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Pollock- Crisis in Classics

Pollock- Crisis in Classics

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Sheldon Pollock
Crisis in the Classics
social research
 
Vol. 78 : No. 1 : Spring 2011
21
in october 2004, after an electoral sweep in the spring
parliamentary elections brought it unaccustomed influence over theruling coalition in Delhi, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK),the Dravidianist party of the state of Tamil Nadu, demanded that the United Progressive Alliance declare Tamil a classical language—whichit did, apparently the first such declaration by a national governmentin recorded history. Sanskrit was soon granted classical status, withoutexternal pressure, but the floodgates were now open to other languageactivists to seek classical status, and they proceeded with passion topetition the central government on behalf of Kannada (2006), Telugu(2007), and Malayalam (2009).
1
This is not the classical language debateIndia should be having, however; there is something other than statusto worry about—and to worry about deeply. At the time of independence in 1947, India was home to scholars whose historical and philological expertise made them the peer of anin the world. They were the heirs of the longest continuous multicul-tural literary tradition in the world, and produced editions and liter-ary and historical studies of texts in Apabhramsha, Assamese, Bangla,Brajbhasha, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Persian,Prakrit, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu—the list could go on because thelist of Indian languages goes on—that are still used today. Two genera-tions later their works have not been replaced not because they are
I would like to thank Robert Goldman and Pratap Bhanu Mehta for criticisms andsuggestions, as well as audiences at the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bangalore, the University of Texas at Austin, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London,the University of Calicut, and St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, where I presented earlier versions of this essay.
 
22
 
social research
irreplaceable—it is in the nature of scholarship that later knowledgeshould supersede earlier—but because there is no one capable of replac-ing them. And this is a sign of what people should be worrying about:if Indian education and scholarship continue along their current trajec-tory, the number of citizens capable of reading and understanding thetexts and documents of the classical era—or precolonial or premodernor pre-1800 era, all equivalent terms for my purposes here—will very soon approach a statistical zero. India is about to become the only major world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in thecustodianship of scholars outside the country: in Berkeley, Chicago,and New York; Oxford, Paris, and Vienna. This would not be healthy either for India or for the rest of the world that cares about India. Admittedly, there are a lot of problems in the world. Very bigproblems, like global warming, AIDS, unequal power, and vast poverty;intermediate problems like terror, especially terror in South Asia, orthe periodic financial upheavals of global capitalism; smaller-scaleproblems, like the political transformation of India in the postcolonialperiod, with the astonishing rise and acceptance of new and violentforms of communal irrationality and violence. Then there are very small problems like the potential disappearance in India of classicaltextual knowledge. Michel Foucault drew a distinction between univer-sal intellectuals, masters of truth and justice who occupy themselves with the big, bigger, and biggest problems, and specific intellectuals, who work in a particular sector of society and speak to the small-scaleissues constitutive of that sector. These may be distinct forms of intel-lectual engagement, but they are not opposed; on the contrary, thereis something of a fractal relationship between the two. The very smallproblem I will deal with in this essay contains a very big questionindeed, about what it means to be fully and richly human.Four questions immediately present themselves by the asser-tions I make above. Is the hypothesis of a looming collapse of classicalknowledge in India actually valid? If this knowledge is indeed threat-ened with extinction, and we are witnessing something more than thechronic crisis that humanists have been trumpeting since there were
 
Crisis in the Classics
 
23
humanists, how is it to be explained? The third question—perhaps thefirst for some—is why anyone should care. Many people are entirely unconvinced that the past should not simply be allowed to pass away.Explaining clearly why it should not is an obligation that classicists donot usually rush to discharge. Last, but alas least answerable, is what if anything can be done about the situation in India—about the fate, as Ionce named more generally, of a soft science in a hard world? (Pollock 2009)
IS ThErE A CrISIS IN ThE ClASSICS IN INdIA TodAy?
Legitimate research problems should be empirically answerable, and atpresent this one is only partly so. Not only is the question of the vitality of classical knowledge complex but data on higher education in Indiaare woefully inadequate to answer it. There is no systematic databaseor accurate metric to enable us to move beyond the subjective and actu-ally measure the severity of this problem, or indeed, almost any prob-lem of knowledge production in the social sciences and the humanities. Accordingly, my account will be largely personal and anecdotal, andlimited in its truth value by the limits of one person’s experience—though these experiences are real and have a certain heuristic value.The Indian case is extreme, but for comparative purposes it is worth looking at the bigger picture. I began worrying about the situa-tion in India more than a decade ago but lecturing on it only in the pastfew years, and during this period the situation for the humanities ingeneral and classical studies in particular has grown more dire almostglobally. Every week it seems a new book is published on the corpora-tization of the university, the commodification of education, the tech-nologization and scientization of all knowledge, and the concomitantdenigration and, increasingly, discontinuation of humanities programs.Recent statistical studies for the United States unequivocally reveal a decline in both absolute and relative support for research inhumanistic scholarship that has been described, perhaps optimisti-cally, as “dangerous.” The national budget for humanistic studies inthe United States in general dropped from more than $400 million

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