The American Question: Ambedkar, Columbia University, and the “Spirit of Rebellion”

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Scott R. Stroud


The education of Bhimrao Ambedkar is a vital part of his complex story. His experience at institutions like Columbia University with its progressive cast of academics helped him see how scholarship and activism can matter in the battle against caste oppression. His thought—and life—would have been radically different had he exclusively attended British institutions of higher education. But how did he end up in America, the imperfect land of freedom and democracy? Why did he choose Columbia University when so many other Indian students chose educational institutions in the British Empire? This study examines the question of Ambedkar’s education and proposes some answers to these questions by starting with his relationship to an important early sponsor, the Gaekwad of Baroda. By tracing the engagement of Sayajirao Gaekwad III with the West, we can see the connections this ruler felt between Columbia University, America, and freedom. By placing the Gaekwad’s story next to Ambedkar’s—and alongside Ambedkar’s nuanced lifelong engagement with one of his most prominent professors, John Dewey—we can reveal new connections between the American experience and what Ambedkar called “a spirit of rebelliousness.” Both Ambedkar and the Gaekwad wanted an education that enshrined the right sort of rebellious freedom from oppressive external authority. This intelligent mediation of education resides in the unstable middle ground between a conservative complacency with a tradition’s customs and a radical upturning of all that is through revolution. Ambedkar, like his pragmatist teacher John Dewey, wanted a sense of education that was reflective and reconstructive.

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How to Cite
Stroud, S. (2024). The American Question: Ambedkar, Columbia University, and the “Spirit of Rebellion”. CASTE A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, 5(2), 270–286.
Selected papers from the Sixth International Conference on the Unfinished Legacy of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar