I taught political science at the postgraduate department of the University of Delhi for many years. Therefore, the news that the subject is in high demand among school leavers can only gratify me. But why do they choose one discipline over another?
The response from some of our aspiring political scientists is that they want to crack the precious UPSC code. Of course, young people have the right to choose what they want to do with their lives – and I wish them good luck. But the idea that a flagship BA Honors course in political science – which the Greek thinker Aristotle called the “science of mastery” – is little more than a study course organized by educational workshops. random and questionable, definitely alleviates any feeling of gratification. The discipline’s larger and more ambitious project has simply disappeared.
There must be something more to political science just because the discipline provides a ready-made battlefield for clashes of opinions. Politics is always contested, and knowledge of how politics is organized – and how it should be organized – is doomed to be contested. On this battlefield, different groups compete for power and control of ideas and thought processes.
Nothing excites the immoderate passions of ideologically inclined groups more than a proposal to change the curricula of Delhi University and other universities as well. After all, political science encourages students to think. The last thing a ruling class – especially a class that values mediocrity and even ignorance – wants are thinking citizens, because thinking is above all an insurrectionary act.
This is why ruling elites and submissive vice-chancellors across the world have tried to downplay the role of the humanities and social sciences in universities. Young people are offered apolitical courses which will enable them to become another cog in the machine of power and the market, instead of courses in the social and human sciences which create informed minds and develop the imagination. Is this a university?
On December 17, 2010, renowned literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote an article on the universities of Guardian. Just as there can be no advertising without alcohol, he writes, there can be no university without the humanities. If history, philosophy, etc. disappear from university programs, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training center or a business research institute. When students and professors explain the rush for political science due to the appeal of applied courses, they do an injustice to the great project of the discipline and its core: political theory.
Witness the realization of political theory over the years. It has transported the supreme values of justice, freedom, equality and rights, from some dense academic volumes to the political platforms of governments, sometimes sensitive, and to the agendas of democratic civil societies.
There are of course other ways to depoliticize reflective and critical disciplines. One is to ban essays or books that question or ridicule power through schoolboy bullying tactics. The recent hysteria over the inclusion of the magnificent coin Draupadi by Mahasweta Devi in the English Department program at Delhi University and the deportation request is one example. Groups which blindly follow a “nationalist” agenda obviously know only about imaginative and resourceful university professors, who courageously pursue their academic tasks in the shadow of censorship, authoritarianism and authoritarianism, can subvert even bland literature and poetry. They can do this by imparting knowledge about destabilization techniques to their students.
One of my favorite detectives is Kate Fansler, professor of English literature and protagonist of the crime drama written by Amanda Cross (the name adopted by the late Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, professor of English literature and academic feminist.) Fansler is interviewed at the end. from one of the novels how she managed to find out the murderer. “I am a professor of English literature,” she replied, “I can read between the lines of a text.”
The academic trick is not to burden students with loads of information; the trick is to teach them to read between the lines; destabilize accepted meanings; uncover hidden subversions and reveal the questions that great literature poses about the human condition. The core of political science and political theory does just that.
Many years ago, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that political theory will never become science because it asks normative questions. And normative questions, he continues, “remain stubbornly philosophical.” Philosophy is hard to define, but roughly speaking, thinking philosophically is cultivating a critical, reflective mind that asks tough questions about “how we are” and “what we might be.”
The distinction between “is” and “should be” is crucial for normative political theory, which overlaps with philosophy. While philosophy tells us how to lead a good life, political theory teaches us that we cannot live a good life unless we live in a society that strives to be a good society.
Think about the main concern of philosophers: freedom. Now think about: can we be free when governments crack down on anyone who dares to express an opinion that does not satisfy the inflated egos of those in power? Can we be free in a society where people are humiliated for reasons over which they have no control, such as being born into a community that is stigmatized as inferior or enemy, for perverse reasons? Can we be free in a country which does not respect the fundamental codes of justice; that every citizen has the right to the same opportunities as his fellow citizens?
The question that logically follows is: how do we neutralize the multiple constraints that cripple human capacity to be, well, human?
Political theorists who think of good society allow us to ask, once again, the eternal questions that eminent political philosophers have asked themselves from time immemorial. This is why political theory also overlaps with great literature; inspiring and transformative literature.
The opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy Anna karenina is known as one of the best opening lines from literature: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The sentence triggers thinking. Maybe happiness is overvalued; it may be an illusion; it may just be trivial. Great literature is born out of misfortune and tragedy and yet it supports the autonomy of the human will. Likewise, grand political theory is not just a litany of evils that enclose human beings; it tells us how to overcome these constraints.
Take Karl Marx. The bodies of the workers who constitute the core of its society are marked by the violence of capitalist exploitation and other injustices. Yet Marx’s working class can stand up and respond to history. Workers can create their own story.
Political theory speaks of the tragedies of human existence; of poverty, injustice, exploitation, discrimination, the commodification of labor and the dehumanization of humanity. It addresses the political difficulties of the day, but it also encourages us to find a way out. Most importantly, political theory explores the many meanings of the concepts that form the basis of our collective political existence; the state, the nation, the market and the ideology. He tells us that there are other meanings the nation holds in political imaginations; a collective where no one is discriminated against because of their caste, religion, gender and ethnic origin; where everyone is a citizen with equal rights. It is a civic nation as opposed to an ethnic nation.
The ability to distinguish between the different meanings of a concept and to determine which meaning is suitable for the ruling class allows us to distinguish between the notion of democracy as elections and a democracy that keeps its fundamental promise: respect for the inherent dignity of human beings. This is how human beings should be treated, nothing less.
May political science and the political imagination be put at the service of this noble objective. This any aspiring IAS officer should learn, for only then will he be able to distinguish between legitimate protest and illegitimate state power.
The lessons of political theory, like those of literature, cannot be proven in the same way that we demonstrate a scientific experiment. They also do not need to be proven in this way. Human beings are not inert matter; they are essentially interpretative. Most importantly, they can exercise moral judgment on the issues of the day. Political theory gives knowledge and knowledge brings humility which educates the mind. We must ask ourselves questions about the political condition, because a society which does not ask itself questions degenerates and withers; he descends into the quagmire of ignorance. And ignorance encourages us to accept the vocabularies of those in power as obvious truths, however absurd these vocabularies may be. Knowledge prompts us to understand that we must resist power if it exceeds the limits of acceptability.
In summary, I hope that young people, who have turned their backs on market disciplines and on reflexive and interrogative sciences such as knowledge, will learn the lessons of political theory: solidarity, freedom, equality and justice, human rights and duties. towards their fellow citizens. These lessons give energy and relevance to other areas of the topic. I know our bright kids want to get past the “breaking news” that often cloud the mind and numb the senses. They need to be taught how to bring an informed historical perspective to the question of how we got to where we are today.
I sincerely hope that future political scientists will know the distinction between “what is” and “what should be”, will learn that we do not need to live with “what is” and will engage in the idea that ‘it is possible to transform the world according to the principle of “what should be”. I sincerely hope that young people will learn to distinguish between knowledge and information. And above all I hope they will learn that the task of scholars is to answer history and engage with power.
Political scientists will probably never become advisers to government, but they can become the conscience of their society because they know the difference between the constitution and laws hastily enacted by a government; between government and state and between nation and government. Above all, I hope they realize that the subject teaches them to bring normative considerations to the big questions of the day. It is only then that they will discover the virtue of a good which we seem to have lost in India; that of justice. And justice is a concept that continues to obsess political theorists.
Neera Chandhoke was professor of political science at the University of Delhi.