating political and sociological questions. It is at the older and more mature student that we14

must aim. That is where we will find the greatest receptivity and the richest, most fertile soil. This

calls for a serious rethinking of institutional formats. We have hitherto sought easy targets in the

young. But now we will have to work out what kind of courses men and women in their late

twenties and thirties and above can attend. Perhaps the way out is to have a series of part-time

modular courses instead of the old full-time UG and PG degrees. People who work in factories and

offices can find evening and weekend courses on flower decoration and photography in big cities.

Why not courses on understanding and overcoming discrimination? We can also have these courses

as part of the vocational degrees as in the IITs. Subsequently we can gradually stream the more

serious and involved students into more thorough programmes. 

There have been many encouraging attempts in India to build such systems of reflection and thence

a modernity which is supple and responsive. In terms of content we have had the innovative social

science textbooks by NGOs like Eklavya and very recently by the NCERT, too. The NCERT

political science textbooks of classes IX to XII are a good illustration of how larger questions can

return to Indian education. They depict democracy in all its glory and all its ugliness. Democracy is

not the rules of the Parliament, but the struggles over issues and policies that occur in this

institution. Several factors led to this fresh approach being taken. One of them was that for the first

time there was a sizable number of committed social scientists who used their professional

reputation to balance the watering down tendencies of the bureaucrats. Professionalization creates a

pressure group of its own in society. There are indeed grounds for hope where concentrations of

scholarship go beyond a certain threshold. This lesson may be constructively applied at many other


An institutional format that may have potential for the future is exemplified by the IITs which insist

on compulsory humanities and social sciences courses for all undergraduates. They understand that

these courses give students something which their science and technology courses cannot.

Engineering and management colleges are growing and we must press for the incorporation of

similar courses there, too.

Another institutional format is seen in what was developed jointly by several NGOs like Eklavya,

Digantar, Vidya Bhawan and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences for a master's programme in

elementary education. It is an example of how to overcome the problem of educating interested

people but who had their own lives and careers to follow. It was aimed at highly committed teachers

and activists who wished to learn while also continuing with their regular work. This programme15

sought a solution through a mix of online and classroom teaching. There are many more such

experiments taking place in India today. 

The construction of a reflexive modernity calls for people who can look back at their own society

and correctly identify its greatest challenges. Modernity may be weak and poorly rooted in India,

but this is just the situation in which more sensitivity is called for, not less. The fissures created by

the weakening of social and normative knowledges threaten India, too, and cannot be said to be a

problem restricted to liberal welfare states. While many of the contradictions created by nineteenth

century industrialization are surfacing now in India, the risks of late industrial societies, too, are

making their presence felt. Those dangers may take up special forms here, given the small ratio of

educated elites in comparison to the rest of Indian society.  The demand for critical and human

knowledges will never go away. The challenge now is for us to rework how we can meet it.

[Early versions of this paper were presented at seminars in the department of Sociology and Social

Work, University of Kashmir and at  the department of Political Science, Osmania University. I am

grateful for the comments and criticisms received.]

Amman Madan


 August 2009


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