Indian economist late Ashok Mitra wrote of the youth leaving India for Western nations in 1974, “Those who make the getaway do not stop to consider the plight of the millions who cannot escape, who will have to remain behind, grist to the mill of the ruling class. Now is for now, and each is for himself or herself. Those who can, escape, for they have learned that those who escape, live.”
The phenomenon he talks about continues today, and is arguably even more pronounced, as hordes leave for American, British and European universities. What used to be the privilege of the upper middle and feudal classes now can be accessed by the lower stratas of the middle class; what used to be confined to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, has now made its way into middle class homes in smaller cities like Indore and Kanpur. However, the situation in the West is different from Ashok Mitra’s time, as American and European societies struggle with a deep political crisis, we may rephrase Ashok Mitra and ask the question, those who escape, do they live?
American universities, like Harvard, Yale, MIT and Stanford are widely considered to be the best in the world. Students come here pursuing dreams of an American college life and education. What they face here is not only the burden of adjusting to a new environment, but the loneliness and hopelessness of a society in decay. University campuses are steeped in depression. At the University of Pennsylvania, in 2017, Nick Moya became the 14th student to die of suicide in 4 years.
University administrations across the US are reacting to student depression by funding more counseling services, setting up posters on campus reminding one to ‘take a break’, but these address the symptoms more than the problem itself, they avoid asking the fundamental questions. These are privileged students, attending some of the most prestigious and well funded universities in the world. They have access to any line of study they wish to pursue, and are in the peak of their youth. They live in an oasis of material wealth. Then, why are they all depressed?
The answer lies in the university’s relationship to broader American society, and to the society itself. The United States, after World War II, replaced the crumbling colonial empire with an empire of its own for corporate profit. Today, this empire is in a state of decadence and collapse. The American people, whether their individualism lets them see it or not, are products of this collapsing society.
From outside the West, our image of America is often of a society of great material prosperity. In fact, this image only reflects narrow sections of American society. Ivy league universities are islands of material wealth in a society that is increasingly poor. This is even more stark in a university like the University of Pennsylvania, where the poverty is seen only a few blocks from the university campus, and even on it. The University of Pennsylvania is in Philadelphia, which is the poorest big city in America. About half its population is also African American. When Indian students come here pursuing the American dream, what they don’t realise is that they are signing up for the American Racial Nightmare.
When you look for housing as a university student in Philadelphia, one of the first things you are exposed to is a racially coded map of the city. Green areas on the map are the areas where white people live, safe for students to live in. Then there are orange areas, which are a mixture of immigrant and white residents, and then red areas, which have predominantly black residents. Students are advised not to go here, for fear of mugging or worse. Many of the students who come here have already internalized this kind of racist propaganda through American TV shows and music, and are willing recipients.
If one looks behind the racist propaganda, one realises that this map is not so much a ‘safety’ map, but a map of the university’s gentrification in the city. The university gentrifies, pushing out residents who have lived in neighbourhoods for generations, for more land. The city changes rapidly–African American neighborhoods where residents knew each other, and had close well-knit communities, are replaced by characterless apartment buildings, which house students who do not interact with their neighbours at all. Real estate developers in the city are spearheading this process for quick profits.
Students constitute a temporary population, and do not care for their neighborhoods, spread trash and are part of drunk hooliganism in the night. New stores that cater to students open up overnight–selling $5 ice cream or bubble tea that the black residents cannot afford. Slowly, the neighborhood becomes unaffordable and unlivable for anyone but spoilt university students.
This process spreads outwards from the University, and the line between the green and the orange areas on the gentrification map is its frontier. Gentrification is ravaging the Black community with displacement and homelessness. Along the frontier, you can see the tension between African Americans and Asian or white students in strained interactions. There are no black customers at the gentrifying cafes that buzz with young, hip students, and the students stay away from the corner stores (still with Asian business owners) that cater to poorer community members. As a result, stores and bars that are next to each other, on the same block, are racially segregated.
What makes the situation even more stark is that the majority of workers that clean and cook on the university campus are African American. A walk through university campus will show you black janitors, cooks, security workers and white or Asian students and professors. The workers are hired on a contract basis with poverty wages and no benefits.
