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‘The Quality of Mercy': Kindness and Compassion in Higher Education: Prasanta Chakravarty

October 28, 2011

Guest post by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY

There is a moral compass that every freshman must inculcate, says Harvard College Dean Thomas Dingman. To that end, Dean Dingman has asked incoming Harvard students to sign the ‘Class of 2015 Pledge,’ a solemn testament that reflects a set of distinctive values: “That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.” The document goes on to hope that entryways and yards will be places where everyone can thrive and where the “exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment…we want to have an environment in which people can flourish academically.”

In somewhat similar terms, Malabika Sarkar, the freshly-appointed vice-chancellor of Presidency University, Kolkata, has recently invoked “an abundance of grace and compassion” to renew the university’s tryst with ‘glory.’Grace and compassion? Yes, you heard right. But what is the context? In the same breath she has also talked about shearing higher education in Bengal of its intellectual arrogance. This could be a jibe at the earlier Left establishment, or a more general moral exhortation. In the course of her first few interviews, Sarkar has also emphasized her global academic contacts and her familiarity with the corporate world with remarkable candour.

Apart from the natural soft-authoritarian coterie culture that such academic sectarianism upholds and fosters (by distinguishing those who comply from the wayward rest) and apart from the obvious question of whether loyalty oaths and moral tests can bind conscience, such dictums and reflections set us thinking in two ways. First, though all the attributes seem to gel and work well as a whole—there is, in reality, some serious confusion in this ‘moral compass.’ Does our commitment to uphold integrity always dovetail with kindness or inclusiveness? This mixing of categories, or what seems to be confusion, is in fact a typical modern liberal mish-mash that has made many of our so-called elite institutions anodyne and less and less rigorous in fostering ideas, even as they hope to produce ‘leaders’ and ‘entrepreneurs.’

Second, and more importantly, the distinction made between ‘intellectual attainment’ and ‘kindness’ leads to a particular kind of moral liberalism – in these cases possibly grounding itself in a Christianized one. Such a moral firmament also, quite characteristically, latches itself onto a pagan idea of ‘flourishing’ (different from popular coinages like excelling or outshining). Who are the ones that hold the exercise of kindness and compassion to be precious human attributes in education? Are these values a prior requirement for, or contrary to, rigorous intellectual achievement? Is ‘flourishing’ a euphemism for enterprise, or is it an opposite, modern and distinct manoeuvre?

We are being routinely asked to reconsider organizational ethics and groupthink in educational institutions right now. Part of the new dispensation is no doubt geared to realign the political fulcrum of our higher education. Ideologically. Period. Day by day, the institutional underpinnings of existing structures are being reformed. Statutes and statutory bodies in existing institutions are being toyed with, with amazing arrogance. Ordinances have become another tool for tampering with the very idea of constitutionality. Many of these changes are part of a considered schema, but the everyday modalities are very much ad hoc and often dependent on the whims and caprices of this vice-chancellor or that registrar at any given point of time. The ostensible arguments about ‘depoliticising our universities and research institutes’ obviously refer to an intellectual climate that is in alignment with centre-right motivations.

At this point it must be stressed, however, that it is not that ethics is replacing politics, but rather that a particular ethical-political mode of operation in our higher educational institutions is giving way to another. The values of old-world national integration, solidarity, internationalism, Gandhian ideals and so on are actively being recast to accommodate values that can help launch varieties of ruthless and mid-level entrepreneurship in education. Since the aims are utilitarian, it is typical of a massified political morality that the new-old values are either grossly sentimental (kindness, grace, brotherhood, fraternity, neighbourliness) or masculine-jingoistic (vanity, virility, hard-work, industry). A combination of these, at its best, would produce a kind of philanthropic-sentimental-nepotistic culture.

