An Education for Indians: An Alternative Narrative

While I have been studying and thinking about the political dynamic of the Foreign Education in India, I wrote about the past of English Education in India, which helped to create a new professional elite, the vanguards of the eventually independent Indian state. I have been somewhat critical of this development because consolidation and continuation of the privileges for English educated in Independent India has been one of the stumbling blocks for the country's development, vested interests pooling subsidies and resources towards itself and away from development efforts. Besides, in a subsequent post, I also questioned the rhetoric emanating from foreign providers, as they rest their great hope for access to the Indian market on the dissatisfaction of the Indian employers with current graduates: While this dissatisfaction is certainly real, it is situated very much within India's labour market context, I argued, and simply having a foreign education provision wouldn't going to solve anything. 

From the above arguments, some of my correspondents came to the conclusion that I am arguing in favour of a traditional Indian system of education, to be resurrected and protected, based on Indian values and traditions, including the Sanskrit language and its ancient sciences. It is a reasonable conclusion in the context of the discussion about the limits of Western education, and the emergent confidence in the future preeminence of the Indian economy. However, I believe such thinking is somewhat misdirected and I was not, despite being critical of the current options on offer, advocating a return to the past or revival of traditions. This position needs clarification, which I intend to provide here.

First, I question the wisdom of imagining the preeminence of Indian economy in predominantly western terms. There is an undoubted expansion of the formal economy in India and modern consumer goods and practises seem to be taking hold as a result to globalisation. However, this is a catch up, a process of incorporating the Indian economy in the global economic structure and not a shift of power away from the West to Asia, or BRICs, or any other groups of countries. In a way, this is a dynamic of integration rather than a route to preeminence. Indian economy may consume more and may supply a large proportion of world's workforce, but that does not mean it would define the rules and be in a driver's position: Rather, this discussion is all about hitching on to the globalisation.

Ironically, India's current attempt to redefine its nationalism on the basis of its traditional culture, personified in the collective affection for Gujrat's Narendra Modi, is also a part of this globalisation narrative, than a departure from it. The revivalists believe that they have found the vote-winning cocktail in traditional culture and neo-liberal economics, in an ideological equivalent of veggie burger, though this view discounts the inherent possibility that a globalised investment regime must transform the nature of cultural consumption: The innocent veggie burger is already making way for TV Gurus and saffron-white-green bikinis.

This revivalist trend then represent not an alternative imagination, but merely a submission to global norms, with the fetish for GDP growth, foreign investment as a panacea for all ills and dreams of a Ramayanised Disneyland at the core of it. This is not a moment for going back to the traditional Indian lessons of sacrifice, abstinence and toleration; presumably, the temples of this new Indian identity will be the shopping malls. In this context, talk of reviving traditional Indian education is a stillborn, a rhetoric and a pretense not to be taken seriously.

Also, going back to the past would hardly bring any resolution to India's persistent problems of exclusion. A Sanskritised education represent further disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised communities: If anything, this will be a reactionary move stamping out the rudimentary democratization that the education by vernacular brought about in the last three decades. India's educational tension is signified by the tension between the over-riding aspirations for good life and constraints set by economic imagination - schools and TV have prepared a generation to start demanding access while the system is only concerned with creating jobs and opportunities in the limited context of global back-office and service industries. Within the current structures of global economy, it is indeed hard to accommodate a few hundred million aspirants: That is a problem which will remain unaddressed without a change of discussion. Going back to traditional education, in context, is a pathetic, and doomed, formula to put a lid on these rising aspirations, consolidate privileges further and put a lid on these aspirations. 

Having said this, I still believe that it is possible to construct an 'Indian Education', but recommending that the ideas for it should be grounded in India's social and economic reality of today and tomorrow rather than of its past. In this context, India must be taken as a new country and a federal entity, and not some timeless country inhabited by Aryans who spoke Sanskrit (which is a false image anyway: Even if we shy away from the debate where Aryans came from, there were always other people in India who were non-Aryans and who never spoke Sanskrit). This education must take into account this historical and persistent diversity of India, and the inherent idea of cosmopolitanism and toleration that make the country work.

If this is the opposite of the revivalist notion of Sanskritised education, there is more to break away from India's past. At the core of Indian education, even the English education of the colonial scheme, sat the tradition notions of caste; education was for a certain role in the society, for a certain privilege, which is essentially conceived as moving away from the necessity of physical labour, of the requirement of doing anything by oneself. The lessons of caste lives on in the very Indian aspiration that an education must make one a manager. Restoring the dignity of work, which is also somewhat undermined in the modern global education based on the mantra of service economy, will be one key departure that an Indian education must make. This is needed not just as a moral thing (the moral imperative of breaking away from the caste mindset will be there) but also pragmatic, because, as Richard Sennett will argue, skills are usually formed with patient work of a persistent nature, and alienation, which is one of the key impediments of creativity and imagination at work, can only be overcome with an identification with one's object of labour. In the Indian context, it is not the mechanics of industrial production, but the hierarchical notions of labour and work embedded in education alienates the person and impedes creativity.

 Finally, an Indian education must be based on a realistic expectation and appraisal of India's role in the global economic system. The false rhetoric of India's emergence as a world leader should be discarded in favour of a practical quest for creating a good life for its own citizens. Abstract as this may sound, such quest may entail discarding the ideals of free consumption at the core of Western education system, because that may indeed be impractical, financially and environmentally, to provide for hundreds of millions of Indian aspirants, and finding ways of sustainable and productive ways of living a better life. And, to do so, indeed, one needs to take a global view, understand the economic, political and environmental challenges that we collectively face, and the common effort that one must pool together to create prosperity in the future (which will be different from the experiences of the industrial revolution).

So, in summary, India needs an education system which addresses its uniqueness, but this does not mean going back to the past. Rather the opposite, it will require overcoming the constraints imposed by its past and tackling its present and future challenges, such as fostering tolerance and accepting diversity, and developing skills and promoting the ideals of good work. An Indian Education system must also seek ways to ensure prosperity within the constraints set by the global economic system, and break away from the notions of a re-run of industrial revolution: It must seek to create a sustainable path to prosperity within the reality of a global late industrial civilisation. 


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