What does it do to the psychology of a young 18 or 21 year old to live in this racial system? How does a young person justify living in decadence, eating at the best restaurants, consuming free food at different university events, talking of justice and diversity at university seminars, while people only a few years older, and of darker skin, work 8 hours a day to serve them food to earn a meagre living? Even more than this itself, it is the complete denial of these facts in conversation, and discourse, and the creation of an untrue reality that warps the ability of young minds to grapple with the world. The continuation of the racial system in America rests on the complete denial that the system is, in fact, racial.
A decadent empire is always stuck in mediocrity. Academically, students at these universities are not challenged to think critically. From the outside, it seems as though the American education system is very thorough. In India, one can often hear people say with awe how much they make you work in the American university. But we must not confuse quantity with quality and propaganda with reality. It is true that students are overburdened with work and assignments, with the additional pressure to cushion their resumes with different activities. However, what they are being taught is, at the end of the day, a propaganda script.
American departments are mediocre at best, and produce complete lies at worst. Seminars in the humanities and social sciences tip toe around the big issues that face humanity today–war, the eradication of poverty, systemic racism, and the destruction of the environment by industry driven by profit. The conversations that go on are almost comical– there is complete silence on war and peace, the question of poverty eradication is replaced by poverty management, the problems of systemic racism are converted to problems of representation and identity in a racist system, and as solution to all our problems, we are told to recycle more. In the sciences, the questions you can research are fixed entirely by military and corporate funding. The claims of academic curiosity and scientific investigation are a complete farce, and researchers find ways to justify their ‘interest’ after their research is decided by the areas which offer grants.
So then why are Indian students continuously pushed to come here with promises of a better education? The answer lies again in politics and larger society. Mediocrity has besieged the American intellectual. A cursory look at any graduate department in an Ivy league university, particularly in the sciences, will show you that it is the Indian and Chinese students that are keeping research afloat. White Americans in particular, find it difficult to establish a work ethic, and are often in depression from a lack of purpose in their lives.
The collapsing American empire needs young Asian minds to sustain its research and development, and maintain the position of its universities in the world. On the other side, for governments like the one in India, students studying in the West is a way to encourage partnership with a power that remains (for the time being) economically, technologically and militarily more advanced. It is a continuation of the legacy of colonialism and began with the Indian elite being trained in Oxford and Cambridge.
In my experience as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania for the last three years, I have met many Indian students that are suddenly enveloped by a lack of purpose in their lives. They are running in this competitive system, and are not sure where they are going. What is the purpose of my life, they ask, is it just to live in material comfort, while being isolated from all I know and love? It is time that this question was examined by all of us more carefully.
As Indians, we come from rich intellectual traditions that we have been separated from. Our traditions go back millennia, and there is much to learn from the best of our traditions whether from the words of Kabir or the philosophy of the Buddha. The process of separation from this tradition goes back to the times of British colonialism, and we are remnants of that class of Indians who look Indian but think British. More recently, the legacy of the anti-colonial struggle forms a basis for us to build upon, to strive for a world where all can have education that allows them to understand their place in the world. Why do we degrade ourselves, undermine our history by aspiring to be white? Are the material comforts of a white American life worth the spiritual and moral death?
My critical remarks against the American university should not be confused with a stance against studying abroad. It is true that for any young person, living and learning in a society different from theirs can be an experience in broadening their mind and expanding their vision. However, belief in the white academic system is a severely limiting influence. Students here are trained to be rootless intellectuals, with no anchor. This purposeless existence is a sure path to depression and hopelessness. Those of us who chose to study in the US, and are attempting to understand or change the world, must look instead to the other American tradition of thought, that of Black America.
African Americans have long been kept out of the mainstream of American life, and hence are able to see through the lies and denial of American society. The black community acts as a moral anchor in a society otherwise submerged in individualism and materialism. Scholars like W.E.B Du Bois, and writers like James Baldwin expose the true nature of American, and European society, and its relationship to the world.
India and Black America share a long and rich history of friendship and mutual learning. The most well known example of this is Martin Luther King Jr. On his trip to India, he said, “We were looked upon as brothers with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and colonial peoples in America, Africa and Asia struggling to throw off racialism and imperialism.”
The history of brotherhood with the African American people forms a part of the larger legacy of standing with humanity that the Indian youth carry with them. Through a realization of this legacy, and an understanding of the people who created it, we can understand our place in the world. Only knowing our history, and reacquainting ourselves with the people we come from, learning of ’plight of the millions who cannot escape’ can show us the way forward, and allow us to live.