Can rhetoric change reality?

Published: June 12, 2011
The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History

The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History

Deirdre N McCloskey is an economic historian and a sociologist and her main argument is that words — or rhetoric as she calls it — are the most powerful agent of social change. In a book entitled Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010), she argues that the economic growth of the last 400 years cannot be explained by variables like foreign trade, investment, property rights, exploitation of workers, imperialism, genetics and so on. These are, to be sure, contributing factors but the real agent of change was the idea that business, enterprise and innovation are respectable. Let us not forget that even in Jane Austen’s novels, ownership of land is prestigious whereas making your money through business (or ‘trade’ as it was contemptuously called) was not. The ‘rhetoric’ — world view, narrative, discourse — around business changed and a new dignity was conferred on factory owners, captains of industry, importers and others. And nowadays, business-oriented countries, especially the United States, venerate millionaires. Indeed, the American dream is to be a millionaire and this makes most Americans indifferent to the welfare state and the plight of the poor within their society.

Perhaps this is what happened to the British by around the middle of the nineteenth century when they started believing in ‘social Darwinism’ and their own superiority. The new superior white man, unlike the ‘nabob’ of the East India Company, could hardly stoop to take bribes. Thus by the end of the empire, viceroys and governors could not afford to live a lordly life on pensions.

This concept can also be explained to explain why the world’s top universities attract and retain some of the best brains in the world. They do not pay as much as the corporate sector nor do they give the kind of power which the highest state jobs give. Yet there are always some brilliant young people who leave other better paying jobs to enter academia. They know that they will have to complete their doctorates (another four years); hunt for a job and go on to do post-doctoral research and even then, their foothold in a good university will be precarious. To make it stronger, they will have to publish. Unlike other jobs, where things are mostly of a routine nature, a good publication must have some originality. If they do not publish in good journals, they will lose their job, lose face and then be forced to do humdrum teaching in second-rate teaching universities, university colleges or leave the academy altogether.

So what attracts the best and the brightest to Ivy League universities, Oxbridge or top European universities? In my view, besides the possibility of pursuing one’s research interests, it is also the prestige attached to such institutions. Over centuries, they have acquired a ‘rhetoric’ which makes a person feel good when he or she is on the faculty of such seats of learning. In countries where, for complex historical reasons, this ‘rhetoric’ is not there, universities cannot attract the best minds. In colonial India, for instance, the rhetoric of excellence was associated with the Indian civil service so it attracted the best minds which could have otherwise chosen the academic life. This explains the stunted growth of our universities and possibly why we produced so few original ideas.

In India, it appears to me that this rhetoric of excellence and intellectual brilliance is becoming associated with the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and some central universities like the Jawaharlal Nehru University. They have begun to attract brilliant minds. In Pakistan, too, a change is in the offing. It appears that the raised salaries of university faculty are attracting people who would otherwise go into the World Bank, UNO, NGOs and think tanks. And once intelligent people join universities in large numbers, a new rhetoric of excellence will be created. In my view, we can hasten this by creating new research universities on the model of the IITs.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 12th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Moeed
    Jun 12, 2011 - 6:56AM

    I think its less rhetoric, and more personal autonomy and freedom that result in individuals flourishing as they wish. We can go back to New World exploration by the Spanish and Portuguese. The sailors and adventurers were coming up wth new expeditions, and then begging the govts to invest more so that they can find more gold, trade, slaves, plant sugar, etc in far flung areas. Compare this to Chinese lack of interest in encouraging individuals in sailing. Confuscioanism, central govt, and lack of interest in exploration disrupted their sailing adventuresRecommend

  • sumeet
    Jun 12, 2011 - 9:16AM

    you pakistani people shower praise upon IIT,IIM.but in india,we have paranoid minister like jairam ramesh who criticized IIT,IIM faculty members for not being of world class standard.the HRD minister kapil sibal also joined him denouncing these institutions.the research culture is not present in education system in south asia.we still inherit the age old colonial education system of british which created only slave minds.Recommend

  • Rakib
    Jun 12, 2011 - 7:32PM


    A critic is a well wisher too. Jairam Ramesh passed out from IIT-Bombay in 1975 before he went on to MIT. He is a winner of Distinguished Alumnus Award of IIT. He critiques his alma mater. He knows what he is talking about. If you too have a close understanding of IIT,do please join issue with him. Indian universities that can not take criticism from their own alumni will stop growing.Recommend

  • Ravi
    Jun 12, 2011 - 8:13PM


    As far as research based study is considered it cant be undertaken unless the faculty is also par excellence.
    So dont be foolish what ever jairam said is absolutely right.
    He just said that IIT’s are good because they attract simply the best minds in the country, but can you say the same for the IIT’s faculty. I bet you can if only you are too ignorant.
    IIT’s faculty was never world class and added to that the SC/ST reservation in appointment of faculty has started to eat into the already crippled standards of IIT faculty.
    Jai ram has hinted us the clear alarming situation in future. Recommend

  • Leila Rage
    Jun 12, 2011 - 11:11PM

    I think its not just the prestige associated with these popular foregn universities. It is also the fact that it enables people to study a far greater and richer range of subjects than that which is offered in Pakistan. For instance, the best colleges in Pakistan are well known for Medicine (for example Agha Khan University in Karachi) and Business Studies (LUMS in Lahore). No prestigious Pakistani college offers subjects such Classics and Ancient History (of the world, not just limited to the Indo-Pak history that we are made to learn from grade 1 till university), Mythology and Folklore, Creative Writing, Film Studies, Criminology, Latin, Philosophy or anyything innnovative and interesting. Recommend

  • sumeet
    Jun 12, 2011 - 11:12PM

    @rakib,brother i know about jairam ramesh’s background.all i am saying is that instead of demoralising the faculty,he should have given constructive idea about in which fields we need to improve orwhat can be done to make the faculty more efficient and create intrest among students to carryout reaserch work.Recommend

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