Never mind the platypus: Is academic freedom an endangered species?

Earlier this year, Sanjeev Sanyal’s guest column in The Week excoriated “the Left paralysis” in our intellectual life, echoing the 17 November statement’s view of an organised onslaught on all that is not Left in the life of our collective mind.

Sudipto Sanyal May 11, 2016 11:06:00 IST
Never mind the platypus: Is academic freedom an endangered species?

Consider a platitude: Academia is a bastion of godless Commie pot-smoking degenerates, seeking to indoctrinate the rest of civil society in its horrifying Sodom-and-Gomorratic ways.

The great American conservative William F Buckley, Jr levelled this charge over sixty years ago in God and Man at Yale, which, subtitled as it was (The Superstitions of “Academic 'Freedom'), fired the opening salvo in what has come to be a treasured bugbear of the right-wing everywhere, much like the pompous uncle everyone loves to hate. Since then, the very idea of academic freedom has been systematically and often elegantly parenthesised as some sort of leftist conspiracy. So it was in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (itself subtitled How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students), and so it is in much public discourse today.

Recall, for instance, the statement issued on 17 November last year by 46 “eminent historians, archaeologists and scholars” against so-called “Leftist” intellectuals — those blinkered unfortunates mired in an abhorrent mélange of “Marxist historiography and leftist ideology, with a few borrowings from postmodernism, the Annales School, Subaltern and other studies” (is there a diploma course in Other Studies yet, one wonders) — railing against “a well-orchestrated campaign to create a bogeyman and cry wolf.” And, earlier this year, Sanjeev Sanyal’s linguistically intemperate guest column in The Week excoriated “the Left paralysis” in our intellectual life, echoing the 17 November statement’s view of an organised onslaught on all that is not Left in the life of our collective mind.

Never mind the platypus Is academic freedom an endangered species

Representational image. News18

Indeed, Sanyal goes so far as to brand this onslaught a “systematic ‘ethnic cleansing’ of all non-Left thinkers since the 1950s,” thereby opening a gaping semiotic wound in an already-fraught minefield of ideas and ways of behavior. With its echoes of serious, visceral violence — remember the genocidal rape of the Yugoslav Wars, anyone? — “ethnic cleansing” assumes a darker implication in the context of namby-pamby academic wars; in a disingenuous sleight of hand, Sanyal extends the language of persecution to create an illusion of solidarity between massively disparate groups of supposedly oppressed minorities. Disgruntled “non-Left” academics are suddenly united with bodies in mass graves in Srebrenica, and the righteous indignation of the masses is lovingly lubricated.

For all its regurgitated bile and almost complete lack of evidence, Sanyal’s column does manage to stumble past a certain insight. “(E)ven those advocating change,” he writes, “end up using language and frameworks derived from the Left.” This is important, for it expresses an awareness of the power of language to craft reality. “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words,” the cyberpunk writer Philip K Dick once said, and his desiccated corpse is probably grinning a maggot-eaten grin somewhere today. Words like “sickular” and “anti-national” (and, most amusing of all, the “intellectual tyranny” of the Left) are bandied about with gay abandon, and simply calling it a “systematic cleansing” seems to make it so.

Yet, in my experience, it is typically the conservative Right that is systematic and well-organised — go to any university campus in any American town, and it’s usually the campus Republicans who are organised and ‘with it,’ the campus Democrats who are trying to pull in funds at the last minute (the real Left in the US — the Green Party, the Socialists etc — will probably be lucky if they can find their party banners in time for fundraisers). The BJP’s organisational juggernaut during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaigns is another case in point. Not only is there no real evidence for a systematic cleansing of the “non-Left” in academia over the years (indeed, there is much evidence to the contrary; one need only hark back to Germany during the Nazis), one also greatly doubts whether those in the hallowed corridors of academe are even capable of being systematic, as the clutter in any university office should prove. Ragtag bunches of students shouting slogans usually lose out in the organisational wars to well-coordinated groups of ABVP supporters trying to jump police barricades wielding sticks masquerading as flags.

And yet, for all its fulminations against the ivory towers of academe, Sanyal’s column — and, for that matter, many others like it (including this one, on this very website) — is not incorrect in one respect. The academy does indeed lean left (there is, if not a mountain, then at least a very substantial hill of evidence for this), just as the military-industrial complex or religious institutions (and even medical doctors, it would seem) lean right the world over. This often results in the popular tendency, as Daniel Klein, Professor of Economics at George Mason University points out, to “see academe as this vast apparatus of leftist groupthink.” But this hardly leads to a collective drinking of the Kool Aid, as Neil Gross makes evident in Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? Using data analyses, interviews and experimentation, Gross concludes that, while a majority of academics lean left, it has relatively little effect on how or what they teach. There is little evidence of ideological indoctrination in institutes of higher learning. So much for the intellectual tyranny of the Left.

