Indian universities lack the culture of expertise and it shows when students, at the end of years of rote learning, enter professional fields.
And its most visible impact is on bureaucracy and public discourse.
The “experts” of the world had hardly recovered from their stunning failure to predict the Brexit vote when the Donald Trump victory pulled the rug from under their feet again. These two crucial events manifested the revolt of the masses against the elite and their “experts”. The resentment against them wasn’t new and had been building up for many years. The floodgates opened last year.
The experts are obviously not happy. One of them, Tom Nichols, has even written a book decrying the death of expertise and established knowledge. His grouse is that we have entered “an era in which another's ignorance has not only become as good as one's knowledge but there is outright hostility towards any kind of proficiency.” Jaideep A Prabhu, who is on a mission to review 52 books for Swarajya this year, has reviewed Nichols’ book here.
Nichols does an exemplary job weaving his arguments in a tidy fashion, backing them up with a mixture of facts and anecdotes. While reading it, one feels transported to American universities and newsrooms; however, this author couldn’t help but think about India and how much the expertise is valued here.
India can’t be accused of falling prey to this increasing trend of anti-intellectualism and aversion to experts. For that, a country needs to have a culture of expertise in the first place. Politics, bureaucracy, media, universities – take your pick, expertise has not been a valued asset in the institutions that matter so much.
How else we can justify sending so many colourful characters to Parliament. How else we can justify the passage of so many bad laws that land on the President’s desk for his or her approval without much debate? While we bewail the falling standards of debate in Parliament, the situation has nearly always been the same. The highly consequential first amendment to the Constitution that dented the right to free speech and to do business was soon followed by the creation of a ninth schedule to keep laws outside the ambit of judicial review. These amendments were passed in 1951 in just over a month. There is not enough ‘barley juice’ in Bengaluru to go through all those debates without losing one’s mind. So, when people romanticise about the good old days of quality parliamentary debates, they should know it was never the case. We should not confuse good speakers with good debate.
However, the people must bear a big chunk of the blame for electing politicians who fail to represent their best interests in parliament. Political representatives in a republic, after all, are a reflection of its society. We represent them as much as they represent us. The poor quality of our representatives and their work puts all of us in the dock.
Institutions of family and learning (schools and colleges) impact who we become as a society. The latter promotes rote learning over critical thinking and marks percentages over skills and comprehension. The difference in marks between a student who has ‘read’ mathematics questions and the one who has practised the problems isn’t substantive to nudge them to opt for the latter. One absolutely hated history in school but can’t get enough of it now. That’s the story of most of the students in India. History school teachers here don’t get it that the subject is much more than overdosing the student on information and then vomiting it during exams. While they ace questions that ask them to enumerate all three Panipat wars, most will shout “not in the syllabus” when asked for the reasons why these battles happened in Panipat and not somewhere else.
Memorisation rules the roost in colleges as well. Our universities don’t have any standing in international rankings. Even IITs, which are considered extraordinary, don’t make it to the absolute top of rankings. The reason is simple: they are not the centres of best learning, but centres that attract the best talent. The geniuses who enter these course make the IITs, not the other way round. Ask the IITians. They don’t have teachers. They have researchers who teach. If this is the situation in the country’s elite colleges, one can easily imagine how it would be in colleges down the ranking chain. Private colleges are only interested in pocketing money and getting students placed in companies so that they can advertise the placement numbers to get more ‘customers’ next year.
Ideally, colleges should be places that prepare students for a professional life by inculcating in them the required skills and attitudes needed to do a job well. However, most students attend a college only because that’s the only way they can qualify to sit for a job interview. It means that the firms that come for campus hirings don’t have the time or the resources to seek out brilliant minds. To winnow out the field, they are forced to put a percentage bar as a criterion for applying.
The point is we have not developed any culture of expertise even in universities which should be the cradle of intellectualism. And if you don’t have such culture, it shows when the students churned out by this superficial system enter the professional fields.
This culture of disparaging expertise has its consequences. They have the most visible and consequential effect in especially two fields: bureaucracy and public discourse.
In a major bureaucratic reshuffle a few days back, the Urban Development Secretary got charge of the Home Ministry. The Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Secretary will now head the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT). The Culture Secretary is now the I&B Secretary. The Director General, Employee's State Insurance Corporation (ESIC), will head the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). The Director General of Foreign Trade will be the new Power Secretary and so on. This is not a once-in-a-bluemoon event but a regular event in Indian bureaucracy. In states, the situation is worse. Only 7.9 per cent of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers remain in one posting for more than two years.
So, how can one expect them to develop expertise in any area? This is not to say the entire bureaucracy is rotten. As T C A Srinivasa Raghavan quips, “only 80 per cent is”. In contrast, the Indian Police Service (IPS) scores above IAS because even if the officers get transferred, the nature of the job remains the same and the officers develop the skills over time with experience. Our foreign service is similar to IAS where a bureaucrat who is on the China desk today can find himself assigned to the Burkina Faso desk tomorrow if he is out of favour.
