Reshaping Ivory Towers into Towers of Learning: A Lay Perspective by Dr. I.J. Singh
Dr. I.J. Singh is Professor Emeritus, Basic Sciences, New York University and a writer and speaker on Sikhism in the diasporas. He stands astride both the East and West. Himself a citizen of the diasporas –born in India but having spent most of his life in the United States – he shares with us his views and thoughts on the issues and subjects impacting the Sikh community. He is a regular contributor to various publications worldwide.
* Read the Introduction to this Feature
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Sikhi has been around for over half a millennium and, like people of many other faiths, Sikhs, too, are people of a book. It seems self evident then that the intellectual process cannot be divorced from the pursuit of Sikhi.
In our existence now in a global village the needs of an ongoing dialogue with our non-Sikh neighbors mandates elaboration of Sikh history and tradition, such that its teachings and practices are comfortably related when juxtaposed with the traditions and teachings of those whose belief does not necessarily derive from Sikhi.
Sikhs have been stepping out of Punjab into the new world for over 150 years and there are now as many as a million in North America alone. This gives added impetus to Sikh studies and related activities.
Thus over the past two decades Sikhs in the diaspora have established six chairs of Sikh studies at North American universities. Surely, the scholars who hold these appointments would be providing excellent coverage and analysis of successes and failures, rewards and pitfalls inherent in such academic endeavors in this initiative of the Sikh Foundation.
Very briefly stated, the primary mandate of these academic programs is to explore Sikh existence in all its aspects: scriptural, religious, historical and even contemporary.
While participating in this initiative I see myself as the lone layman in a bevy of academic heavy weights of Sikh studies. Naturally, my first reaction is one of unease, even alarm. But on further reflection, I see that such opinion and interpretation of Sikh studies programs as I may offer need not be uninformed and has a place.
Because Sikhi remains, in the final analysis, a way of life to be lived and celebrated. Sikhs are not relics of history to be installed, even with reverence, in museums; it is a living tradition. In its study belong scholarly voices that explore Sikh history, scripture, doctrine, dogma and teachings just as surely as do voices – even non-scholarly ones – of those who live and breathe the path of Sikhi.
In commenting on Sikh academic programs, largely based in North America, I wish to present a coherent story devoid of the cunning passages and contrived corridors of history. So, mine is a relatively straight forward opinion piece today. It will not lean on a plethora of references and will generally steer clear of citations of literature that can become overwhelming.
The man behind the impetus for Sikh chairs remains Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany. Most of the existing Sikh studies programs have attracted their share of controversy and, I am sure, readers are familiar with its nature and consequences.
Some people in the Sikh community are not comfortable with the idea of endowed Sikh Chairs bestowed on scholars who are still in the early stages of their academic careers. Others critics of the Chairs seem particularly incensed about specific holders of such chairs, and they cite various reasons for their opinions. At this point, I am not going to delve into specific allegations that have been floating about. I will not touch these matters today.
I concede that in 1996, Dr. Hakam Singh and I jointly authored a paper exploring alternative models for programs of Sikh studies than the establishment of Chairs. But times have changed. The fact is that now we have several Chairs and academic programs in place.
At the outset, it is necessary to recognize that irrespective of who funds a program, it is the university's prerogative and duty to determine that both the terms of appointment and the program hew to university standards and policies. This is not a matter in which the donor and the community have a decisive voice — nor should they.
We now have several scholars in Sikh academics and they represent a variety of specializations. There are those who work on the formation, meaning and interpretation of the scripture, early history and tradition, women and gender issues, and even comparative interpretation of our philosophy and perspective relative to the great thinkers of western philosophy or other disciplines. Our scholars are few, their research topics many. Perhaps there is only a single scholar dedicated to a particular theme or time period of our history and development, but together they can provide a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. And in time, I am confident, a critical mass would emerge in each sub-discipline of Sikh studies.
I want to focus on some unresolved larger issues instead. My comments have little to do with the quality of the academic research per se, but will explore issues that have not been debated so far.
These matters could help us strengthen existing programs and get a bigger bang for the buck. And that is what I wish to explore with you.
I repeat: my purpose here is to strengthen the existing programs, not to diminish them. My credentials are that I come to you from a lifetime in academia, albeit in a very different field than the one we discuss today. I also am from the larger Sikh community that has little or no academic background in Sikhism but presents a strong commitment to Sikhi.
