Intellectual commitments

‘I will pay my debt to society through research in my subject. And beyond this, I owe no other debt to society.’ Having resolved this, she went on.

—Vidyadhar Pundalik (1970) on Irawati Karve

My first rigorous encounter with city-schooled boys and girls happened during my under-graduation. It gave me many clues about our intellectual culture, for most if not all of our intellectuals come from this background. I marveled at their artful ways in which more articulate among them would describe their interests in, if not a love for, sciences. Many were interested in physics and mathematics and few in chemistry. They spoke about their time in coaching centers and how much they loved a particular topic and how well it was taught. They also talked about their heroes; two names which I still remember are Feynman and Irodov. I did not read them in school, for they were not available in my Hindi-medium school (they were in English anyway). I often felt left-out and at times I constructed my own imaginary love affairs with physics and mathematics in order to cope with the peer pressure. It troubled me that I could not feel a very strong inspiration as they felt for any subject. How were I to compete and flourish among them!

Over the time two things became apparent: one was personal that I do not flourish in competitive environment; and the second was about my colleagues, that almost all of them whom I thought to be inspired were only stimulated. Their interests would change according to change in stimulus: the movie they watched, biography or magazine they read, or some eloquent lecture they attended. In the end, they burned-out easily and accepted whatever life threw at them.

But the modern man does not complain about his karma, he devise subterfuge around it. They developed artful ways for justifying what they were doing. They picked philosophies — and at time psychology — to justify why they were not honoring their ideals they cherished so dearly just a year before. Most frequently drawn analogy was them being a man who was forced to swim with the flow. It was odd: if no one appreciated what they cherished, no one really stopped them pursuing it either. By the end of final year, they were spending almost all of their time discussing companies, jobs, and admission processes abroad with the same if not more concentration with which they discussed physics and mathematics when they were in first year. I was somewhat surprised to notice that even those who should have been more confident about their self-worth suffered from the same paranoia about getting a job or admissions as those who had some real reason to feel that way.

But that was one of the worst college one could spend his academic time; teaching of very bad quality happened if it happened at all. But the lack of academic rigor turned out to be good for me for I got a lot of time to compensate that gap I accumulated in my school. I came to appreciate it only when I came to discover what many poorly-trained reserved category student go through in IITs. When I joined my engineering program, I was no better than many of them. I knew in my bones that raw talent is not enough, one needs skills and one needs a lot of time to polish them. But only in a “bad college” I could get plenty of time to recover. Without passing any judgement, all I wish to point out that if my college did not teach me well, it did not strike blows to my self-esteem either, as IITs can easily do to many of its students should they are unfortunate enough to go through a lean academic patch.

Now I suffer from another problem. It is not a personal problem which cropped up from within but it is constructed by my social environment and I am being made to cope with it. Am I committed to a social cause of great urgency? And if I am not, does it make me worthless to my society? Is my commitment to my academic work (even if I don’t love it too much), or to my academic project, or to my profession is not enough. Do I need to do something more to justify my existence?

The late anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose used to say about his generation of Indians that deep down in their heart they believed that no change can occur in their society without a government initiative. And this belief still around among us in plenty. It was in this belief, radical, ex-radical, and near-radical intellectual put their shoulder to the wheel to make the state somewhat more radical, in hope of making this world a better place. Anyone whom they saw “sitting on the fence” and coldly watching the world go by was treated with criticism if not with indignation. Being uncommitted to some social or political cause, in their view, was equal to being ineffectual and impotent. Now either the “ivory tower” intellectual really existed in the past, of it was constructed by these intellectuals to justify their new commitments and pour scorns at those who did not committed to their cherished commitments.

It is my belief that in a decent society everyone should be allowed to chose a role for himself according to his own will. I appreciate that people commit to an urgent social problems and act in good faith towards some higher purpose. These are signs that our society, or at least a part of it, is potent and vigorous. But not everyone has to be a champion of social change and political action; some can settle for a less spectacular life for themselves. There must be a place in all societies where a handful of people can make “pursuit of ideas” their cherished goal in life without worrying too much about social worth of their work. If the university can not accommodate such people and keep throwing cold water on their work by demanding that it has to be “socially relevant” then there is very little to look forward to in an academic life. The obsession with “here and now” hurts all aspect of social life but nothing more seriously than its intellectual life. It is a pity that like our social activists our intellectuals too are slowly forgetting the importance of reaping the reward of their labor posthumously.


