In defence of the university

In 2014, I was invited by my alma mater, Amrita School of Business, to write a short piece about my time there. This was for a popular MBA student forum, advertising of a kind. But I couldn’t say no. 

I remember missing the deadline, but write I did.

I’m reproducing a few passages of what I wrote, edited for context.

The business school you attend will not just give you an education and a degree, it will give you a worldview. So do all colleges, you might argue, but no, business school happens at the age when you become aware of the world around you, how things function and why they don’t, and you begin to question things. Thoughts become ambition, and a young mind tries to figure out its place in the world. It’s a very important time.

I went to study business at Amrita. I don’t remember making that choice very consciously; I had a few other pretty prestigious places to choose from. I just looked at the choices I had, and said this is where I’m going, to this lush green campus at the foot of the Western Ghats.

And it made me who I’m today – a left leaning, bookish professional with a healthy distrust of no-holds barred capitalism. But that’s just one thing Amrita moulded me into. It nurtured the romantic in me, made a writer out of a lover of words. It made me a walker rather than a runner. It made me conscious of history, geopolitics, and the need to give back to the not-so-fortunate. It rounded me up, chipped off my edges as best as it could, and sent me off into the world.

Was I a good student? Not really. Though I tried sometimes, when I had time off from the endless walks on evenings when the wind brought rain and shook the trees. But something did happen to me, in the roads and paths I walked on, in the mountain rain, in those corridors and classrooms. Something happened, and I changed, and I became ready to go face the world.

Amrita was where I was first humbled under the weight of all that I did not know, a humility I learnt to carry and use. Amrita was where I learnt that the world isn’t all about money and ways to make them. But most importantly, it was where I understood that learning to learn is an education in itself.

If what you read makes you think I was in love with the place, I was. But it wasn’t just that. It was where I felt I was first taken seriously, where the sometimes ridiculous ideas of an idealistic 22 year old were listened to with attention by people who cared, and encouraged to pursue. It was where I could sit on a rainy evening and discuss Amitav Ghosh, old cricket advertisements, and your term papers, all in one breath.

That place was where I first learned to be me.

For those of us like me who come from India’s small towns, confined by familial expectations and the narrowness of mind that sometimes characterises the Moffusil, universities are the first real intellectual spaces. They are where we are first free to express ourselves. Without the physical space that Amrita gave me to be, and become, I would never be the ambitious, confident professional I am today.

It is this physicality that I lament today, as education moves online. It’s all well and good for the city’s young people, but it sends those of my kind, from the backwaters and beyond, immediately on the backfoot, especially young female students. And in all this din about online education and the obsolescence of universities, everyone seems keen to forget about the value the physical space of the university provides.

Those who are making the loudest noise about this either seem to be from the west, whose generalised wisdom seldom translates well to the Indian context, or from folks who are invested in companies which sell education online.

Except online education can’t replicate even in part what universities actually give us.

Because if it was just a degree, a piece of paper, a credential, sure, the argument works. But our colleges and universities are more than that. They are spaces where the befuddled, narrow young mind first opens itself up to new ideas, new people, new surroundings, and has the option to transform all that potential into something meaningful. Where it learns what it can be, what is open to it, what it can achieve. Where it meets the world and learns something about itself it did not know before.

None of this will happen in front of a screen, none of this will happen tap-tapping on a laptop, none of this will happen on Slack or Teams, however much you improve the technology and the experience.

And finally, in an India that has changed, where differences are being weaponised every day, where the other is for some reason an enemy, we need places where our young people can just be. We need places where our disparate cultures can meet and engage in the conversation that characterises community and democracy. We need places where we can learn about each other without judgement, without the poison of our politics. 

The university campus may well be the last of such places in our beleaguered nation. We it need now more than ever.

Written in August 2020.