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Universities are strange creatures. A great university — sadly, every single functioning one of them is in the West — is one of the human race’s crowning achievements. Where else have we managed to:

  1. Sustain a vibrant physical institution for a thousand years — only religious institutions have lasted longer.

  2. Combine conservatism with dynamism — some departments focus on texts that are thousands of years old, while other departments barely pay attention to papers published a year ago. Religious institutions manage the first, but not the second.

  3. Churn tens of thousands of students every year.

  4. Uphold free inquiry while being ‘responsible’, i.e., serving the needs of governments, corporations and (less so) citizens.

As a sustained creative effort, nothing else comes close to the institutionalization of knowledge in ivy.

There’s a strange schizophrenia about universities. From the inside, i.e., if you are a student or faculty, the software matters more than the hardware. Tenure is granted and exams are passed on the basis of marks on paper. From the outside, the hardware matters more: money granted or donated for new centers, gymnasiums, hires, equipment and other things with a physical imprint.

In reality, the hardware and the software are intertwined. The stability of knowledge is conditioned upon the stability of the buildings that house scholars. That connection is most obvious when you look at parts of the world that have lost their universities. Consider India’s civilizational heritage: once upon a time Nalanda was the most important center of learning in the world. The destruction of Nalanda and Takshasila destroyed the buildings as well as the knowledge traditions that were transmitted in them.

We Indians like to think that we are upholders of an ancient culture. It’s true, but it’s not as true as we would like it to be. We have some connection to a classical past in our religious practices and in our artistic traditions, but those connections are strictly circumscribed. Nothing from that past gives us the tools to conduct scientific inquiry, start businesses, run a government or anything that makes the modern world tick. Contrast that with a western university, where the same set of ideas run the inner world of art, mathematics and philosophy as well as the outer world of business and government.

More than anything else, colonialism destroyed our connection to ways of thought and feeling that guide societies as a whole. We are left with piecemeal replacements; no amount of hankering after ancient Indian culture can substitute for systemic, thankless labor. What would science look like if it didn’t develop out of the schism between church and state? What if it were Nagarjuna’s meditations rather than Descartes’ that guided our exploration of human and non-human minds? The honest answer is that we won’t know until we attempt it.

This Week’s Links

  1. Deresiewicz dissing the Ivy League.

  2. Coseru on logic and mysticism in the Indian Philosophy blog. The blog as a whole is highly recommended.

  3. A New Yorker polemic against Vandana Shiva and her new kind of science. I am skeptical of VS’s kind of science but I dislike her opponent’s kind of science a lot more.


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