Thursday, November 07, 2013

Universities, Civil Society and Social Engagement - text of speech at the 100th anniversary conference of the Association of Commonwealth Universities

Here is the text of my plenary speech on the topic “Universities, Civil Society and Social Engagement" on the 17th of October 2013 at the Centenary Conference of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, held in London, U.K., on the theme “Future Forward: Taking charge of change”:

It is an honour to be asked to speak to so many Vice-Chancellors and senior educational administrators. Most of you are certainly far more competent to speak on such a subject! However, as you are generously willing to listen to a mere academic interloper such as myself, let me set to my task.

The structure of my presentation is quite simple. I will define the terms before attempting to pose the question about social engagement sharply. Next, I will ask why nations do not achieve what I call “the Minimum Level of Prosperity”. I will then explore (extremely briefly!) the social or worldview aspects that cause poverty, and then suggest the main steps that can and should be taken by universities to address such key issues, if the term “social engagement” is to have any meaning.

So let me define my terms. I take the term “universities” as agreed among us. By “civil society” I mean the aggregate of organizations, institutions and individuals who are independent of the government and are working for key principles that make up a democratic society, such as an independent judiciary, an unbuyable executive, a wise legislature concerned about the future of at least of the nation (if not the future of the region and the world), an informed citizenry, and the enablement of the free expression of the opinions and will of citizens. There is one other essential element involved in a democractic society, to which I will turn towards the end of my presentation.

But before I proceed with that, I ought to acknowledge that it is entirely possible that you disagree with my definition of “civil society”; if so, I will be happy to discuss this during the time that has been set aside for the purpose in the programme immediately after my presentation.

I have not forgotten that, in order to complete my definition of terms, I need to define the term “social engagement” and, if you don’t mind, we’ll come to that by and by.

Do let us consider, first, that we all surely believe that education is possibly the most significant shaper of our civilisation – with a necessary time-lag, while our alumnae and alumni establish themselves in the structures of power and influence. Naturally, the question arises: in what ways have the philosophies, approaches and values we have taught (or failed to teach) shaped the world in which we live currently? For example, to what extent is the education we have offered responsible for the global crisis that has been upon us since 2007? How far have the philosophies, approaches and values we have taught in our courses in accountancy, economics, psychology, administration, political science, international relations, business and finance been responsible for creating the increasing greed and lawlessness of our global elite? Has our “value-neutral” approach to teaching science and technology played into the greed and lawlessness of the global elite? How come we have been participants in creating a global system which is willing to spend billions of dollars on scientific and technological projects such as space exploration which benefit primarily the elite? How come we have a global medical system in which perhaps 95% of the total R&D expenditure is focused on the diseases of the 10 or 20% of the world that is rich, while hardly anything is focused on the diseases of the poor, who constitute something like 80% or 90% of the world?

In order to make the point differently, let me take you along a slightly different route: you will no doubt recollect the wonderful presentation made yesterday by Dr Ata-ur-Rahman – if so, a question that ought to worry us is why it is that we produce so few people of the calibre of Dr Ata-ur-Rahman?

Further, in relation to his presentation, you may recollect that when Dr Ata-ul-Rahman was asked why the impact of all the wonderful contributions he made had not countered the rise of non-democratic forces (e.g. the Taliban), he answered that countering the rise of non-democratic forces is a process that takes longer than the 5 or 6 years during which he had positions of responsibility in the Pakistan Government.


But what about institutions that have had a much longer time in which to influence the country?

I want to switch, at this point - because I don’t want to be thought to be merely picking on a neighbouring country with which India has not always had good neighbourly relations – I want to switch to India, and indeed to my own alma mater.

St. Stephen's College, founded on 1 February 1881, is the oldest college in Delhi. First affiliated to Calcutta University, and later to The University of the Punjab (at Lahore), which received its charter more than a year after the founding of St. Stephen's College, the College naturally became one of the first two institutions affiliated to the University of the Punjab. Finally, with the establishment of Delhi University in 1922, St Stephen’s College became one of its three original constituent colleges.

