Are we liberal? A student from Ashoka University writes an open letter

Speed News Desk | First published: 17 October 2016, 16:58 IST
Ashoka University

Over the last few days, there has been much discussion and debate over Ashoka University. Sadly, most of the theories being floated around are speculations based on half-baked knowledge. Commentators on the issue are much like the blind men in Saxe's poem, touching only a part of the elephant and thus perceiving an inaccurate account of the shape of the creature. Being a second year undergrauate student currently studying at Ashoka University, I feel the need to put some facts on the table and provide at least a glimpse of clarity to the matter.

Is Ashoka University really as liberal as it claims to be, or is it all a facade?

This interrogation of the University 's liberal orientation is born out of a basic confusion -what does it mean to be liberal?

Sure, 'liberal' has dynamic connotations, ones that are constantly being shaped by the prevailing political milieu. But liberalism in the academic, educational paradigm, is distinct from that in the political sphere. Liberalism in academia and universities is about the way one is taught, encouraged to question, and to probe various ideas challenging them with one's own. One of the most important things I have imbibed from my education so far at the university is that for every opinion of mine that I deem 'correct' - a million others exist, and many of those will be worth considering. As Aristotle said, "It is mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

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So what is the problem? The problem is projecting political opinion of some persons as the stance of the entire university. After asking the strength of the institution if they would like to sign a petition, receiving about 80 odd signatories is far from a unanimous opinion of the over 800-strong university. This was what happened when an alumnus of the University released a petition on Kashmir in the public domain, flashing titles all over, that claimed the support of the entire university. When the University realised what was going on, it responded that these opinions did not have its endorsement - as they were being circulated under the umbrella of Ashoka University. The irony is, those not subscribing to these views - which is their right - are being labelled as opponents of free speech and 'illiberal', with a national newspaper taking sarcastic potshots.

My question then is: doesn't 'freedom of speech' also negate the force-feeding of opinions? As I said, we are taught to understand, research, introspect and put forth various points of view - with the drive to think critically and strive for better-informed opinions. What we are not taught, is to impose opinions on others. Liberal arts education is about informed discussion, critique and repeatedly revisiting your opinions. I cannot stress this enough when I say that implicit in all this, is respecting the opinions of others even if one does not agree - and consequently, refraining from imposing these on others. The projection of this opinion depicted by a handful of people as the opinion of the entire university, is the very antithesis of respect for facts, fairness, democracy and more importantly, the liberal ethos. It is so very ironic that to resist being misrepresented is being labelled 'illiberal'.