Great individuals and great institutes : Andre Beteille

by Andre Beteille : Original article appeared under different title

There is a stir in Calcutta now over regenerating Presidency College and reconstituting it in such a way that it can function at a higher level than it did even in its best days. Presidency College was the first modern college to be set up in the country and for a very long time it remained the most outstanding one. Those who passed through it carried a badge of distinction wherever they went. The aim now is to make it into a world- class university. The persons entrusted with this task have promised that they will assemble the best scholars and scientists from all over the world so that the members of the new university can benefit from exposure to the most advanced forms of study and research.

It is a mistake to believe that a galaxy of individuals, no matter how distinguished, will automatically take shape as an outstanding or even a viable institution. What is more likely to happen is the opposite. World-class scholars and scientists have a natural tendency to act as prima donnas. It is one thing for them to meet at national and international conferences and trade ideas with one another in an amicable spirit. It is quite another for them to sit together day after day, week after week and year after year, and attend collectively to the grind that is involved in teaching and research. Science and scholarship have their glamorous side, but they can hardly be sustained without the regularity and routine that is essential to study and research.

In a remarkable collection of essays published in Bengali at the time of independence and called Nabeen O Pracheen, Nirmal Kumar Bose had argued that Bengal had produced great individuals but not great institutions. He took his examples from among the tallest: Ashutosh Mukherji, Chittaranjan Das and Rabindranath. He acknowledged that they were responsible for making, respectively, Calcutta University, Calcutta Corporation and Visva-Bharati into great institutions, but they had failed to create the social foundations that would ensure their continuance after they themselves left the scene.

Bose argued that it was precisely their fascination for great men that had prevented Bengalis from creating great institutions. He pointed to the characteristic manner in which the institutions created by such great men operated. He said that, although decisions concerning their work were ratified in the Western manner, those decisions were actually taken by small coteries in the inner chambers of the great men. He used the more telling phrase, “andarmahal” for what I have translated as inner chambers.

The names of outstanding teachers of the past, such as Tarak Sen and Bhabatosh Datta, have come up repeatedly in discussions about the recent decline of Presidency College.But Tarak Sen and Bhabatosh Datta did not come to Presidency College as world-class teachers and scholars. They came as eager and inspired young persons, and grew into great teachers even as they enabled the institution they served to remain a great institution. It was not just their superior intelligence and ability but also their daily devotion to their work that made them what they became, while enabling their institution to maintain its outstanding quality and reputation.

I cannot say much from personal experience about Presidency College for I was not a student there. I went to St Xavier’s College where I studied physics and mathematics. There, dedication to the institution was even more conspicuous for the simple reason that many, if not most, of the teachers were Jesuit priests who lived in the college. They were visible at all hours of the day, and on holidays as well as working days. When I happened to be in the Park Street area of an evening, I would drop in at the college to look at the notice board. The prefect or some other teacher was bound to be around.

I was taught mathematics by Father Goreux and physics by Father Verstraetten. Fr Goreux was a very popular teacher and his reputation extended beyond St Xavier’s College. He established a joking relationship with many of his students and encouraged some of them to visit the room where he lived in the college. I did so regularly, and continued to visit him long after my departure from St Xavier’s. I did not learn much mathematics from Fr Goreux for I had little aptitude for the subject, but he did not care for me any the less for that.

Fr Verstraetten had a more reserved manner, but I found my way to his room all the same. One day I went to him in a state of great excitement and told him that I had discovered a serious flaw in the theory of relativity because it violated the law of gravity. He heard me out with great patience and then pointed out that I had ignored a basic principle of gravitation which I ought to have known even as a third-year student of physics.

The teachers I have spoken about enriched the institutions they served because they acknowledged the responsibilities of academic citizenship, although they might not have used that phrase then. I first came upon it at a round-table on ‘The University of the Twenty-first Century’ organized by the University of Chicago in 1991 to mark its centenary. Dean Rosovsky of Harvard University pointed to the decline of academic citizenship in the great American universities, including his own. What he meant was that scientists and scholars had become increasingly preoccupied with their own individual projects and neglected their responsibilities towards the institutions to which they were attached.

There is no recipe for creating academic citizenship or turning an assemblage of scientists and scholars into an institution with a life of its own. Nobody really knows the right way to create a successful institution and ensure its continuance. But it is not so difficult to spot out wrong ways of doing this. Here I believe N.K. Bose was right. Our obsession with world-class scientists and scholars may in the end turn out to be an impediment rather than an aid to giving new life to what was Presidency College and is now Presidency University.

I have in the foregoing spoken mostly about teaching and hardly at all about research. I recognize that the modern university aims to embody the principle of the unity of teaching and research. But if it has been difficult to maintain the coherence of an institution while it was devoted mainly to teaching, it will be all the more difficult to maintain it when it seeks to combine research with teaching. The unity of teaching and research is a noble objective which some universities have pursued successfully. But it cannot be wished into existence any more than a community of scientists and scholars can be created and held together simply because it will be wonderful to have an institution which will provide a home to such a community. Those responsible for making Presidency College into a university will rue the day if the persons placed at the head of the reconstituted institution seek to promote research at the expense of teaching in the hope of making it into a world-class institution.

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About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
This entry was posted in Andre Beteille, Education and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Great individuals and great institutes : Andre Beteille

  1. Pingback: Viable universities : Andre Beteille | Fragments of time

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