Scholars – Community Gap
It has been obvious from the very onset of these academic programs that a progressively widening gap has opened between the scholars who run these programs and the Sikh community in North America.
The scholars rightly feel underappreciated, sometimes even personally abused or demeaned, and that is unquestionably unhealthy and undesirable. Equally undeniable is the reality that the community feels diminished and dismissed as of no significance and irrelevant by the scholars. Many readers might disagree with me and feel that at least one or both of my statements are untrue. I am going to sidestep that line of analysis with the observation that what is critical here is not the reality so much as its perception.
The critics of academic programs contend that our academic scholars appear to be writing largely for each other in the academic community. Let there be no question that the academicians have the right to do so, if they so wish.
I know I have made several loaded statements here. Let me come at them somewhat tangentially.
Having spent a lifetime in academia, though in a somewhat esoteric area of biological sciences, I find that established scholars in any field produce three very different kind of writing on their own research:
1. First they write for the very few fellow scholars that work in the same exact narrow specialty of research. This kind of work is published in rigorously peer-reviewed journals, and is of interest to only a handful – ranging from perhaps fewer than a hundred to twice as many across the globe. Those few will pore over the details of the techniques, results and inferences with microscopic precision and exactitude, and parse such matters with passion.
2. Then, sometimes scholars give lectures or write for a larger audience of academicians than the few who are in their subspecialty. For example, one may write a review article or lecture to a larger audience of academicians that is drawn from the broad spectrum of scholars who may not be involved in the nuts and bolts of a particular research topic. Here the scientists will present many of their findings and the possible caveats in interpretation, but leave out the technical intricacies unless challenged.
3. It takes a special scientist and a very different mindset to summarize one's research along with its related strands for an audience of educated lay people as one might find in the readers of Scientific American. The emphasis is not on technical detail, not even on the fine nuances of the results, but on the larger interpretation and its meaning for society. The language and style are meant to be intelligible to the broadly educated lay person.
It seems to me that our Sikh academicians are still in the stage where they largely prefer the first category of communication, with limited forays into the second. The third category is seemingly neglected. This, too, is their right and possibly results from their limited experience and relative youth, but it should not be ignored. It needs to be augmented and cultivated.
The Public Intellectual
Rare is the person from the first category that I listed above who can span the gap and present his esoteric research to the average educated reader so that it makes sense. When one can and does, society dubs him or her a public intellectual.
How do we define public intellectuals? It is those who, in addition to distinction in their own field, show an ability to stitch together and communicate widely divergent but related ideas.
Thus public intellectuals influence the nature, quality and diversity of public debate.
Public intellectuals are not derided for writing for the layman. They are not accused of cheapening their specialty, but are honored for broadening the reach of their ideas and promoting what often amounts to a national conversation in an area of wider interest.
Among the few that have earned the honor, I list Carl Sagan, James Watson and Francis Crick, Stephen Hawking, even Bertrand Russell, Margaret Meade, Linus Pauling, Noam Chomsky, Milton Friedman, Konrad Lorenz, Teilhard de Chardin, Paul Tillich, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and George Will. They are in the tradition of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and Spinoza, even Will Durant and S. Radhakrishnan. George Bush might lack such a frame of mind, but Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seem to have the makings of one. Of course, there are many, many more. Public intellectuals are more, much more, than policy womks.
Sikhs, too, have produced some – Bhai Vir Singh, Puran Singh, Kapur Singh, Saran Singh and Jaswant Singh Neki come to mind – largely non-academics, but never non-intellectual; in fact, they are public intellectuals. Bhai Gurdas may have been the first Sikh – not a Guru – that I would honor with the title. Perhaps to the non-religious mind, religious prophets – Buddha, Nanak, Jesus and their kind – they, too, appear as public intellectuals.
Public intellectuals change the culture and often redirect public conversation, perceptions and reality. As one living example, if President Obama has just been awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace, it is not for having a record of achievement. He has not been long enough in the public eye or in office to have achieved much quite yet, but it is for advancing a new vision and starting a new initiative with a collaborative international focus and purpose. And that deserves to be recognized and noted. It is important to humanity.
Something like this is what I expect the scholars of Sikh studies to strive for. This would be a sure-fire way to reduce the tension between them and the Sikh community. It would also carry our people forward into the wider world of ideas and intellect. Heaven knows we need some such public intellectuals. Every progressive society produces some.