Take the arena of public discourse: think tanks, journalism and academia. In academia, leftists and socialists enjoy complete hegemony mostly in the humanities and social sciences. The institutions that cater to these subjects were hijacked long ago in collusion with the political leadership of the time. As expected, we ended up with a system that promoted a whole new class of political flunkeys instead of experts. Since the whole edifice of the ecosystem was based on political patronage and not meritocracy, we can see the shallowness of the “eminent” academicians produced. While it took Arun Shourie, Koenraad Elst, Sita Ram Goel and Ram Swarup in the 1980s and 1990s to taken them on, today internet bloggers with day jobs suffice.
But these bloggers, or “trolls” in mainstream mediaspeek, devote the bulk of their attention and energy to debunking the false and malicious stories that abound in the Indian press. However, it is not just the agenda-driven drivel that is of concern. Everyone has a bias and its perfectly fine. Journalists are no different. It’s the total disregard for any expertise that is unsettling. One only has to listen to the talking heads who get invited to prime-time debates. No matter what the topic is, we see the same panelists every day. Yesterday, they may have opined on Kashmir, today they will hold forth on Indo-US relations and tomorrow they will speak about farm distress. The gods have gifted only this country with so many versatile experts!
Ashok Malik, explaining the atrociousness that Indian television (including news) channels unload on viewers, recently wrote that we have “killed television by legislating the subscription model to death. This is leading to a serious lack of ambition and a curbing of creative juices, since recovering investments is impossible.” He also compares the cost of making one episode of House of Cards (Rs 30 crore) to that of Big Boss (Rs 4 crore).
He is only partly right. Price caps were introduced only 15 years back, as Malik himself notes. Additionally, these are limited to only visual media.
First, the print media isn’t much better in terms of quality. Second, it can’t be anyone’s case that the media was steeped in quality production when the regulations were not in place. Plus, the price doesn’t always determine the quality. And one anecdote would suffice to prove that expenditure is not the barrier. The Viral Fever, an online startup, makes interesting shows with YouTube views running in millions. It has taken the Indian TV series industry by storm. Pitchers, TVF’s most successful web series so far, cost only Rs 50 lakh per episode to make compared to Big Boss’ Rs 4 crore. More interestingly, when Arunabh Kumar, the founder of TVF, pitched his ideas for TV shows to many youth channels, including MTV, they were all rejected, saying his content was “too intelligent”!
Similarly, inviting a professor or a topic expert who knows what he is talking about surely won’t cost TV channels more than what they usually pay flunkies for appearing on prime-time debates. It’s not the money. Regional language channels have far more financial constraints, but their coverage is often qualitatively higher than English TV channels or newspapers based out of NCR.
One can do away with hare-brained regulations but let’s not exonerate the media fraternity for its incompetence, laziness and bankruptcy of ideas. In the media industry, the bitter truth is that barring a handful of journalists, the majority of them aren’t and have never been more than glorified stenographers. The rot has always been there. Substance or expertise has never been the media’s forte.
New schemes, when they are announced, mostly in the national capital, are covered by our ‘national’ media with much fanfare. But how many journalists care to take stock of these schemes later? When Arun Shourie addresses a gathering of journalists and exhorts them to fact-check politicians and avoid publishing their inane statements, everyone claps as if checking facts should be a revelation to people whose job it is all about. When he was in the Modi camp and had said exactly the same things, hardly anyone had noticed.
TV and print journos pester politicians to give them platitudes and when they are obliged, they don’t know what to do with them – just like a dog after catching the car. A fresh example is in order here. Law and order is a state subject. But the media keeps demanding answers from the Prime Minister to condemn cow vigilantes instead of bringing the state governments to account for their failures. On Thursday (29 June), Prime Minister Modi obliged by speaking about violence in the name of gau raksha, but what did the media do with this statement? Your know the answer.
The media’s priority should be to cover things that matter the most to the electorate, so that they can make the most informed choices on polling day. Instead, it swoons over the international fads of the day. Climate change, LGBT rights, Save Gaza – the shallowness of media’s hollow activism is just too obvious to give it respect. Where are the audits of the numerous laws that the parliament passes? Or assessments of judges who repeatedly trespass into executive domain?
We need more journalists like Adam Gopnik, who wouldn’t mind reading as many as 20 books while researching a piece, or Carlos Lozada of The Washington Post who munch on anywhere between 80 to 100 books a year.
Think tanks are comparatively better because their funding is sorted out and hence they can focus on quality. But these institutions in India are still to mature and relatively new. However, here too, more often than not, we see social climbers being preferred over experts in various sectors when the think-tanks go public with their knowledge.
If we wish to course correct, we must start with the schools and colleges. The media, bureaucracy and academia will automatically reform themselves. That’s the only way vicious cycle of incompetence can be broken.
But I am a byproduct of this vicious cycle. And I could be wrong.
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