What's wrong with Indian education? Responses to a misdiagnosis

The most creative university in India today is what folks refer to as 'WhatsApp university'. In a country of young people hungry for knowledge, the spontaneous beast of social media has truly been tamed into organised dissemination of knowledge. It's mostly propaganda, but it will be a mistake to consider it trivial: Neatly produced and widely distributed, its messages - often videos - are closely read and widely watched. They are folksy but often take on weighty subjects - and impact how millions of people think.

However, like most Babus, I tend to ignore its incessant intrusion - all those forwarded messages, videos, raging debates on local groups - and treat them as spam or worse. Until, of course, I reached that inescapable moment when misinformation came knocking at my own door, upending the work I do and claiming the attention of people I care about.

Hence, this post.

What ails Indian Education?

These are my responses to a recent well-produced WhatsApp video that lay out the case for reforming Indian education. Notwithstanding the patriotic wave that's sweeping India, this presentation was remarkably frank about the shortcomings of Indian education. It lamented how India, an once-great intellectual centre of the world, a land of original thought and culture, has now become a net receiver of ideas, unable to think for itself. I agree with many of its conclusions but not its diagnosis - and hence, I am outlining my take on how Indian education may have come to this and how we may get out of here.

In the video I refer to, India's 'loss of self' comes from being under the influence of English education. The pivot was India's Macaulay Moment, stemming from the Minutes on Education of 1835 associated with Thomas Babington Macaulay, which supposedly transformed the Indian education system into a colonial caricature and made Indians servile, unable to think for themselves. Thereafter, India became a nation that equates intelligence with fluency in English, permanently condemned to serve but never lead.

This message is indeed simple and there are elements of truth in it. Making clerks out of Indians was indeed the objective of the East Company administration, though Macaulay, who is usually given an undeserved role in terms of impact, aspired for more. The higher education system conceived by the Colonial rulers was narrowly focused - its job was to prepare people for government jobs - and it left out everything else. Because these rulers saw India as a divided society with Muslims, Hindus and Anglo-Indians each vying for influence, they left out moral education altogether (much to the annoyance of the missionaries). Instead of God, the formal curriculum sought to establish an elaborate high culture where Shakespeare, Milton and Burke became canonised, at the expense of Kalidasa, Vasa, Kabir and Tukaram (and Rumi and Ferdowsi, who were as much part of Indian high culture upto that point).
But, at the same time, there is much that is mistaken in this simplistic view. Macaulay might have presented the question of Indian education as a straightforward choice between English and Sanskrit/ Arabic, but he was ill-informed and mistaken. For all his rhetorical flourishes, he knew little of India's history and had little India experience. Not only did he underestimate the depth and extent of Sanskrit and Arabic literature (a single shelf of an European's library, he thought) but also he was apparently ignorant about the reach and depth of education in vernacular. His own colleagues were actively pursuing setting up a vernacular-based education system and this would continue undisturbed by the Macaulay's moment. Also, this was not about the English administration imposing English education: Many Indians, primarily Hindus until that point, were arguing for English education and were actively sponsoring colleges that offer instructions in English. The nationalised Hinduism that we see today is very much a product of the English education and its great theorists and leaders were English educated. In fact, English education revived Hinduism and made the idea of a Hindu nation possible.

The Misdiagnosis

The misdiagnosis is not just a historical curiosity. Nothing of this discussion really is. The simple Sanskrit-vs-English formula, of evil English and naive Hindus, has an agenda: Indianise the education system and it will make India creative again!

Of course, apart from bad history, there is something decidedly odd with banning outside influences to get creative. Not to mention the claim that disconnecting with the world will make India global leaders again. But more importantly, banning English has been tried already and I have seen first hand what happens. The cruellest experiment of this kind was perhaps in West Bengal: The Communist government in power had indigenised the education system in the late Seventies and the Eighties and got rid of English from the Primary and Junior school curriculum. The argument was that this would democratise the access to education and allow students to learn their mother tongue better. The experiment had clear outcomes: First, as the Communist Party abolished English teaching in state schools, all the party leaders rushed to  send their own children to the English medium schools. And, therefore, it accentuated the division between those who learnt English at school and those who did not. Indeed, after writing elaborate and brilliantly argued essays in favour of the abolition of English in the Eighties, Communist intellectuals wrote equally articulate essays about restoring it in the school curriculum in the Nineties. By then, a whole generation from the state has graduated and they struggled to fit into India's backoffice economy. Except, of course, those children of the party faithful who were exempted by their parents from their own experiment.