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If people in modern world are obsessed with ideologies –with their own and of others — they are no less obsessed with “change”. It is in the nature of radical intellectuals to believe that nothing can change in this world without subscribing to a universe of values of some ideology. Perhaps they also believe that all changes happen for good. Those who are dissatisfied with government power are now “empowering” people who happened to be on their side. No matter how they glamorize it, this is an exercise to accumulate enough power on their side to push their ideas. It will make our democracy more populist that it already is. It may not turn to be to liking of those who believe that empowering people is all it takes to change their society into their utopia.

A major philosophical work of last century promotes in plain words the need to “change the world” over “interpreting it”. Many if not all in academia seems to be stimulated by it, and their large numbers are on increase. No matter how much inspiration others draw from it; if an intellectual is unable to convince himself that the world can be changed through the pursuit of idea alone, no matter how slowly, then he ceased to be true to his vocation.

Those who claims that mere pursuit of ideas is not enough and one should commit to something more are just one step short of demanding that one should be committed to a political party, a religious body or a social organization to justify his place in society. This is a view which undermine individual, his intellectual independence, and promotes implicitly or explicitly, group of people, herd or mob. For those who are concerned with ideologies and “change”, pursuit of power has much more appeal than mere pursuit of ideas. After all if a realm of idea has to change something “here and now” it has to be connected with realm of power. But those who take pursuit of ideas seriously must ask themselves how long and at what and whose cost these two can go hand in hand?

The demand of intellectual and social commitments are not the one and same and this should be clear to all intellectuals, especially to those who asks others to join their causes. Commitment can mean different thing to different people and one often singles out a particular commitment for one’s special attention. He often feel a need to glamorize his commitment for the purpose of selling it to others, especially when his own faith in it is lacking. The commitment of a student to his homework, of an engineer to his project, of an mathematician to his theorem, of a doctor to his patients, of a writer to his writings, of a teacher to his classroom, of a judge to his court, of an artist to his craft are no less demanding than that of our “committed” intellectuals. These commitments may not be appreciated by a nationalist, a revivalist, a traditionalists, a Marxist, or a feminist; for them the most important commitment is the commitment to nation, religion, tradition, political party, or a particular gender and they would denounce any other commitment which seem to weaken their most cherished commitment. For them commitments are not a set of plural things but a hierarchical set with a well defined ranking.

Intellectuals and universities have a natural relation with each other, although intellectuals in India (unlike France and Germany, and even USA) rarely works on universities. We are well aware of a young academics who starts his academic career in Indian university with great promise but in the middle finds himself either building empire for himself and for his dependents, or start participating in urgent social and political causes. Who among us has not felt the urge to do something more to make this world a better place? Many intellectuals fight these urges but sooner or later they gave in to them. Watching Mr. Yogendra Yadav with Aam Aadmi Party, one gets the feeling that the urge to “do something more” runs quite deep even in calmest of our academic backwater.

Perhaps there is something else, other than the desire to change the world, which attracts people to these commitments. The respect and high esteem our society grants to man-who-can-do-things creates some paradoxes on our universities. Entrepreneurship skills tends to be highly valued over academic skill on our campuses, and those who posses them are seen with both envy and admiration. This is not limited to student communities. The Indian professor loves to talk about his commitment to teaching and research but he also love to accumulate administrative tasks (usually in committees and government) to improve his social status in the eyes of society or peers. There is hardly any university in this country where a professor pulls more weight than the registrar and there are some where a registrar pulls more weight than vice-chancellor. This all culminates into an unfortunate phenomenon: academics in India do not end as academics and when they do so they are seen as failures. Though I have witnessed some rare exceptions to this rule.

The life of an intellectual pursuit, in many ways, is an arid life. An extremely talented person might create lot of good work but a very little of it survives; and most of it fall by the wayside. In this respect, an intellectual life is also a very risky endeavor. It is not surprising that only a few among us can make peace with this social fact. It is natural to feels a strong desire to do something more to prove one’s worth. Perhaps a few among us can leave their work to be judged by posterity; for rest of us the choice is already made and it is a choice between self-assessment (i.e. the assessment by peers) or assessment by an outside agency usually a government agency (in terms of grants and awards) or the media if not the society (in terms of attention).

The moral of story is simple: that a man, no matter how talented or versatile, may not be capable of maintaining more than one commitment. The trouble with our intellectuals (as it was with my classmates) is not that they are not committed but that they are committed to too many things without being serious about any. Those who have already committed to some intellectual pursuit or thinking of doing so would do well to remember what some of our predecessors knew very well. That the goddess of learning is a very jealous goddess, she is not pleased by mere  hymns of praise and material offerings but demands a life long unwavering dedication.



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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