Representational image. (Bloomberg) Exclusive
Representational image. (Bloomberg)

In a pandemic, the idea of a university

While applied knowledge has a particular status, what we must not forget is the significance of basic research investments
By Siddharth Mallavarapu
UPDATED ON JUN 14, 2021 03:25 PM IST

Universities are often envisaged as enclaves at least one remove away from the everyday grime of politics and societal faultlines. While they are often deeply invested in studying both the nature of the grime and the content of these fractures, their distance provides them with a quaint luxury — to wait for the dust to settle and reflect on what a particular moment in history meant. The conjuncture we currently find ourselves in both domestically and globally is one such defining moment.

Rest assured, there will be several tomes written on this tortuous international public health catastrophe. Eventually, some will qualify as definitive histories of the global pandemic of the early 21st century. However, there is an unmistakable urgency compelling us to begin asking more fundamental questions about our role and purpose as educational institutions. The propositions below offer an invitation to evolve a better appreciation of academia and its place in the larger scheme of things.

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First, what kind of knowledge is of value? Quite clearly, this is a slippery question, but we must not duck as thinking societies. At the moment, the immediate priority is a reliable cure from the virus that is responsible for so much distress both at home and abroad. Scientific knowledge offers us a vital resource here. Its sanctity in our public deliberations must be restored.

While applied knowledge has a particular status, what we must not forget is the significance of basic research investments. Rome was not built in a day. The edifice of the scientific enterprise and the wherewithal needed to pursue unconstrained research must be assiduously built and nurtured.

What we also need to acknowledge is that the pandemic has a whole slew of public health implications. These extend within and well beyond our national boundaries with deeper social, psychological, and economic ramifications. For these facets to be addressed effectively, there is a need to tap into diverse forms of knowledge.

The broad spread of humanities and social sciences are of particular relevance here. There are no real substitutes for the human stories anchored in specific milieus and local languages that good literature makes available. The complex dynamics that unfold between caregivers and care recipients are laid bare by medical anthropologists in rigorous ethnographies. Economists weigh the human costs that accrue from inadequate prior public health investments, amply demonstrated during the ongoing pandemic. Governance failures are the crux of much political inquiry.

If we are to be reminded that the pandemic is not a novelty or one-off episode, we must turn to our historians for a long-term perspective. The mental health toll on individuals is of immediate concern to psychologists. A natural corollary here is to recognise the value of developing first-rate scholarship in these areas. Societies that make these intelligent choices are likely to be better off both in the short- and long-run. There is no reason to believe that India is an exception to the norm.

Second, we need to pay attention to the models of civic citizenship we wish to foster. In the Indian case, we often bemoan the lack of civic sense or discipline when it comes to enforcing basic norms and health protocols. While the rites of passage before coming to the university — the family, the school and the college — have to shoulder a fair share of this responsibility, the university provides yet another crucible to develop humane citizenship.

Social and political awareness are integral to this task. This is not a plea for the politicisation of our universities, of which there is no dearth in our setting. However, it is a plea for orienting citizenry to learn and build empathy and contribute with a sense of inclusion and sensitivity to vulnerable people in their immediate and extended communities.

Third, academic candour is indispensable. As we have learnt, it could be a matter of life and death. In the current context, when it comes to developing an informed opinion relating to the origins of the virus, or evolving a sober and realistic assessment of the statistics available in the public domain, or a recognition of the many mutations of the virus, we must learn how to sift the wheat from the chaff. What this also means is our willingness not to be mere docile recipients of truth claims but subject them to necessary scrutiny for trustworthiness. A vigilant citizenry must be alive to these informed audits.

Finally, the university faces a serious challenge in communicating effectively to wider audiences. Cutting edge developments in relevant domains need to be shared with diverse constituencies. The latest research could yield important insights that matter. However, this must be made intelligible across the board. There will be, on occasion, a requirement to communicate persuasively to officialdom. Again, this entails clarity.

Communication, however, is not a one-way street. We need receptivity at the other end for those involved to act on the knowledge they now possess. There are a number of other critical factors that also come into play here — the nature of political leadership, institutional design, and State capacity, each of which in its own right deserve more urgent scholarly attention as well.

Siddharth Mallavarapu is professor of international relations and governance studies at Shiv Nadar University

The views expressed are personal

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