The question of whether one’s education has helped in understanding the world we live in is one that every thinking person asks themselves at some point. This crisis of confidence is achingly visible in recent times, with students increasingly questioning whether their education, especially in the social sciences, satisfactorily explains the vagaries of the international economic and geopolitical system. This led me to examine the true relevance of my master’s in international political economy from a top-tier British school—a hitherto haloed achievement whose utility was so self-evident, questioning it seemed churlish.
Despite priding themselves on a global identity, universities still predominantly rely on Western frameworks to understand and explain global phenomena. The prisms through which to explain everything from the collapse of Bretton Woods to the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion of 2003, largely remain, among others, the theories of liberalism (states will always choose peaceful cooperation because it is the rational option), realism (states will almost always opt for the aggressive pursuit of self-interest), and constructivism (the power of societal change drives decision making by the state).
Yet, these theories, with their unassailable assumptions, have done little to explain the peculiarities that would most concern a student wishing to understand India’s place in the world. Liberalism fails to explain India’s opposition to the Trade Facilitation Agreement in 2014 at the World Trade Organization that would have added an estimated $1 trillion to the global economy through the easing of customs rules. Realism dithers when confronted by Jawaharlal Nehru’s offering up of a coveted permanent UN security council seat to China in 1953. Where exactly then, do these theories, and consequently the curricula, fall short? One possible answer is that while they seek to explain how nations behave, they overlook explaining how nations “think”. They do not take into consideration the innate cultural and social peculiarities of their population that project themselves on to the manner in which countries conduct themselves internationally.
Despite the rigidity of the courses themselves, there has been a flurry of activity recently around the subject of why India thinks the way it does. An immensely readable 2014 work Bargaining With A Rising India: Lessons From The Mahabharata by Amrita and Aruna Narlikar explains how the Mahabharat is so steeped in the common consciousness of India, parallels can be found in the negotiating techniques used by its main characters and the behaviour displayed by the country’s diplomats in the international fora. Deep K. Datta-Ray, studies a similar topic in The Making Of Indian Diplomacy: A Critique of Eurocentrism, (2015)—the impact of India’s cultural lineage on the manner of functioning on its diplomatic corps. These show that trying to understand India’s international behaviour on its own terms, even if within the existing lexicon, make for much more robust explanations of India’s global interactions. The notion that India’s international relations is somehow “different” in its conceptualization to its Western counterparts is not limited to academic literature—a series of mainstream publications called The Story Of Indian Business edited by Gurcharan Das traces the cultural, political, and historical influences that constitute the story of Indian trade. For instance, the series has a book on the merchants of Tamilakam who traded with the Romans from at least the 1st century AD to the arrival of the East India Company.
This is not to say that the existing frameworks are irrelevant in themselves, but that they are insufficient to explain all possible geopolitical phenomena. They do play an important part in explaining the world as it is today. Take, for instance, the hegemonic stability theory—a cornerstone of international relations. One version posits that the international system is stable when one country dominates it through the provision of certain club and public goods such as free trade or counter-cyclical lending. It eloquently explains the rise of the US after World War I. Consequently, it is tempting to examine whether or not India could emulate the path to international pre-eminence prescribed in this theory in its quest for supremacy. Those who do so will soon hit a stumbling block though—India has never shown the slightest interest in providing any sort of public good. Analyses which do not take this into consideration are therefore likely to feel forced, uninspiring, and insipid.
So, does education help us understand the world we live in? The answer is yes, partly. The emphasis of “Western” frameworks is invaluable to understanding the world as it is today. Moreover, the current model does imbue in students the ability to think critically, and it does give them the tools to address these lacunae for themselves. It exposes them to a wealth of information helpful in comprehending the evolution of power in the Western world. On the other hand, universities could certainly do well to expand the horizons of their curricula to accommodate alternative world views.
It would make for more vibrant debates, provide a more rigorous challenge to the current thinking in this discipline, and help students develop a more nuanced world view. Not to do so would leave both the students and the universities themselves the poorer for it.
Priya Kale is an alumna of the London School of Economics.