What IS a university for?

In a routine school exam, we were once asked to write an essay on the topic: Examine the characters of Brutus and Cassius and say which in your opinion is better.

Cassius, I concluded in my essay. I was a teenager then; I saw the world in black and white terms. And from that worldview, I preferred the clarity of motive of the staunch Republican, Cassius, to the fence-straddling vacillation of Brutus and his “Not that I loved Caesar less…”. (There were other reasons, but they are not relevant here.)

When the answer papers were returned to us, I found that mine had a big red slash right across it. And a 0/10 mark. My father was appalled. First, because I had gotten 0 in an English exam. Then, after he had read the essay, he was just appalled, period.

He came to my school two days later, asked to see the English lecturer, and demanded of him, in my presence, an explanation. “‘Cassius’ is not the right answer,” the lecturer responded. Then why, my father asked him, did you ask students for their opinion? Your question should have been ‘Examine the character of Brutus and Cassius and say why Brutus is better’.

It is one of the things I am grateful to my late father for. He was all about discipline and respect and the importance of education and all of that — but equally, he insisted that I learn to think for myself, encouraged that, even when on occasion I challenged his own dogmas.

I was reminded of that incident while reading this Facebook post by Christina Daniels — one more in a stream of posts, open letters and think pieces that challenge HRD Minister Smriti Irani on fact (Here’s another exhaustive rebuttal, by Rohit Vemula’s friends).

Among the responses to Ms Daniels’ post, I found this:

Lokesh RoyIt appears that lot of work has gone into this article . I haven’t gone in detail to the contents of it for lack of time. Suffice it to say that point no 10 is wrong. Universities are temples of knowledge not Chai Shops for political machinations ! You do not know how much we pay for the upkeep of these institutions ! As if to indulge in such destructive pursuits with the aid & abetment of pseudo intellectuals who have sinister motives ,both financially & politically ! But all said & done I don’t blame anyone but our system at large having gone haywire over time .

Point #10, which Mr Roy disagrees with it, is:

10. If there are those who disagree with the verdict in the Afzal Guru case or the Yakub Memon, isn’t the university the best place to discuss it?

The latter half of Mr Roy’s response has all the gravitas of ‘Polly wants a peanut’ — he is merely regurgitating, verbatim, the tropes pushed by sections of the media and polity. The line that made me balk is this: “Universities are temples of knowledge not chai shops for political machinations.”

In that “temple of knowledge”, what is the presiding deity? The textbook, or the mind? Is it a place where you consume unquestioningly the prasad doled out from within the pages of books, or a place where written wisdom is merely the trigger, the cue, for independent thought and reason?

I single out Mr Roy’s comment only because it encapsulates the majoritarian view on the JNU issue: ‘Those students are sent there on our money to “study”, not to discuss and debate’.

So then, what do we as a society want our “students” to be — lobotomised automatons regurgitating the fossilized thoughts of an earlier generation, or young men and women capable of independent, fresh, new thought?