It seems that many of our Sikh scholars have conducted challenging research in early Sikh history and in the formation of the Sikh scripture. Let it also be said that undoubtedly these topics are germane, and the research efforts laudable. The esoteric details of their research lie beyond my mandate and my bailiwick. That is not at all my issue today.
Nevertheless, in a community that has existed in this country for over a century, matters arise that impact our existence and survival every day. I offer you two examples: the "Right to Turban" case in France, as well as our ability to serve in the U.S. armed services as recognizable Sikhs.
In addition there have been numerous cases of hate and bias crimes – some violent, many that are examples of simple harassment – particularly in post-9/11 America.
Who should speak for Sikhs in these matters or when "expert witnesses" are needed in the courts? When a few years ago in public space, Professor Spellman raised doubt on the Sikh requirements of long unshorn hair and turbans, who should have joined the discussion on behalf of the Sikhs?
Yet, the existing Sikh studies programs have, for a variety of insufficient reasons, continued to largely neglect the most cataclysmic historical events of the 20th century from the Sikh point of view — the events of 1947 that displaced more than a million Sikhs and made dispossessed refugees of them, and 1984 with the decade following it that brought India to the brink of fragmentation and most Sikhs to the point of questioning their identity as Indians. And, automatically, the link between those two events as well.
I know there have been some small forays into these matters by Sikh academicians in North America, but the efforts are few and largely feeble considering the impact of these matters on Sikh psyche. Early Sikh tradition speaks of monumental courage against overwhelming odds. I would ask our Sikh scholars to take courage from that early history and from Sikh tradition.
There are burning issues that affect Sikhs every day and everywhere and can be best and most productively handled by one or more of the existing academic programs. I am pointing to the events of 1947, 1984 and matters post 9/11.
I propose a Sikh Research & Documentation Center affiliated with a University.
Our oral history needs to be preserved, like the Jews have being doing with theirs. Let us collaborate with museums to establish appropriate exhibits, and with universities to preserve the historical record – oral history, recordings, relics, visual artifacts, correspondence, reports and personal recollections.
And then ensure that the material is available to researchers of any bent – particularly to those who deny that such atrocities ever occurred.
Having come from many years in an academic, research oriented environment myself, I do understand full well that scholars have their own specialized areas of interest and do not easily or comfortably step out into fields that are only at the periphery of their radar.
I would think it obligatory for scholars of Sikhism to undertake the task of speaking for Sikh practices. Studying a people is best done by immersion a la Margaret Mead and the Samoans. It is not well done from afar and if one is disconnected from the community. I say this fully cognizant of the need to retain objectivity that requires some distance from the subjects of study.
If scholars in Sikh studies are to write about Sikhs and Sikhism, they need to keep their finger on the pulse of the community. If they do not, their scholarship loses relevance, while the burden falls unnecessarily on the amateurs in the community to respond to contemporary issues. This results in many a false step and many contradictory voices that hurt rather than help us.
I fully recognize that academicians usually plough very narrow well-defined areas of specialty that they define as their limited sphere of activity; most are then loath to step outside their narrow jurisdiction.
We also now have a Sikh scholar whose specialty lies in “Ethnic Studies” with a focus on the Sikh communities in North America. Perhaps he would take the lead in building bridges with the community. But at this time one must admit that such bridges either do not exist or are hopelessly frayed.
All academic institutions value teaching, research and community service in their faculty. This third leg of the stool is vital to the stool; else it is headed for a crash.
Illustrate by a personal note here.
Little over a month ago I retired from academia. The university then approved my appointment as professor emeritus. At my university, this is an honor, not a title that every retiring academician is automatically entitled to. In approving my appointment, New York University considered my decades-long record of academic teaching, research and administrative service, but it also took formal note of my writings and lectures on Sikhs and Sikhism, as indicative of broader community service — activities obviously well outside my professional responsibilities..
Besides the idea of public intellectuals and a wider research focus, I offer a couple of suggestions that could benefit us all – scholars and lay Sikhs alike:
A. Research Support: We now have several scholars in place in academic chairs endowed by generous benefactors. That's great. But, in order to succeed, they will need ongoing financial support for research – for research assistants, travel, publication costs, research expenses, development of teaching programs and conferences, etc.
I would recommend that we evolve a system somewhat like the one that is followed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation NSF) that support much of the biomedical research in this country. Investigators submit grant applications requesting financial support. Sometimes investigators are solicited by the NIH or the NSF to apply on a particular topic, such as basic research in AIDS, cancer or diabetes. Other times investigators submit unsolicited grant applications in topics that interest them.
