Neelkanth Chhaya on the Systematisation of Education and the Commodification of Architecture

“This university was conceived as an adventure.”

Every once in a while, somebody delivers a speech that magically transports one across this ocean of humanity, through the prism of one’s personal experiences. Prof Neelkanth Chhaya’s lecture at Ahmedabad’s CEPT University in February, 2015, was such a speech. Drawing upon a web of observations, his speech was a highly relevant commentary on the decline of the educator’s role, the corporatisation of education, the systematisation of life, and the commodification evidenced in today’s architecture.

Ivan Illich talks about a ‘society that has made people without moorings’, in his essay Philosophy, Artefacts and Friendship. Chhaya evinces the teacher’s role in bringing out that ‘inner compass’ of the student that such a society renders dormant, saying,

… in our young people, there is a hunger for the real. There is a hunger for something beyond selfish action. Something which is borne out of a caring for everything… Institutions and the world around can help either to kindle that spark or to extinguish it. And the question is, what are we doing now, with the systematisation of life that we see everywhere? […] the only direction that society shows him is of profit, no other direction. And so this young person is hungry.

[…] The teacher… cheats and seduces the student into entering that world of adventure… So the teacher is an agent of transformation. He is not alone because he himself constantly has to be transformed. And his transformation occurs amongst the group of teachers, in the community of teachers, in the community of thinkers, in the community outside.

The buffeting of the world must transform every day the teacher. So that the teacher is never able to fit into systems. Never.

This is a cogent iteration, especially in light of the bureaucratic interventions in educational models world-over that overburden teachers, reduce them to administrative roles and cut off their professional opportunities. This takes away all community-forming possibilities, between teacher-teacher and teacher-students alike, as well as between the teacher and the outside community. Such systems building upon a ‘business model’ are described by the American linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, in his interview about the decline of the great American University system:

Another technique of indoctrination is to cut back faculty-student contact: large classes, temporary teachers who are overburdened, who can barely survive on an adjunct salary. And since you don’t have any job security you can’t build up a career, you can’t move on and get more. These are all techniques of discipline, indoctrination, and control. And it’s very similar to what you’d expect in a factory, where factory workers have to be disciplined, to be obedient; they’re not supposed to play a role in, say, organizing production or determining how the workplace functions—that’s the job of management. This is now carried over to the universities.

A system having ‘a large increase in layers of administration and bureaucracy’ is, according to Chomsky, a way to control people (described by Benjamin Ginsberg in the book The Fall of the Faculty). As Universities evolve in scale to meet the rising market demands and remain relevant in the urban set-up, the nature of this transition in scale, and what one loses or gains in the process, becomes an important issue in discourse. It is striking to note that the declining University systems of developed countries (according to Chomsky) continue to be employed in India, based on a model of efficiency. This is as evident today in our emerging higher education models, as it is in the government’s misguided advocacy for Smart Cities based on a skewed Shanghai-esque model of development. As Neelkanth Chhaya says,

The whole capitalistic system, and the whole systematisation of global economies, of global education systems – is a very very pessimistic approach. To make systems that manage through rewards and punishment – that scatter the time and leave no time for aimless reflection.

Paul Virilio said that speed is the ‘most important product of contemporary culture’. If architecture is to be a ‘defense against the terror of time’, as philosopher Karsten Harries says, one must certainly believe that architectural education is also to be a defense against this ‘terror of time’, with an emphasis not on churning out professionals, but on cultivating presence over mindless productivity, on problem finding over problem solving. For, as Chhaya adds,

They (the students) are not hungry to find out how to do things, but why or what. What kind of society do we build? [To use Illich’s term,] ‘Ascesis’ (as in ascetism) is the space for reflection, of going back inwards, leaving everything. That space has to be protected for education to be really something that frees. So that it becomes questions, not methods.

[…] The pessimistic view (of capitalism) reduces and flattens mankind into automatons in the system. Again, Illich: ‘The things today with decisively new consequences are systems… No one can easily break the bonds forged by years of television absorption and curricular education that have turned eyes and ears into systemic components. No longer open. No longer surprised. No longer adventurous.’

Don’t Go Back to School, Kio Stark (2013)


An educational model that aims to free the personality of the student must be open-ended enough to cultivate ‘a learning to look upon the word meaningfully’. This would entail encouraging student initiatives in the cultural life of the school, and enrolling student participation in its formal decision making. For artistic education is not restricted to the classroom. Noam Chomsky is quick to caution, however, about romanticizing the past whenever changes present themselves,

First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.

If such a model of participation were absent, Chomsky would be accurate when he comments that the ‘business model of efficiency’ of education does not have education as its goal and is, in fact, ‘harmful’. Chhaya draws our attention to an image of what a school should be, as

The kind of society that is made out of a community of human beings in solidarity – which can take chances to welcome the unpredictable… (because) the unpredictable is the very source of being human. That change which I cannot foresee, I can never manage… many years ago, they started calling libraries Knowledge Management Systems. And I thought, what utter rubbish! Knowledge should explode! It should never be possible to manage knowledge.

Anton Ehrenzweig's chart for creative scanning in The Hidden Order of Art (1973)

Anton Ehrenzweig’s chart for creative scanning in The Hidden Order of Art (1973)

Any system that expands in scale will have to evolve to incorporate structural changes. The danger of losing a sense of community in such a process (for isn’t education about the fluidity of ideas between individuals?) is evident. How this sense is maintained, despite expansion of scale, truly expresses the strength of the leadership. Does a system based on a top-down model allow for this ‘open-ended process’ that Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa describes as one where ‘living and working is more a matter of seeing your way through from one impulse to the next, maintaining your basic sense of uncertainty and curiosity… that enables you to move in any direction.’ This applies as much for the students as for the educators, who must have the freedom to formulate curricula.