St Stephen’s is undoubtedly the most prestigious college of the country. Nationwide surveys by publications such as India Today and The Week consistently describe the college as, if not the best, at least as one of the best colleges in India for both arts and sciences. C F Andrews (who resigned from teaching at the College in order to become Mahatma Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant) was one of the many students, staff and faculty who were active in India’s freedom struggle, and “Charlie” as he was called by Mahatma Gandhi, was in fact named Deenbandhu (or 'Friend of the Poor') by Mahatama Gandhi himself on account of Charlie’s work with the needy as well as with the trade union movement. Hanging even today in the St Stephen's College Principal’s office is a portrait of C. F. Andrews by his close friend Rabindranath Tagore who completed the English translation of Gitanjali while he was a guest of the College – you may recollect that Gitanjali is the work that was cited when Tagore was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature. After independence in 1947, St. Stephen's continued to produced alumni and alumnae outstanding in politics, the media, scientific research, industry, entertainment, the military, sports, civil service, and literature (indeed, there is even a “St Stephen's tradition or School of Literature”). The college is perhaps the only Indian institution that counts among its alumni the heads of state of three different countries: India’s own Dr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Pakistan’s Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and Tanzania’s Salim Ahmed Salim (who was also prominent in the Organisation of African Unity). Estimates suggested that, by the 1970s, two-thirds of all top-level (so called “Secretary-level”) positions in the Indian Administrative Service were occupied by Stephanians, and there have been (and there are today) a number of Stephanians at Ministerial or Cabinet level in the Indian Government. So the College has undoubtedly played an important role in creating the ethos of the country as a whole. However, that ethos has, as you know, been increasingly marked by corruption. Naturally, the question arises, how come the College has not produced a plethora of alumnae of outstanding moral excellence and social commitment? There have, of course, been a few. But how few!

That is particularly surprising as St. Stephen's College describes itself as a religious foundation drawing inspiration from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ the Lord, an institution which “aims at helping its members realise spiritual and moral as well as intellectual and aesthetic values”. Well, if the College has not done too badly at developing intellectual and aesthetic values, how come there is such a failure in the development of spiritual and moral values? The College was established by a Christian mission from Westcott House, Cambridge. The Founder and first Principal of the College was The Rev. Samuel Scott Allnutt, whose death anniversary is still observed every year as Founder's Day on 7 December. The College has a Chapel, which is open to all members of College for worship and meditation. Not only is instruction from the life & teachings of Jesus Christ the Lord given to first year Christian students, there is a morning assembly for all first year students. The College motto is Ad Dei Gloriam, Latin for To the Glory of God. The College badge is a martyr's crown on a field of martyr's red, within a five-pointed star, edged with Cambridge blue. Around the five-pointed star, which represents India, is the Cambridge blue border, representing the impact of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi. The ground is coloured red to represent Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr and patron saint of the Anglican mission in Delhi, in whose memory the College is built; on that ground, as you see, stands the martyr's crown in gold.

However, in spite of its remarkable origins, motivations and intentions, the College has failed to analyse and challenge rising corruption in our country as a whole, including the minor corruption of mere individual careerism. In fact, the College has even failed to challenge traditional caste values in its own faculty. As a new member of the faculty in 1970, I was asked which of the College Societies I wished to serve as faculty advisor, and I thought that the defunct Social Service League was worth reviving, so I put in for that. On hearing of this, my Professor of Sanskrit (he had taught me at College while I was a student) shouted at me in public, in front of the students, that I was undermining the whole foundation of of Indian culture by challenging the hold of karma and reincarnation and caste – in the traditional Indian view, people who are suffering today, are suffering because of their misdeeds in a previous life, so the justice which is being meted out to them, in the form of their suffering today, shouldn’t be interfered with – at least that was the viewpoint of my former professor and then-fellow-faculty-member.

St Stephen’s is not the only College that has failed to make a moral impact, and India is not the only country in which there has been such failure, whether by “Christian colleges” or others. We could undoubtedly say the same of universities throughout the world.

The issue raised by my story about my professor is as follows:

Cultural diversity is good, but it has its limits if you want to have institutional character – I am of course referring to the excellent concluding chapter, written by our Secretary General, Dr John Wood, to the book that was launched and indeed discussed here in this room yesterday (Universities in a New World: Making a Global Network in International Higher Education, 1913-2013, edited by Deryck M. Schreuder, published by Sage). In that chapter, Dr Wood raises the question of whether it is possible to have agreement on values in our institutions – and we do need clarity on values if we are to be socially engaged.

