Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Reflection on the Indian Professoriate and its relevance for contemporary legal education in India

On Oct 07, the Hindu carried this brief tribute to Professor Daya Krishna, the former Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Rajasthan who passed away on Oct 05. Today's Indian Express carries a moving portrayal of Professor Krishna by Pratap Mehta which tells us much more about the man and his intellectual achievements:

[Professor Daya Krishna] was an immensely productive scholar: his output ranged from technical articles on the philosophy of mind and philosophy of science, published in the world’s top refereed journals, to books on development and on Indian philosophy. He was multi-disciplinary in the best sense of the term: sparring with Raj Krishna on the Indian economy, and taking the blinkers off sociologists in a classic article on the ‘Varna Ashram Dharma Syndrome of Indian Sociology.’ His sensibility was Socratic, less interested in system and ideology, than on shining a critical light on unexamined assumptions. He used knowledge like a scalpel to cut through cant and drivel, always with great humour and effect. Later in his career he turned to a serious study of Indian thought, and though the work of this period is more laboured than his earlier work, he was a great facilitator of a genuine dialogue between Indian and western philosophy of a kind that no longer seems possible.

Beyond paying tribute to “Dayaji” as Mehta refers to Professor Krishna, Mehta seeks to “use the occasion for wider self reflection.” Mehta’s central argument is that Professor Krishna “represented what the Indian university system could become at its best, and his passing away is emblematic of the way in which the best in it is on the verge of extinction.” This is how Mehta builds his case:

The academic world [Professor Krishna] represented is one that is irrevocably lost, though arguably we need it even more. He conducted his professional life on an ideal we can scarcely imagine: the idea of a professoriate. This was founded on two assumptions. The first was that the primary purpose of a university is to cultivate the intellect and the life of the mind. If a university is made instrumental and subordinate to other purposes — social engineering, political goals or cultural pride — it loses its essential character.

This idea that universities can achieve the most when they are thought of as a non-instrumental space, challenging our consciousness to surpass itself, is almost completely extinct in modern India. Now our universities exist ostensibly for every purpose other than the cultivation of the intellect. This reflects a huge loss in our cultural sensibilities. One of the reasons why it is impossible to reinject romance into the idea of a university, and why university reform is so difficult, is that we cannot even conceive of what it is like to dedicate institutions for the cultivation of intellect in the true sense of that impoverished word.

The second assumption was that being a professor was a vocation in the true sense of the term, with its own inherent dignity, norms and autonomy. But this is both an institutional idea and an existential one. Institutionally it meant that the professoriate is a vocation that in the conduct of its professional obligations is answerable primarily to itself. It may aim to reach popular audiences, but it does not take its standards from them; it may speak to holders of power, but it does not let power define its agenda; it may aim at useful knowledge, but utility does not exhaust the value or significance of knowledge. Although we often talk about university autonomy, this discussion is limited to securing the autonomy of vice-chancellors from government. What we have lost is a sense of a self-governing and self-regulating professoriate that despite all its fractiousness is united by a commitment to cultivating the intellect, nothing less and nothing more.

Existentially, Dayaji could convince you that there are few things in life more pleasurable, and more important than a good seminar. Indeed, for him it was almost a democratic form of sociability: where each argument had its individuality, yet there was communication. There was difference but also the possibility of transformation; disagreement, but not sullied by strategic or personal considerations.

… … … But creating a new and exciting academic milieu is not just about institutional reform; it is about recapturing a space for non-instrumental views of knowledge, about valuing an adventure of the mind without quite second-guessing what it will come up with. Dayaji would have been the first to acknowledge that the next generation will often be cleverer than last, but whether it can recreate a vibrant university life is still open to question.

Mehta is clearly addressing the state of higher education in India more generally, but I believe his comments are particularly apposite for institutions that provide legal education in India today. On the face of it, legal education in India is booming, and law schools in India are indeed attracting, perhaps for the first time in several decades, some of the “best and the brightest” students. Yet, to put it mildly, all is not well with the professoriate in Indian law faculties.

We have debated some of the reasons for that in the past on this blog (see this post in particular). I earnestly believe that Mehta’s prescriptions should be debated by faculty members in Indian law schools as any such discussion will provide rewarding insights into essential issues of pedagogy, areas of institutional focus, and the incentive structures that must guide the work of Indian legal academics. This will, hopefully, allow the current exclusive focus on churning out “well-trained” undergraduates to service the various sectors of the legal profession to be modified and altered to achieve a better balance between the multiple objectives that law schools ought to aspire for.

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