Applications are reviewed by specially constructed panels of scholars. If approved for funding, the budget and the period (years) of support are negotiated. Investigators submit a progress report every year and renewal depends on a satisfactory report.
This way, it does not matter where the scientist was trained or where he is based; only whether his project, methodology, and track record merit support.
Many other private foundations follow similar models to identify and support research. Clearly, the supporting foundation then controls the topic, purpose and the direction of research; thus accountability and transparency are assured. After all, these are tax dollars.
B. Research Fellowships: Remember Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense? What is he doing now? He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, a conservative think-tank, at Stanford University. He may lack the academic credentials for a professorial appointment, but his experience puts him in a unique position to conduct research, write papers and books, and lead seminars and symposia on matters in which he has distinctive experience. (We can all disagree on the quality of his experience.) Similarly, Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, joined Columbia University in fall 2009 as a global research scholar.
This is how non-academic lay voices and academicians interact with and influence each other. Then these two do not stay isolated from each other; instead, by their interaction they enrich each other and the society.
It is important that academic and lay voices do not remain secluded from each other. This approach is exactly what we Sikhs also needto remember when we pursue Sikh studies programs
Is there any reason why we cannot create such a mechanism with greater communityinvolvement?
C. Outreach & Community Development Programs: Whether they are undertaken in gurdwaras or in a university campus, such programs are vital. They are like “continuing education” that is almost universally mandated for people in many professions — be it medicine, dentistry, nursing, law or engineering. The pursuit of Sikhi also mandates such activity, and who but our scholars should initiate and lead such bridge-building educational activity.
I make this recommendation with some trepidation; I know the dysfunctional state of many of our gurdwaras. But there is now a new generation of Sikhs largely brought up outside India. They are not looking to an unfiltered transfer of the culture and modus operandi of our Punjabi institutions into our existence here.
It seems to me self evident that Sikhi must speak to me in my complex contemporary life today as did to countless Sikhs three to five centuries ago. Otherwise, it will appear fossilized and no longer remain a way of life for a living people. It will then rightly belong in a museum as relics do. Certainly, at a minimum, it will no longer remain connected to our lives here and now and will be neither universal nor eternal.
Today our lives present us many dilemmas – ranging from interfaith issues that often weigh heavily on us, delicate questions of bioethics such as birth control, abortion and cloning of organs or organisms, to crucial matters on the morality of violence and war. The aftermath of 9/11 still continues to demand our attention.
Who but our scholars in Sikh studies programs should help us navigate our way through the maze of often mind boggling complexities that occupy us today. I look to these scholars in Sikh studies not to provide us cut and dried answers as in a catechism or an easy swallowed pill but to work with us in an ongoing conversation.
My idea here is to explore the ways our trained scholars may carry the community forward with them in their journey. The Sikhs are a living community. Our scholars and our community need to work with each other, not at cross-purposes. Working against each other without a sympathetic understanding of the other is not good for either and will end up destroying both. The blame game as has often been played is not productive.
“Interpretation and application lie at the core of even what constitutes pure research” is how Israel Gelfand, a giant of 20th century mathematics put it. And exploring this idea in relationship to Sikh Studies is how I interpret my charge today.
Life gives us many examples where lay voices and experts mix to the benefit of both. A recent example is William Safire, a man who never finished college, but became a widely respected language maven – an expert on how American English continues to grow and change through usage. Scholars routinely took him to task for his analytical shortcomings, the average readers perhaps found him unnecessarily and snobbishly stern in nitpicking our everyday errors. He embraced both sides of the spectrum and invited both to contribute and converse. He was at the frontlines of building bridges between the scholars and the users of American English.
When I look at the horrendous record of 1947 and 1984 and, on a lesser scale, our post 9/11 reality, I see that to establish a Research & Documentation Center is a measure of moving forward. These events have shaped us. To understand their impact we need to acknowledge them and face them. And then we can carry forward with us the lessons learned.
Then there is the factoid that we did not have the right to vote in this country until 1946. And now we have established half a dozen university level academic programs of Sikh studies. When I place these nuggets of history alongside each other, my optimism in our new homeland knows no bounds.
We continue to make history every day, whether or not we like the history that we make. Years from now, historians will reconstruct history from what we say and do today.
*Professor Emeritus, Basic Sciences, New York University