Life skills or moral competence, in these circumstances, is attached to costs, jobs and vocational education. In order for skills to become competence, one needs a kind of finishing touch in the libertarian world. For the workforce to become more efficient, universities and polytechnics would provide and foster transferable moral ideals. Morality has to be primarily geared towards promoting interpersonal aptitude. At the heart of the idea of ‘competence’ lies a work force which is expected not to think for itself but merely respond to orders with acquiescence. There are no overlaps or similarities between practices—you cannot be a hairdresser as well as a philosopher in a libertarian world; and it is simply not possible to have an informed opinion about hair-styling if one is not a hairdresser.

Hence, values—when deployed— feature prominently as timeless statements on behaviour and performance in libertarian educational institutions: the ones that are needed specifically for imparting a kind of completeness to the idea of the ‘good life’. Creating effective and impactful leaders, igniting a rational devotion to work, assessing the worker’s multicultural orientation, focussing on innovation through values—are some core ways through which such ethics get married to competence. Quite fittingly, Leadership Development Programs are tailor-made for shaping the workers morally.

The idea of elevating kindness above intellectual advancement relies on a particular understanding of human beings in a community setting. The worth of human beings lies not in their autonomy or critical faculties, but in their ability to be humane and merciful. There is an inbuilt model of correction and completion involved here. The idea of human dignity is connected to beneficence and justice thereof; this is a mode of thought control and disciplining oneself. Such sentimental spiritualizing tendencies are at the heart of moderate mainstream liberalism; the Deists had started it in the early modern world and the Kantian ethical framework has given it a surer moral dimension. Little wonder, indeed, that kindness and empathy are being highlighted by the guardians of higher education now.

There are wider ramifications of hinging this kind of a moral compass to a corporative view of higher education. For one, notions of hypocrisy, deception, conflict, posturing, discrimination, demagoguery, compromise, dependency and so on – core attributes of human nature – are given short shrift, as if they do not exist. The pressures toward evil and pretence, base human attributes, are present not in the enactment of the passion of pride and ambition but in the very nature of all associative relationships. Integrity is not some sort of adolescent idealism: it is neither detached pursuit of incorruptibility nor a quest towards purity and completeness, that is, attempts to detect wholeness composed of a balance of competing elements. Of course, all groupthink presupposes cooperation, resource distribution and support systems, but these cannot be either coerced or be expected to be received as generous or sympathetic gifts.

It is in this fundamental sense that the idea of human association in spaces of higher education appears to be changing around the world. Kindness will replace baseness—an amazing and inhuman expectation indeed! It is a saccharine-sweet, yet ruthless, world that our educational visionaries are ready to bequeath us; a world in which forms of adolescent idealism must be married to efficiency. Integrity, consequently, must be re-imagined as a pure, civil and sanitised ideal. No wonder that Sarkar and Dingman can both think of kindness and grace as scaffoldings to Integrity.

For our transforming reformers in higher education—say, the likes of Sugata Bose or Sunil Khilnani or mentor par excellence Amartya Sen—the old ethical-political values of both heroic, vaulting ambition (a central non-rational and classical value in education that chimes much better with flourishing or glory) and progressive criticality (the foundational value to varieties of democratic socialism) seem to hold no serious worth or consequence. The idea of Integrity is fundamentally rational to them, our new visionaries—and non-passions like compassion, civility and industriousness just fit fine into this new scheme of things.

(Prasanta Chakravarty is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi.)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. ananda permalink
    October 29, 2011 11:39 AM

    I am not clear why the examples of a moral guidance may give rise to ” a soft-authoritarian coterie?” How exactly is the author divining such intent. Those institutions he points to (and their ilk), are hardly “less and less rigorous in fostering ideas, even as they hope to produce ‘leaders’ and ‘entrepreneurs.’”; they, on the contrary, continually produce an abundance of ideas and (thought) leaders.

    And by what yardstick are Profs. Sugato Bose and Amartya Sen — no offense to them personally — the “transforming reformers in higher education?” Where — in the US where they teach? No way!

    Or in India just because Bose is part of a “mentor group” for one college (Presidency College)?! What kind of logic and generalization is that??

  2. panjar sing sodhi permalink
    October 29, 2011 6:44 PM

    this is a real intricate and unusaul piece for kafila. bull’s eye. thought provoking at various levels. indeed ‘values’ need to be questioned and discussed threadbare in any academic insititution.

