Yesterday afternoon we visited the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. The kids came prepared with their homework and we brought our interest in the work of Dr. Archana Godbole, the Director of the Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF). It was pleasant to sit in the cool reading room on a hot April afternoon. Rebecca had spent time with Dr. Godbole and so we spent some time visiting with her. It was only then that we discovered that the lecture would be delivered in Marathi. So our plans changed, and Rebecca and Marine and I were invited into the office of the Director of the Institute. He explained more about the work of the Institute and we enjoyed sharing impressions of one another’s countries.
The Bhandarkar Institute was founded in 1917 and is dedicated to the literature and knowledge of the East. It has one of the largest collections of rare books and manuscripts on the subcontinent. And the Institute is where the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata was completed over five decades, a project that involved working with over 1,259 manuscripts. The nineteen volume Critical Edition was completed in 1966
Taking a short walk from our apartment around Deccan Gymkhana, from Fergusson College Road to Law College and Prabhat roads, it is clear that the intellectual culture of Pune lives up to the brag. I keep reading that Pune is known as “The Oxford of the East.” In fact Vasant Gowariker, a well-known scienist based in Pune, says that given the high density of educational institutions in the city, “what I would like to see in the future–maybe within the next four of five decades–is the reversal: Oxford to be called the Pune of the West.
A quite different view of Pune’s claim to be the Oxford of the East appeared in this morning’s newspaper. Dr. Sumit S. Paul, an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages and literature at the Bhandarkar Institute. Dr. Paul points out that despite the many institutions of higher learning in Pune, as well as the city’s many students from India and abroad, the comparison of Pune with the six hundred year history of Oxford is off the mark. He notes rightly that many of the institutes and colleges are “mediocre places” and that it is high time that Pune “stopped looking westward and ameliorated the overall standard of its academic institutes.
Dr. Paul has a point. In fact, as he goes on to say, one of the significant features of Pune’s comparator Oxford is that the traditional English institution has evolved, with changing syllabi and academic protocols. Much of what he then says about the difficult working conditions of faculty in India, the monotonous and inneficient ways of academic life, are entirely consistent with our impressions of the educational system here. Professors mostly lecture at docile students, marks appear more important than learning, and students have little choice in choosing a curriculum. And because the holdings at most libraries in India are meagar at best, most of the students do “research” online and plagiarism is simply how intellectual work gets done.
The polemical voice of Dr. Paul in today’s supplement to the Times, the “Pune Mirror,” does point to the potential of Pune as an educational leader. But first Pune needs to give up its “faux claims” and “comparison complex” and get to work.
The problems with educational institutions, as we have experienced them, are structural. The working conditions of faculty at many institutions (such as the law school) make scholarship extraordinarily difficult to sustain. The academic calendar also mitigates against sustained intellectual work outside the classroom. And despite the bright and motivated and savy academic leaders, the traditional hierarchies and commonplace practices create ineffeciencies that are unimaginable in our colleges and universities in the United States.
It is also true that the insitutes of higher learning are working with a wide range of students, with different preparation and literacy skills. one of Rebecca’s students, for example, is undergoing a major research project and she confessed that she had only used a computer once before.
And so the “deemed” universities, such as Symbiosis, continue to set the standard, and yet the myriad other colleges and universities fall well short of these higher standards. (A deemed university is a designation by the University Grants Commission of India that offers freedom over curricular matters as well as its own standards for such things as admissions and student fees.)Educational opportunities abound here for students from a range of backgrounds. And yet one wonders, with Dr. Paul, whether mediocracy can be overcome. I’m willing to bet, with Dr. Paul, that first abandoning what he calls the “comparison complex” would be a good place to begin re-examining current practices and setting a new standard for higher education in India.
Our impressions of post-secondary education in India will always come back to bright and eager students and dedicated and hard-working faculty. If we were to stay here longer than our alloted six months, it is likely that we would be increasingly enagaged with the question of how to change institutional structures and practices to more effectively release the creative energies of students and faculty.