Gross’ book is, of course, about North American academia. But his broader implications are very relevant today in India (and much of the third world in general). “During periods of significant economic downturn, and significant rise of inequality,” he writes, a leftward shift is hardly surprising, especially given that in academia, “radicalism is still a live possibility.” The right-wing’s attempt to overhaul the higher education system and eviscerate spaces of difference (in both behaviour and thought) rests on the assumption of a failure of the state-run school system, and becomes more urgent as a way to distract from real problems – smoke and mirrors to cauterise a populace into thinking the only thing wrong with the country is the smell of reefer and the sight of used condoms on campus. Why think of our jobless growth and our impending demographic disaster (whereby the proportion of jobs in the unorganised sector, without regular salaries and social service benefits, is set to rise to 93 percent by next year) when we can jail students for, essentially, rudeness and insensitivity (and, perhaps, bad hygiene)?

So the Right’s solution is to discredit the long tradition of fairly decent (of course, not without its own problems) state-run higher education in our country, and insidiously replace it with what the literary scholar Jeffrey J Williams calls “the post-welfare state university.” Private competition, we are told, will be good for education. And it will, but only to a certain extent, and only for a certain class of people. To gauge the true cost of such corporatised academic capitalism, one need look no further than the American model, which shifted from a post-Second World War‘Great Society’ in which tuition costs were low and publicly subsidised — therefore paid for collectively — to the present privatised scenario in which the cost of higher education is borne individually — every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost!

In addition to most college students being slowly crushed under the insurmountable burden of student loans, this privatisation of higher education has also led, writes Williams, to “the push for research to bring in corporate funds or lead directly to commercial patents, the morphing of administration to a CEO class detached rather than arising from faculty, the casualisation of a majority of faculty in part-time, adjunct, or term positions, and the pressure on students, working long hours as well as taking loans to pay tuition.” Enough to make our political and economic elites quiver with impending pleasure.

And so we hear calls for a balancing of the scales in the ideological furniture of the university campus (“Note that I am not advocating that the overwhelming dominance of the Left should be replaced by a similar dominance of the Right. However, a healthy debate requires that some sort of balance is restored,” as Sanyal reasonably points out). This is both seemingly practical and ultimately dangerous. The overt and eventually hollow stance of bipartisan objectivity in our national news media, for instance, in the wake of a Foxification of our news channels, seems to suggest that all stories must have two, and only two, opposing and equally meritorious sides. You’re either with us or you’re against us. And somehow, a balance between these two sides will lead to a sort of magical utopian ideal.

Instead, it sculpts what the journalist and media critic Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere” — a flaccid middle ground which keeps everyone happy, including journalists, advertisers and publishers. For Rosen, this supposedly “balanced” perspective frequently “places the journalist between polarised extremes, and calls that neither-nor position ‘impartial’… it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy.” The arbitrarily-assigned value of a “healthy” debate, the idea of balance has also invaded the non-Right — note, for instance, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart’s frequent calls for bipartisan balanced debate over the years. I doubt I’ll hold my breath for the day we demand such a balance in our military, our temples and our CEOs.

In his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the historian Richard Hofstadter defined anti-intellectualism as a “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimise the value of that life.” The state-run university has come to stand for all that is threatening to our new idea of Indianness, the last citadel of complexity and marginally-independent thought.

In spite of our cultural and political (though not our commercial and economic) distaste for the American way of life, we seem to not realise that we too have become Americans – we demand easy answers to difficult questions, and we are now scared of complexity in our public discourse, preferring the simplicities of, as Frank Zappa once put it, “unrefined commerce, wild superstition and religious fanaticism.” The gradually tumescent inequalities in our society have made large swathes of the population increasingly incredulous of the supposed elitism of the academy, culminating in the large-scale resentment of what Hofstadter called “the constant insinuation of the intellectual as expert in public affairs.”

This has led to a faith in a technocratic intelligence that is seen as being opposed to intellectualism.

Sanyal concludes his essay by professing a similar faith — “I am no fan of the argumentative Indian; much prefer the Indian who gets things done.” This utilitarian belief in the mainstream, so in thrall with what Hofstadter termed “the mystique of practicality,” manifests itself today in the violence of party workers who claim to be part of a vidyarthi parishad that is against scholarship and all the ideas that genuine scholarship implies.

The author is a godless degenerate academic. He is based in Kolkata, a city famous for godless degenerate academics

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