Critical Analysis of “The Threat to the Idea of A Public University” by Avijit Pathak

This is a critique of Avijit Pathak’s article in the Hindu in the background of the continuing JNU protests. You may want to read the article before reading this essay. Comments are appreciated


“The threat to the idea of a public university” is an article written by Avijit Pathak in the Comment section of The Hindu newspaper on November 20th, 2019. Written in the background of the JNU fee hike protests (Bhanj, 2019), this column reads as both a defense of public education as well as a critique of commodified education. Pathak argues that public education throughout India with ethico-political sensibilities has been replaced by techno-managerial private education, culminating in an unlikely marriage between right-wing nationalism and technocratic rationalism which crushes dissenting views.

2. Analysis

This essay will attempt at analyzing this text by fits examining the personal and ideological context of this article before examining the twin nemeses that the author has set out to slay; neo-liberalism and instrumentalisation in the context of education. Finally, it will examine other tentative solutions to the problems articulated.

2.1 Ideological Context

If historiography is to be considered the art of writing history as well as the history of all such writings and understanding the historian should entail understanding his/her standpoint rooted in their social context (Carr, p.34), then one must contextualize the writer as well to understand their work. This opinion piece is published in The Hindu which is known to have a left of centre lean (Zandt, 2016), and the author is a social scientist from JNU which is again fairly predictive of liberal lean, (Langbert, Quain, & Klein, 2016). This hypothesis is validated through the author’s choice of certain words such as neoliberalism, and hegemony which are either used by leftist critics or derived from Marxist literature.

2.2 Neoliberalism and Instrumentalisation of Knowledge

While neoliberalism first emerged as a descriptor for the attempts of political theorists such as Hayek to refashion the more interventionist liberalism to a more free-market approach, it is Harvey (2005) whose definition of neoliberalism is most apt for understanding this concept.

“Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”

A Brief History of Neoliberalism-Harvey

Pathak argues that this emphasis on free markets has commodified knowledge by emphasizing learning outcomes and putting instrumental rationality on a pedestal. He argues that this techno-managerial education (as opposed to epistemological diversity) corrodes the egalitarian basis of democracy provided by public universities in the Nehruvian past. This argument is problematic on both philosophical and historical grounds. Even if one were to construe neo-liberalism as having a singular fountainhead, disregarding the chasm between Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism and Hayek’s limited government, the argument about epistemological tyranny cannot be leveled against Hayek whose Nobel Prize Banquet Lecture (1974) explicitly rejects this

“The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society. “

F. A. Hayek

The charge of viewing thought as instrumental to action may indeed be raised against Marxist historians such as Carr, who argued that it was the historian who could create insights for public policy who was objective, a glorification of instrumentality.

There is also the disconnect between the ideal of a deliberative democracy and the actuality of India’s years which is submerged in this nostalgia. The mythos of the Indian nation is as inclusive of the desire for technological progress as it is of the egalitarian democracy the author cites. If India was indeed a nation accommodative of contemplation, why were dams (mere products of the techno-managerial soon to be churned out by the IITs and the IIMs) the temples of modern India as opposed to the halls of thinking that are universities?

2.3 Public Education

Pathak also characterizes the public university as a democratic space that can resist the homogenizing tendency of the market and the forces of Hindutva which control state apparatuses. He argues that a public education in the model of JNU would inherently be opposed to marketised education which “is non-democratic, conservative and status quoist” Aside from reflecting the ideology of the author, it makes the mistake of assuming that public higher education liberalizes which is negated by the fact that most of the contemporary theorists of the radical right had at least a higher education degree from a public university (See Appendix)

Another illuminating statement on the limitations of this ideal of a public university (as manifested in JNU) is very evident in this extract from Pathak

“It embraced all: a tribal girl from Manipur, a Dalit boy from Maharashtra, a young leftist from Kerala, a radical feminist from Delhi, an Ambedkarite from the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh, and a young wanderer from Germany or Sri Lanka.”

Diversity in this lexicon is reduced to differences of social origin, as opposed to the diversity of thought which the author was championing but a few paragraphs ago. Whither do non-leftists find a refuge in this kingdom with many houses but rather prohibitive rental agreements?  

This definition of diversity lends credence to the analysis of liberalism as tending towards dismissing its discontents as the sub-political (Dugin,2012). Or as Ward (2019) put it succinctly

“You can be any sexuality, gender, race, etc. that you want to be but if you challenge the idea of ‘tolerance’ you are cast out. In other words, aesthetic participation has replaced political participation”

Daniel Ward

3. Conclusion

According to Lawler (2016) approaching the same question of techno-managerial education (or techno-vocationalism in his understanding) was the product of a middle-class democracy that would balk against any genuinely countercultural thought. Perhaps the greatest defense of public universities that can be mounted is its potency to be counter-cultural is what unites the postmodern conservative Lawler and the progressive Pathak.

Or maybe it is the recognition of what actual progress ought to be:

“The progress toward wisdom and virtue over a particular life: the life of a being born to know, love, and die, a personal being who has more than a merely biological destiny shared with the other mammals.”

Peter Augustine Lawler

Appendix : Education of Radical Right Thinkers

Published by sathyajithsmanthanath

I am but a gadfly attached to the state

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