Monday, May 18, 2015

An insulated university!

Much against my temperament let me assert before making the case that the title is an oxymoron.
Some background: A couple of weeks ago, in an event attended by hundred or so academicians and equal number of students, I had the misfortune of hearing the principal of a school in Delhi say that more than four years ago she had sent her son to a university about 2,300 km away from her home because she was attracted to what the institution was offering. Before coming to what the institution was offering and why I considered this a misfortune, let me adduce her reason.
The institution she sent her son to, in which he had performed exceptionally well, I must add, is in the middle of almost nowhere. Apparently people were curious why she was sending her ward that far away and to such a remote place when equally good universities were dime a dozen in and around Delhi. Her response was, paraphrasing, yes, the institution is far away and access is more like a triple jump, but the insulation it offered is what attracted her. The isolation can be overcome but the insulation is not available elsewhere. The audience lapped it up.
I was dumbfounded. It is possible that the speaker is an English teacher and she made some fine distinctions between isolation and insulation that passed me by. To my mind, if at all there exists a clear cut difference between the two words (I am not scurrying to refer to a dictionary as the issue is deeper than can be elucidated by any dictionary), it is that isolation curtails one’s opportunity for interaction and insulation protects from the ill effects of interactions by not allowing them.
Give me some room here to say what I understand by education. It is a process of interacting with and finding out about not only the immediate environs but about anything this side of the opening lines of Star Trek: “…where no man has gone before …” – what people have done, what they may be doing etc.
Education is one of opening of the mind and it is most effective in, well, an open environment. Yes, there must be some controls as to how open a mind should be – as someone said, it should not be so open that the brain falls out! But, insulation cannot be an instrument of control, particularly in the context of education.
The reason I was dumbfounded upon hearing the teacher mouth those words was I could think of nothing but the status of education today. It has lost all its normative values. It has acquired merely an instrumental value – towards employment. Who says that? The good teacher from Delhi. You can be insulated from society yet get a well-paying job. Beat that!
I think I made the case that “insulated university” is an oxymoron. Anything insulated cannot be a university and a university cannot afford to be insulated.

Raghuram Ekambaram

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