To Surmount India's 'Learning Crisis', Constitutionalism Must Be Part of All Learning

Whether one is being trained as a corporate executive, an engineer, an economist, or an architect, knowledge in constitutional values and practice must be part of learning. It cannot be exclusive to social sciences colleges.

A few centuries ago, Wilhelm von Humboldt, a great liberal reformer and a humanist, defined the university as “nothing other than the spiritual life of those human beings who are moved by external leisure or internal pressures toward learning and research”.

Even if a university would not exist, Humboldt felt that a free (wo)man would otherwise “privately reflect and collect, another might join with (wo)men of his own age, a third might find a circle of disciples. Such is the picture to which the state must remain faithful if it wishes to give an institutional form to such indefinite and rather accidental human operations”.

This classic Humboldtian assertion on what a ‘university’ may symbolise-actualise for (wo)men of any given generation, was later (re)visited in an essay by Noam Chomsky in 1969, a time of great uncertainty and crisis in America’s own educational milieu, when student-led activism across campuses pushed most universities, and the intellectual elite to reflect on their role, reimagine their own existence in society, even in processes of institutional propriety. Albeit, not much changed.

It seems today, once again, universities-colleges across the globe (including India), are positioned at a critical juncture, an impasse, from a crisis, that goes well beyond the economic, technical, and administerial churning imposed by a pandemic.

Also read: Rethinking Education in India to Merge Reality on the ‘Streets’ with Formal Schooling

Far worse, what we face in India is a constitutional learning crisis, where the foundation of our own ‘constitutional values’, ‘constitutional morality’, find little or no presence in the means (and ways) of institutional learning.

B.R. Ambedkar greatly emphasised the need for making people believe in values enshrined in the Preamble for the constitution to remain a living-breathing, more enacting document. Quite contrarily, as Professor Upendra Baxi argued, “issue of the rights of sweepers and scavengers has never entered the mainstream legal (and civic) consciousness in the country”.

The Constitution of India. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is tremendous value in making ‘constitutional morality’ a yardstick for judging social, political developments, for a democracy like India to first survive – and maybe then thrive. The role of universities and other educational institutions is vital in this regard.

Lectures and classes on the Indian constitution, or on constitutional morality, its history, have increasingly become limited to a cohort of students, pursuing legal studies in elite-law schools, whereas, knowledge of one’s own constitution, the history of its formation and basic structure ought to be part of a person’s core learning and enacting, as one becomes a more integral part of a society’s functioning.

Last year, around this time, it was heartwarming to see how young (wo)men across the nation – leading protests against Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – had the Preamble in their hands, reading ‘We the People..’ out loud to the powers that be. Universities – not just social science colleges – must do more in ‘democratising’ the learning, meaning, and practice of constitutionalism, in allowing civilisation to advance – and not regress – as a ‘people’.

Still, it is pointless to discuss what ‘function a university’ may serve in a ‘constitutional learning crisis’, at a time, when educational learning and qualifications are consequentially linked to requirements of ‘certification’, a ‘product’ to be achieved for a social-demonstration effect from a discriminating-elitist system, which thrives in its existence to enable a deeply ‘competitive’ pursuit amongst students.

A reductive approach 

Teaching and research, too, in a similar vein, are becoming more and more industrialised to a state’s own need and for an intellectual elite to remain safely guarded behind ivory castles – as against allowing (any) one to organically move towards ‘teaching and research’ from an inner-calling guided by ‘internal pressures’, or from ‘external leisure’, as Humboldt envisaged.

As Chomsky (quite remarkably) argued back in 1969:

“It is never an easy matter to determine to what extent deficiencies of a particular institution (a university) can actually be overcome through internal-reform, and to what extent they reflect characteristics of society at large, or matters of individual psychology that are relatively independent of social forms… Even at the most advanced level of graduate education, the student is discouraged by university regulation from working as any reasonable man would certainly choose to do: individually, where his interests lead him; collectively, where he can learn from and give aid to his fellows. Course projects and examinations are individual and competitive… The student is obliged to set himself a limited goal and to avoid adventuresome, speculative investigation that may challenge the conventional framework of scholarship and correspondingly, runs a high risk of failure. In this respect, the institutional forms of the university encourage mediocrity…”

The encouragement to ‘mediocrity’ in institutional form(s) at a university, college, or even a school, personifies the state of India’s education system today too. Students, scholars, and even young research enthusiasts are perfectly okay in devoting their entire learning cycle – or a career – to trivial modifications of what has already been known, produced and validated.

Representational image. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In classical Marxian typology, what would be called, a ‘social reproduction thesis’: doing the same thing over and over again with minor tweaks and changes. The publication industry encourages it in a deeply entrenched neo-liberal model of ‘educative’ commodification. Any hope for a widespread reform too seems delusionary in the current political climate.

Also read: The Branding of Indian Education

Still, to achieve the Humboldtian ideal, a ‘university’ in its own propriety should be open to any (wo)man, at any stage of life, who wishes to avail himself to this institutional form for enhancing his “spiritual life”, and a path that may help preach this, actualise it, must allow for a deeper educative dissolution of learning about constitutional values – its morality – including its silences and voids, across different stages of one’s learning.

Whether one is being trained as a corporate executive, an engineer, an economist, or an architect, knowledge in ‘constitutionalism’ must be part of all learning. This might not just help in one understanding elements of constitutional propriety, for the legal (and moral) value it may provide, but the knowledge of which may also help one become more aware of our own social, cultural, political and economic state of being, where the basis of all our woes can be found to be rooted in.

Deepanshu Mohan is an associate professor and director, Centre for New Economics Studies at O.P. Jindal University.