What it means to be a professor

On the eve of the passing away of Daya Krishna, a professor of philosophy at Rajasthan University, Pratap Bhanu Mehta reflects on what it means to be a professor (which, inevitably leads him to the decline of Indian University system):

Dayaji’s passing away is of more than local significance. The academic world he represented is one that is irrevocably lost, though arguably we need it even more. He conducted his professional life on an ideal we can scarcely imagine: the idea of a professoriate. This was founded on two assumptions. The first was that the primary purpose of a university is to cultivate the intellect and the life of the mind. If a university is made instrumental and subordinate to other purposes — social engineering, political goals or cultural pride — it loses its essential character.

This idea that universities can achieve the most when they are thought of as a non-instrumental space, challenging our consciousness to surpass itself, is almost completely extinct in modern India. Now our universities exist ostensibly for every purpose other than the cultivation of the intellect. This reflects a huge loss in our cultural sensibilities. One of the reasons why it is impossible to reinject romance into the idea of a university, and why university reform is so difficult, is that we cannot even conceive of what it is like to dedicate institutions for the cultivation of intellect in the true sense of that impoverished word.

The second assumption was that being a professor was a vocation in the true sense of the term, with its own inherent dignity, norms and autonomy. But this is both an institutional idea and an existential one. Institutionally it meant that the professoriate is a vocation that in the conduct of its professional obligations is answerable primarily to itself. It may aim to reach popular audiences, but it does not take its standards from them; it may speak to holders of power, but it does not let power define its agenda; it may aim at useful knowledge, but utility does not exhaust the value or significance of knowledge. Although we often talk about university autonomy, this discussion is limited to securing the autonomy of vice-chancellors from government. What we have lost is a sense of a self-governing and self-regulating professoriate that despite all its fractiousness is united by a commitment to cultivating the intellect, nothing less and nothing more.

Existentially, Dayaji could convince you that there are few things in life more pleasurable, and more important than a good seminar. Indeed, for him it was almost a democratic form of sociability: where each argument had its individuality, yet there was communication. There was difference but also the possibility of transformation; disagreement, but not sullied by strategic or personal considerations.

The decline in Rajasthan University, whose intellectual life Dayaji almost single-handedly kept alive for years, is also a measure of how a whole academic world has disappeared. For those who encountered Rajasthan University campus, he provided a glimpse of what being a professor meant: that odd combination of detached irony and passionate questioning that only a Socratic intellect can muster.

But creating a new and exciting academic milieu is not just about institutional reform; it is about recapturing a space for non-instrumental views of knowledge, about valuing an adventure of the mind without quite second-guessing what it will come up with. Dayaji would have been the first to acknowledge that the next generation will often be cleverer than last, but whether it can recreate a vibrant university life is still open to question. The best compliment to Dayaji is that he was a professor, in the truest sense of that impoverished word. With his passing, the last remnants of a professoriate in India are coming to an end.

Link via Arun Thiruvengadam at Law and other things. Take a look!

PS: Here is a book cover with a photograph of Prof. Krishna, I presume.

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