By Swapan Dasgupta
The generous $50 million donation to the Harvard Business School by the Tatas has, quite naturally, attracted considerable attention in India. This includes uncharitable suggestions that India's high-profile multinational has got its priorities all mixed up and is suffering from a colonial hangover.
The debate over the ethical validity of corporates directing their philanthropic energies abroad, particularly when Indian education could do with booster shots, is likely to continue. The India versus Harvard tussle is, however, only one emotive aspect of the public interest in private endowments. Equally relevant is the question: what are the donations for? In addressing this issue, it is best to not lump all donations to overseas institutions under the same roof.
The Tata donation to a premier Business School has followed a path well-travelled. In India's prevailing value system, management education is the pinnacle of accomplishment, on par with an IIT degree. An MBA is regarded as a passport to career advancement and explains why business schools have mushroomed all over India. Indian society hasn't paused to ask the question British cartoonist Martin Rowson once posed to me in jest: "Why does a man selling envelopes in Swindon need a management degree?"
Rowson was guilty of caricature. Yet, there is a point to ponder: has India become obsessive about the MBA, at the cost of everything else?
This is why it may be instructive to look at the two other gifts to Harvard that were overshadowed by fat Tata cheque: Anand Mahindra's $10 million donation to the Harvard Humanities Centre and Narayana Murthy's $5 million to the Clay Sanskrit Library.
To the reigning philistines, these endowments were eccentric indulgences. Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru injected the promotion of "scientific temper" into the Directive Principles of the Constitution, Indian conventional wisdom has deemed the perusal of the humanities a colossal waste of time and an unaffordable luxury. For conspiratorial post-colonialists, the primacy of the liberal arts during the Raj was Macaulay's plot to create a nation of subordinate clerks. To economic planners concerned with a skilled workforce, classical studies or Indology was another diversion of resources. In the contrived science and technology versus humanities battle, the latter stood no chance.
The institutional devaluation of the humanities was reflected in the modified design of the examinations to the all-important civil services examinations. From the day multiple choice questions became the norm and the essay paper was junked, it became clear that lucidity and articulation—the ability to construct an elegant and internally consistent argument—were no longer regarded as worthwhile attributes.
The stress on applied skills was no doubt a shift away from an elitism that had earlier made the IAS and IFS a wing of the St Stephen's College alumni club. But, have we overdone the anti-elitism bit and, instead, bred a generation lacking lucidity in three languages?
The 'reform' of civil services recruitment was just the tip of the killer iceberg. Since S. Nurul Hasan decided to make education the laboratory for some inspired ideological engineering, the humanities were inexplicably merged into the 'social sciences'. Instead of being an argumentative conversation involving the past and present, "scientific history" resulted in students being force fed dollops of questionable certitudes. Literary criticism became jargon infested and infected with derision of 'dead, white males'. Classical studies were made lifeless by the official disdain for theology and religion. Indeed, had it not been for universities in Britain, Germany and the US, Indology as a discipline would have become extinct. The state of the Asiatic Society is living proof of the ease with which we destroyed institutions that others had so painstakingly built.
It is in the context of the relentless assault on the humanities that we can view Mahindra and Murthy's donations to Harvard as inspired choices. Murthy's gift will help complete and perhaps revive the monumental project sponsored by the philanthropist John Clay to publish the essential works of classical Sanskrit literature. Mahindra's endowment to his alma mater could inspire fellow industrialists to recognise a life beyond technology and business studies. Since India often takes its cue from 'phoren', the two donations may even prompt a larger realisation that a function of education is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Who knows, one of these days we may even be privileged to hear a HRD minister say that education isn't just about the "scientific temper".
Sunday Times of India, October 24, 2010