Journey to the East

Last summer, I was at lunch at a Mumbai restaurant when the host asked me whether I can help in facilitating international partnerships for an educational institution he has been planning to set up. I often get requested this, and I almost always say no, knowing that the private Indian institutions are often too immature in their approach and opportunistic in their intention for meaningful partnerships to work. But this conversation was different: This was a serious social organisation with a purpose, and I wanted to seriously explore it. So, I presented my views, that there is very little to be gained by looking to collaborate with a Western institution - as they rarely understand the ground realities of India and are all too opportunistic and commercially driven - and rather, the approach should be to explore meaningful partnerships with Chinese institutions. 

It was a difficult argument to pursue. The arguments about the limitations of the Western model of education - and the implicit value system that it comes bundled with - are quite well-known in India. Indian nationalists have iterated them for over a century, and these have found a new prominence in the current ascendancy of the Hindu Nationalist politics. However, it is important to distinguish my line of argument - culturalist in nature but not nativist - from the nativism of the popular kind. I was arguing about common values, common traditions and similarity of world-views, but not that we need to create a 'pure' form of Indian education, but the choices are really binary. In the current Indian imagination, one speaks about international education or they don't; there is no way of discussing an Asian education.

My host was gracious and pointed out that India and China are not the best of friends and there is significant resentment towards China that one has to take cognizance of. But he surprised me by saying that the most important reason for this is trade imbalance - "China sells us a lot of things but we can't manage to sell to them" - and an important political group, Swadeshi Jagran Manch or National Revival Forum, is implacably opposed to anything Chinese. The conversation ended well, however, as he apparently bought my argument that this was so because Indians did not know much about China and we did not bother to educate them. We agreed to return to this conversation when the right time comes.

This is an argument I wish to return to now, as I look beyond my Educational Technology work. However, as I look at this again, I know the economic rationale is really weakest part of the argument. Global economy being as it is, India and China can be seen as fighting to scrape the bottom of the barrel of the global value chains and they might not have much to offer one another. On the basis of pure economic logic, both Indian and Chinese institutions should be keen on drawing on Western knowledge and connections, the market for their products and services. However, this economic logic may not hold exclusive power over educational agendas as it used to do at the time of expansive globalisation; instead, at this current moment of nationalist self-discovery, there may be more to the educational conversation than engineering for national competitive advantage.

However, another future is possible and the quest for an educational model shouldn't necessarily start by treating the current economic architecture as eternal and universal. The alternative idea is the quest for leadership, not in the narrow zero-sum sense of lording over other people, but as the ability to search for a better, more ethical way of life and enabling a more harmonious society. There is no lord and master in this image, but freedom of individuals and commitment of citizens, a model inherent in the post-colonial nationalist imaginary. India did not become independent to be perpetually subservient to global financial interests, and since this has indeed come to pass, it is worthwhile to reimagine everything, education included, to explore how to find another way. And, if this is indeed the search, China and India have a lot to offer one another.

It's not easy, of course. India's educational structures were rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century to serve the needs of the colonial state.  The higher education system, bestowed on India at the time, came with the sole instrumental aim of securing civil service. And, this was not, as it was portrayed to be, a benign creative process, but rather one of revolutionary destruction, of wiping out India's indigenous systems of education and stripping out the functions of education that enable individual freedom and democracy. An important strand of Indian nationalist thinking related to education from the very start, but the demand for fairness in government jobs, rather than an inclusive system of education consistent with India's values and history, was always the core of India's middle-class led struggle for Indian independence. There was no University of Peaking or May the 4th movement in India's quest, and the Indian nationalists did not have the reservoir of neo-Confucian faith on education to draw from.

More importantly, no one said in 1947 - "now that we made India, let's make Indians" - like in Italy. Rather, India was imagined to be an always existing, a natural polity, requiring economic resurgence but no national rejuvenation at a grand scale. Rather, the incoming Indian administration chose to maintain the Civil service as it is, and not to challenge the economic and educational structures of the society. The question of education, a confusing morass tangled with the question of language, was left under the prerogatives of the states, pulled into different directions under the local compulsions and parochial concerns. With the gradual fragmentation of polity over time, the possibility of a national education project faded out.

With this history, economic liberalisation had only made education more instrumental and less ambitious. It reaffirmed India's two-tier educational structure, a hangover from the colonial era, and hitched its ambition to the globalisation wagon. It precluded the leadership ambition, that ideal of finding a uniquely Indian way of life, and permanently consigned most Indians to a permanently precarious life at the bottom of the global value chain, without hope of emergence or route of escape.

This is the context, then, against which the current nativist ideas emerged. The chasm between Indian way of life, with all its complex multi-tiered family allegiance, ingrained animistic religiosity, cycles of festivals and prayers, and an artificially constructed education system, suspended in mid-space without the support of European rationality or materiality, is all too great to answer the existential dissonance that arose at the fault-lines of globalisation. And, indeed, before long, the faulty assumptions of perpetual crumb-throwing stood exposed. As the 'second machine age' unfolded, India, not at the table making agenda, has little power to shape it to its benefit.

Here is where the conversation about China is helpful. China was different from India in the sense that the colonialism never fully subverted its cultural institutions. Despite the social upheavals of the cultural revolution, its educational system followed its path not disconnected from its culture and people. It was more comfortable with its Asian identity, and when the economic liberalisation came, could approach the world to seek out a path and a position for itself. It became the manufacturing hub of the world, but did not stop at being the world's workshop: Its 21st-century ambition bestrode the creation of 'made in China' brand. It did manage to find its place in the global technology top table, shaping automation and artificial intelligence agenda.

But, again, it's more than the economic advantage that's on offer here. China offers a method, through the discovery of India's Asianness, to confront the colonial legacy and to find a path to making Indians. The nativism of Hindu nationalists is narrowly based on the colonial definition of India, and that of Hinduism itself, a scriptural, Brahminical version that is both politically untenable and historically inaccurate. In its place, looking at the world through the prism of Asianness could offer a different, peaceful and accommodative, understanding of Indianness. It would put India in the global continuum of Buddhism and offer a different history of peaceful coexistence at the heart of Asia. The rules of war and peace between India and China were indeed different from the territorial ideas of Grotius and others, and it will allow for an opportunity to rediscover those principles. 



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