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 If they do not publish in good journals, they will lose their job, lose face and then be forced to do humdrum teaching in second-rate teaching universities, university colleges or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.