The challenge of clarity regarding our institutional values is related to the forms and channels by which our intellectual work is shaped. Is there, in fact, any such a thing as pure knowledge? Does it make sense to divide knowledge up by “faculties” and “departments”? We analyse things, separate them, study smaller and smaller divisions of material and thought, till we can be sometimes accused of seeking to know nearly everything about nearly nothing. When and how do we being to put everything together again? Specifically, how do we begin to put everything together again in such a way as to serve the most under-served human needs?

I said that I was going to pose the question sharply, so here it is: how come even the most morally- and socially-inclined of our institutions have failed to produce people who are outstanding for their morality and social commitment, without which of course all talk of Civil Society and Social Engagement is mere hot air?

I don’t pose that as a merely rhetorical question. Rather, I pose that as a substantial question, in answer to which here is something worth thinking about:

Stephen Marglin is a Harvard economist, whose book THE DISMAL SCIENCE points out that thinking like an economist undermines community. He was a Visiting Scholar at Wolfsberg, at my invitation, and in public discussion there, widened his critique of money-oriented thinking to include subversion not only of community but also of family and nation. We did not talk of universities specifically, but I am sure he would have agreed wholeheartedly with the proposition that commercial- or business-oriented thinking, which has come to so dominate our universities, eats up collegiality and even the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

Why have we academics been so slow to see, let alone articulate and denounce, the capture of our universities by money values? Is it because we don’t wish to bite the hand that feeds us? If so, the capture of our universities by the state, by the global elite, by money values is already complete and we can write off the bulk of our universities in terms of being able to produce anything like the engagement which some of us were holding up as an ideal yesterday.

It is not only that we have been unable or unwilling to question the domination of the spirit of money – and remember Jesus said you cannot serve God and Money – or, if you want to put that in secular terms, you cannot serve society and money, or, you cannot serve knowledge and money – because we cannot serve two masters.

Let me put it more simply: we have failed to challenge or even engage with the dominant values of our societies, whether money values in the West with the rise of crony capitalism here since the 1980s, or the pre-existing tribalism in Africa - or indeed caste (with its related philosophies of reincarnation and karma) in my own country, India.

May I consider the issue by widening the focus a little, and suggesting three axioms for us to consider:

The first axiom is that every nation should be able to arise at least to what I call the “Minimum Level of Prosperity”, which I define as:

- the value of the country’s physical resources

- divided by its population.

Of course, there are ancillary questions that need to be considered (such as: are the resources extractable and at what cost) but we leave those aside in the interests of time.

The second axiom is that most nations have never reached their Minimum Level of Prosperity throughout history. That is so self-evident that I think you will agree it does not require immediate discussion.

The third axiom is that a few nations have succeeded in far surpassing the Minimum Level of Prosperity – whether by colonialism or trade – or by a consistent stream of innovation (or some combination of those with the right kinds of immigration policies).

In the case of countries that have far surpassed the Minimum Level of Prosperity, there are of course all sorts of ancillary questions that can be asked (such as: How sustainable is that achievement? Or, how can that achievement of surpassing the Minimum Level of Prosperity be sustained?) but we will leave aside those questions in the interests of time too, to move on to a consideration of *why* nations do not achieve the Minimum Level of Prosperity.

It is fairly evident to any objective observer that poverty has been caused throughout history, and is cause, primarily by cultures, values or worldviews: the key reason why nations do not achieve the Minimum Level of Prosperity are simply looting and stealing by the country’s elite. The only way to counter such corruption is the institution of the Rule of Law, which implies that every citizen, no matter how poor or powerless, has the protection of the law - and equally that every citizen, no matter how rich or powerful, is subject to the law.