  3. Pankaj permalink
    October 29, 2011 6:48 PM

    Extremely insightful and timely! The new ethics and its sanitising impulses have become the cornerstone of ‘transformative’ enterprises in every institution of higher education. This enterprise is stone-crushing the humanities towards and into utility-oriented disciplines. Crucially, this morality is always manufactured at the top and then rolled out in a way that already sits heavy on existing democratic institutions of decision making. The consequent institutional superversion is, in a way, masked by the new morality. And it needs to be fought both at its epistemological origin and its dictatorial unfolding.

  4. Prasanta Chakravarty permalink
    October 29, 2011 7:28 PM

    @ananda: the idea is to distinguish various kinds of moral point of view–not reject any? if you are not ‘kind’ you are not part of a coterie–which wants you to come up clean on your moral take and cajoles you to be part of that particular order. this narrows down the scope of the ethical. you have used the word ‘guidance’, which would presuppose a gradient. this is fundamentally undemocratic in its scope .

    two, i was making a point about confusion in moral categories: compassion is used by these ‘guides’ in a modern-pious manner. that does not always tally with the idea of integrity , a value of a far older and of an altogether different pedigree. these ‘guides’ are using moral categories in a casual manner, least expected from people who would frame our education policies. this mix up is typical of a group of people who revel in opinion mongering and are invested in deliberately keeping things pragmatic and fuzzy.

    finally, i used the word ‘transforming’ rather sarcastically because they are being feted in our country. one thought that would be apparent by the end of the piece? about generalization: you really need to do some research on the impact of the representative names i had cited in giving shape to the idea of education in India/India abroad right now. but names are incidental; its really a particular moral frame that interests me.

  5. Raman permalink
    October 30, 2011 1:31 PM

    Huh? This has to be the most bizarre and incoherent article published in Kafila (and that’s saying something given the quality of the articles on this website!) What exactly is the author trying to say? That having intellectual integrity may not always be compatible with being kind and compassinate? And that’s something you are realising now??? We gave up on intellectual integrity a long time back when we allowed political correctness and censorship of freedom of expression to rule our lives. So what are you cribbing about now?

  6. November 1, 2011 5:27 PM

    Dear Raman, we are indeed sorry to have heaped another article of dubious quality on you. One man’s subtlety can be another man’s incoherence, as the comments above themselves testify. However, in case you are still interested in knowing what this article was about, it was about a growing incidence of anti-intellectualism in the most unlikely context, academia. It is not Prasanta who first made the outlandish suggestion that intellectual ‘attainment’ must be opposed to kindness and compassion – he has merely pointed out instances where the opposition has been made by heads of institutions and other such heavyweights (Harvard and Presidency College, among others). In his comment to Ananda, Prasanta discusses the related problem of intellectual integrity, which is according to him is a value with a different and possibly opposed ‘pedigree’ to the instrumental and (in my opinion) superficial usage of the term compassion in the context he describes. Let’s think for a moment: why should the head of a prestigious educational institution (herself a powerful figure) at a particular historical moment discover the virtues of kindness and compassion, and make a public statement regarding this? Who could such a speech be directed at; who could the intended targets be, when a binary between intellectual attainment/arrogance and kindness and grace is set up (hint: independent-minded academics and scholars with a reputation that does not depend on the head, or on collegiate functioning)? So Raman, in fact Prasanta seems to be saying the opposite of what you inferred – that kindness and compassion and intellectual attainment are not engaged in a zero-sum battle.

    Ananda, Prof. Sen is in the mentor group of the now-controversial Nalanda University. It should come as no surprise to any of us in these globalising times that eminent Indian academics with established reputations and teaching positions abroad are being recruited in droves by the Indian government and private educational trusts alike, to oversee the birth or overhauling of Indian universities and the higher education system at large. So indeed the foreign locations of Professors Sen and Bose and academics of similar profile are advantages, not disadvantages as far as the government and various educational interests are concerned.

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