Click here to read issue #1 of Notes on the Academy, a magazine dedicated to a critical evaluation of academic institutions and culture. As we mention in our manifesto, academia is a diseased community. To diagnose this disease, we must both study its symptoms and analyse the sources of these symptoms.
To study the symptoms of the disease in any social community, we must listen to the stories of those most affected by it. So, we collect testimonials — anonymised accounts from people across the academy about their suffering. The present issue contains three testimonials. The first, “We Are No Longer Afraid,” is a document prepared by students at a prominent institute of higher education regarding the mishandling of the pandemic by their administration. The second and third, “The Subtle Problem of Exclusion” and “The Mine Field,” are the stories of individuals within academia.
To analyse the symptoms of the disease, it always helps to classify. Thus, we have chosen to include articles about casteism in our institutes. Since there is already a wealth of literature analysing this issue, our role here is merely to introduce you to this literature.
I remember reading Sandipan Deb’s The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World a little over a decade ago, around the time my classmates and I were studying for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) in hopes that we too would one day join the ranks of those world-reshaping alumni. Breathless and hagiographic, the book crystallised the reverence with which IIT was viewed, not only by my peers but also society at large. To “crack” the IIT-JEE and become an IITian meant many things at the time. For some, it meant one was marked as a member of the intellectual elite, standing head and shoulders above the rest. For others, it meant one was guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation. Some even wanted to go abroad, and for them an IIT education was the surest path to a foreign graduate school admission. An imprimatur, a golden ticket, a lifeboat. This impression of the IITs has changed little in the decade since then.
Ajantha Subramanian’s recent intervention — The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India — is an impressive and welcome salvo against the all-pervading sense of exceptionalism surrounding all things IIT, in particular aiming to understand “how the democratic ideal of meritocracy services the reproduction of achievement.” Equal parts history, ethnography, and theory, her book traces the
“rise of engineering education in India in the context of older forms of social and economic stratification… illuminat[ing] the relationship between engineering education and caste formation.”1