In the context of a discussion on the prospects of diminishing support in European and American universities for South Asian studies, a colleague on the Indology list suggested that there were good times about to roll as the "West" discovered the new India unleashed by policies of economic liberalization.
My response appeared on Indology, but at the suggestion of another friend, I reproduce it here.
I hesitate to throw cold water upon the idea that somehow maybe the emergence of India as an economic tiger will carry over into enhanced support for the academic study of India and Indian languages. I am, however, persuaded that in the near term future, those of us who are in the enterprise of teaching and researching on traditional India, or who have the constant concern about protecting South Asian studies from the budget cutters, will not gain much advantage. With luck we may get a small breathing space.
My reasons for this view are:
1. India's continued use of the English language will mean that transactions at the elite level will continue in that medium. A person who is well-connected and knowledgeable about India said something to the effect that "There is no need for me to insult my Indian counterparts by speaking grade three Hindi when their command of English is better than the average high school graduate in America. It may break the ice and be a source of laughter, but negotiations will be in English." In Japan and Korea and China, the perception of such a utility for English is not present.
2. India's economic liberalization -- if successful -- will attract much interest and again, we may be able to leverage some of our activities on the grounds of their strategic value. However, my impression so far as that the emergence of India as a hot topic has meant the entry into the arena of academics who are comparativist in perspective--industrial policy and political economy specialists who doubt that knowledge of Kannada or Marathi will be of any use other than for giving orders to a taxi driver. Some of these scholars are very attuned to the import of a local culture, others assume that the world is going to converge, so why worry about local details.
The latter point reflects my sense that South Asia as an academic field has tended to be a zone of refuge for a wide variety of people who do not take much pleasure in more mundane or pedestrian pursuits. (This of course does not apply to you or me who are very much "with it", but there may be others...)
This is not to say that knowledge of the Gita, the Mahabharata, the Quran, the Buddhacaritra, the abhangs of Tukaram, the Guru Granth Sahib, the poetry of Ghalib, or the dramas of Kalidas, is not valuable and important. The problem is that such study is not viewed as practical. It is the same for knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible. These are items which may stretch the mind, but they do not have any apparent application to short term business or strategic solutions.
Remember, the bottom line is as low as you can go.
Frank F. Conlon
Professor of History
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195
Co-editor of H-ASIA
p.s. I have not entered above into the widespread problems of the application of the industrial production model to academic institutions in Europe and America--here too the bottom line comes into play in terms of student enrollments and allocation of scarce resources. The tragedy of the situation is that we are very inexpensive until you factor in the relative ability to obtain external research funding with potential for overhead (indirect cost) charges which help many American universities to balance the books each year.
So let us concentrate upon the work and not upon the fruits thereof...
In point of fact, I might have added other topics to the list of useful but impractical subjects, that would include more of the work of collegues in history, anthropology, political science and ethnomusicology, but I think the idea would have similar application.
I would particularly welcome being told I had it all wrong, and in particular being told WHY that was so.