When you study the process by which the new ruling elites of decolonised countries deconstructed the relatively good model of governance that was bequeathed by Britain to its former colonies at independence – for example in Nigeria or Guyana - you see that one essential was subverting the rule of law, which stands in contrast to the idea that the rulers or the elites are above the law, for example by sheer wealth, or access to power, or to some concept of divine right or religious law. Trying to elude the rule of law is the reason why so many kings ascribe either divine descent, or divinity, to themselves – and why contemporary elites find it useful to employ religious and political ideologues for their purposes.

In discussing the rule of law, we must attend to the distinction between a "thin" or formal definition of the rule of law, and a “thick” or substantive definition. “Thin” or formal definitions of the rule of law do not consider the "justness" of law itself, but focus on merely procedural matters. “Thick” or substantive conceptions of the rule of law go beyond procedural issues, and consider as basic or fundamental certain principles and rights. If a culture does not believe in some super-arching value, principle or personality (such as God), that culture has the possibility only of a “thin” understanding of the Rule of Law, whatever that country’s formal Constitution may say. In other words, it is not only ignorance or unwillingness to implement best policies and best practices that impedes progress, a people’s belief-system can torpedo the possibility of progress much more effectively. Most countries are caught between “thin” and “thick” understandings of the Rule of Law, so it is worth considering that most countries have traditional (and many have modern) structures of oppression that create hopelessness, apathy, cynicism and paralysis. Any more detailed analysis must of course encompass such structures of oppression.

However, if the rather superficial analysis that we have undertaken so far has any merit, it is evident that, in order to achieve, let alone, surpass the Minimum Level of Prosperity, it is essential to eliminate corruption, looting, stealing, and murder – especially of the sort legally organised by the elite, for example through structures of oppression. That can only be done if a new culture is instilled that will lead to prosperity, which enables a culture to struggle systematically against apathy, fatalism, complacency, pride and arrogance.

Is that possible? Indeed it is. Time fails me to draw your attention to the case of what happened with the European Reformation in the sixteenth century, or in Japan from the eighteenth century, or in Japan after World War II, or in Singapore from 1965 – on some of which I have written, as you can easily find by even a cursory search on the Internet.

What is necessary is to put in place justice and the rule of law (though a free press helps to make change sustainable). Jesus the Lord said that his teachings could certainly be debated but we’d find out if they really led to life fulfilment only if we practice them. Jesus was speaking in both institutional and individual terms. Mahatma Gandhi put that message in his own words, though in relation to individuals, when he said: «BE the change that you want to see».

It is time to turn more directly to what universities have to do, and can do, in relation to civil society and social engagement. Is the social engagement of universities to be confined to mere “volunteering” or participation in voluntary associations, trade unions and the like? Is social engagement merely a matter of what we do in terms of “outreach”? Is social engagement really to be defined as a matter of toeing a government’s or funder’s line in order to get money?

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues, I implore you to explain to me how social engagement, whatever else it is, can be anything worth the name if it does not identify and engage with the most pressing issues in society, such as I have raised in this short presentation – e.g. the issue of the roots of the current crisis, or why most medical research is irrelevant to the needs of the poor mass of humanity, or why most technological research is similarly concerned with high-faluting questions that serve the commercial interests of the elite.

Why do our universities not produce social justice or even intellectual engagement with the real issues of our peoples? Because the governance of our institutions is in the hands of precisely those elites who typify and sustain the culture of oppression. Is it possible that are our universities themselves are part of our world’s structures of oppression?

Dear colleagues, I would like to conclude with a another question: please raise your hands if your university has, at the top of its governance structure (Senate or Court and whatever) official or ex-officio representatives of Civil Society - organisations such as the Red Cross/ Crescent/ Shield of David? Or perhaps Christian Aid or Salvation Army or World Vision or Tear Fund or Oxfam or Greenpeace or Amnesty International?

Yes, I see a few hands - and am encouraged by them.

It is not till the voice of civil society is brought to bear on scrutinising what we call knowledge that universities will produce anything like the knowledge we need in order to address the challenges of global warming, global poverty, global financial instability, and so on. It is not till civil society is enabled to insist on universities instilling the kind of values which nurture and enable genuine social justice, that humanity can flourish. Dear colleagues, let us not short-change the calling of universities by talking of mere volunteering and outreach and social engagement. Let us keep firmly before us the high calling of the university, which is to create… civilisation.

Thank you.

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