To be fair, part of the current argument is against the backoffice economy, which judges people by how well they speak English. However, English is a sought after skill in India not just because of the colonial mindset and cultural bias; but because the Indian economy largely operates as an appendage to the global economy. The back-office is not just a form of business; it's a mindset. Even when the Indian government looks at manufacturing, it talks about 'Make in India' and never 'Made in India'. Backoffices are everywhere in India and within that framework, knowing English pays. 

Perhaps a new revitalised Indian education system can solve this. Indian economy can then leap forward from the grunt work to shaping ideas. But, apart from the fact that it will take years, banning English before that has actually happened looks like putting the cart before the horse. It may be more logical to start with the problem - how to build an Indian education system that encourages creativity and develops imagination - rather than fake history.

The trouble with creativity

But here I have a second problem: That I don't agree at all that Indian education is one of robotic conformity, one that teaches students how to follow instructions diligently. Having worked in different countries, I don't agree at all that Indian workers are not creative and that they are good at following instructions. If anything, Indian work culture thrives on improvisation and lacks discipline. In fact, Indian creativity has given the business literature a new term - Jugaad! Besides, one of the broader failures of Indian education is in helping build a rule-bound society, not the product one would expect from an education meant to subjugate.

So what's going on here? If all our ideas come from a colonial education system designed to teach conformity, why are we always trying to find shortcuts? Of course, we can't seem to turn our creative shortcuts into world changing ideas, but is that because we lack creativity or we lack discipline and perseverance? 

If we look for clues in history, the nature of the Indian education system, rather than whether it's delivered in English or Hindi, may be the root of the problem. Here we are specifically talking about the Indian Higher Education: The Indian university system as we know it had originated as a bureaucratic enterprise from the start - for the first fifty years of their existence, the Indian universities were really government departments conducting examinations - and not as independent community of scholars as they were elsewhere in the world. CNR Rao, a prominent scientist and government advisor, once quipped that India did not have an education system, only an examination system - and that is what it is.

I am not claiming that this made Indian students less creative, as they are clearly not. But this made them keep their creativity outside education - and all systems. That is indeed the nature of creativity: Bureaucracies don't kill them - they just make creativity turn subversive. In the Indian state, and in Indian education, as they carry the legacy of the colonial, Indian students have learnt to use their creativity to undermine the system or to play it.

To make the leap from the current situation to the desired state of disciplined creativity and rule-bound society, India needs less bureaucracy, not more. Instead of an ideologically-motivated language war, Indian universities need to offer safe spaces for exploration of ideas and languages and become communities of scholars again. The strange beast of creativity, which can be awakened but not summoned, can only be made to work for India if it is released from the rotting colonial cage.

Overcoming the False Gods

It's not that Indian government doesn't recognise the impact of bureaucracy - it has made several attempts, since the 1980s, to lessen its impact. However, the way it was done, for the Indian economy as in Indian education, is by introducing 'markets', importing wholesale the western ideas of individual entrepreneurs setting up schools and universities and competing for students. Though the experience of India's economic liberalisation has been one of mixed blessings, even the new nationalist government has so far continued in the same vain.

It's the market forces, rather than cultural deadweight, that have kept English in its pole position. It's the market forces that swept away the experimentation with vernacular education. And this was exactly as it happened in the nineteenth century: Within the context of a colonial economic structure, English education paid better and therefore, it spread. It was not a Macaulay conspiracy: It was the markets. As long as Lord Ellenborough's observation - 'English means Rupees' - remains valid, it will need more than markets to change things in India.

But it should be changed. English is not the problem in India, but the mindset is. A nationalist conversion to an Education system dominated by Hindi is underway (on whose service, the carefully crafted myth of Macaulay is employed) but this is attacking the symptoms rather than the disease. India is caught at the bottom-end of the Anglo-American value chain: It is a net receiver of ideas, chief among them being how to run an economy. Its middle classes have grown up on crumbs thrown by globalisation and has accepted a perennially inferior position. In more than one way, it has given up its ambition to lead.

Buying into Macaulay myth and playing the victim are not ways to rekindle that ambition. Pasts may seem fixed, but its upto us - the current generation - what meaning we draw from it and what future we shape out of this material. English has come to India; it's now part of our tool kit. We must address the structural issues with our education: Make it responsive, inclusive, experimental and creative! We must ask the big moral questions early in our lives and escape the trap of examinism that pervades all aspects of our education. But we should always, always, always aspire to move forward - and never go back.

Creator: NOAH SEELAM Credit: AFP


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