Chhaya adds,

I daresay, this university was conceived as an adventure. Which had no understanding of what education is. It had only a great hunger for learning, and for finding out. It knew nothing about what is education. When the school started, there was not one teacher with any qualification at all. There was not one classroom which made sense.

[…] Today education has become a sort of business, in the late capitalistic period. Where education is also a commodity, which has to be attractively packaged, which you have to be willing to pay for, in order that you will get paid.

Such a process is exemplified by the standardised Relative Grading Systems adopted by Universities world-over, for the purpose of communicating during applications where a student stands in relation to his peers. A classroom experiment conducted in 2005, by the Dept of Economics of Appalachian State University, found that ‘students respond to incentives and the stronger incentives arising from competition can motivate improved student performance, especially among high performing students. But in the wrong setting, competition may inject negative aspects to the learning process.’ Which brings us once again to the fundamental questions about why we grade — is it to enable students to understand where they stand with respect to the skill set/knowledge that they should aspire to grasp, or is it to enable other parties to quantify where a student stands with respect to his peers? How does this fundamentally alter the experience of learning, when inward competition is replaced by outward competition? Is replacing always the option?

While one would be foolish to not acknowledge that systems have several advantages in a fast-paced world, it is important to question how the fundamental experience of learning is altered in the process. And how the spirit of communication, at the very human level, remains intact despite such expansions in scale. Systems pose a danger only when they start replacing the culture of interaction. In a TED-featured article about the best educational practices world-over, the author says,

In the most successful education cultures in the world, it is the system that is responsible for the success of the student, says (Andreas) Schleicher — not solely the parent, not solely the student, not solely the teacher. The culture creates the system.

Which brings us to the question: what happens in the case that the system creates the culture?


The commodification of education parallels that of the architectural profession at large. Alluding to our culture’s obsession with novelty and imagery, Neelkanth Chhaya quotes Illich again,

With amazing speed, the hardware and the software of the 1980’s bulldozed the material milieu that had been generated by human action, and replaced it with a mostly technogenic, increasingly virtual, standard environment.’ He calls it, algorithmic reductionism… ‘The aim to make life always better has crippled the search for the appropriate, the proportionate, the harmonious, or simply good life.’ Because every day you have to come up with a new architecture. Because otherwise you will not stand in the market. Because architecture has become a commodity which is in magazines and posters, (which is) branded.

Architecture, if we go by that paradigm of consumption, will become a commodity. It has already become one, to some extent. But not necessarily so for everyone. There are courageous or wild or mad architects still making non-commodity architecture… The world thinks that they don’t know how to do it… (I call this) the Apple-isation of form (or the ‘funky cool syndrome’). Look at Apple products. Each one is packaged so beautifully that even if you don’t need it, you salivate and you want it. That shutting down of all the ability to discriminate between ‘what I will use’ and ‘what I will flaunt’. This is what happens with architecture as well. Because the magazines will promote, and you will think that, ‘I have to become like that’. But will you have to become like that? This is the question that I am putting before you. In your next five years, your next ten years, before practice is established – Can you be that wild mad person? Till it becomes a habit to not accept the paradigm of late capitalism.

He concludes in a manner that resonates with recent critical directions undertaken by Christopher Alexander into the the timeless way of building, by Nikos Salingaros in his ‘unified architectural theory’ imploring us to return to knowledge bases that have evolved over many years only to be destroyed in a flash as ‘outdated’, and by Juhani Pallasmaa in his book critiquing the image-centric trends in the profession. Calling for a re-visit to these themes, Chhaya says,

Architecture has a gravitas. I’m talking about the significance in cultures, that architecture holds. And that gravitas will be replaced by self indulgent gratification, if we are not careful. Obsolescence will be built in. Buildings will be made to last for 100 years, as the structural codes demand, but they will be used for ten years and then demolished. The timeless will become a meaningless jingle.

So, in a sense, if we are serious about architecture, we will look at scale. We will look at the sense of wonder. Wonder is not simply about ‘going gaga’. Wonder is: becoming speechless.


Christopher Alexander’s ‘Mirror of Self Test’ in The Nature of Order (2004).

In 1988, 70% of architecture students ‘liked’ the Mario Botta house more but 65% said the house on the left had more ‘life’ when the question was changed from ‘which one do you like?’ to ‘which one is more like your Self?’ The respondents’ stance therefore changed from purely Intellectual to Experiential. This process of changing one’s ‘way of seeing’ from the Intellectual to the Experiential, is described by Alexander as a demanding one, requiring reflection so one can look beyond the influences of media-driven and popular biases.

 The full transcript of the lecture is available here

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Niharika Sanyal

1 Comment


This particular extract surmises Neelkanth’s thoughts on the issue between complexity and simplicity, and how one should begin to approach any creative task:

Start, as if you knew Nothing.
Take full ownership:

“He was a very complex human being and a very simple one at that. So we’ll talk as if he is thinking and as if I am thinking. And maybe something will start happening together. He had some favourite authors. And I will quote very freely from them, especially Dag Hammarskjold, who was the Secretary General of the UN during the peak of the Cold War, who wrote a book called Markings. He opened it in the most strained of times. That was his source of strength. What Hammarskjold wrote could almost describe Varkey at times. Here’s a passage: ‘To be nothing in the self effacement of humility, yet for the sake of the task, to embody its whole weight and importance in your caring as the one who has been called to undertake it. To give to people works, poetry, art, what the self can contribute and to take simply and freely what belongs to it by reason of identity. Praise and blame, the winds of success and adversity, blow over such a life without leaving a trace or upsetting its balance.”


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