The Director in charge of a new university in India told me that he wanted to institute a Gurukul system, where students and teachers would live in the same campus and every student will be attached to a personal mentor. For him, this was going back to the origins - the ancient Indian tradition of instruction by a Guru - which should help regain the lost heritage that was India.
This is not exceptional. There is a search for this lost tradition all over India. There are lengthy discussions, and well-meaning initiatives, about value education, schools that espouse traditional values, a return to Hindi and Sanskrit in the curriculum, and more bizarrely, invocation of mythical technological achievements and fictitious glories. India, confounded by the forces of globalisation and pressed to find its identity beyond the consumer ethic, is intently looking rearward for a model of Higher Education.
What this reaction is against is the modern Higher Education system that India has had for the last two hundred years. Ancient Indian Education, for all its glory, did not make the transition to the modern times. It was more or less reinvented by the Colonists of the British Raj, and that happened in two phases. It is important to revisit this origins story, even if only in broad generalisations, to understand the trajectory today, both of rejection and the desire to revive, and to speculate on the future.
India did have great universities, which would have featured at the top of global rankings if it existed then, much before the great European universities came into being. Indian philosophy, which grew alongside its religion (like medieval Europe, but unlike Greece) prospered in these universities, as did science, medicine and technology. It attracted students and scholars from all over Asia, and it did send out its share of scholars and students to other lands. It was richly supported by Indian kings, who protected them as well. So, state, religion and scholarship went hand in hand, and it ensured excellence, as we will call it today.
Once these Hindu and Budhdhist kingdoms withered though, the universities, like other institutions of the state, were exposed to the full wrath of the invading Islamic armies. They destroyed these ancient universities, looting and burning and killing many students and scholars. They were wiping out a culture to institute a new one, which is not unlike any invading army ever since, and the universities were integral to the culture they wanted to get rid of.
In its place, the new Emperors and Kings established theocratic institutions, schools of music and art, but philosophy and science may have had a relative decline. Even more entwined with the state, now fully dependent on the state handouts, scholarship in India somewhat confined itself to somewhat utilitarian ends of religion, law and trade. Many Indian commentators, particularly those leading the charge of revivalism today, see this as a thousand year decline, a period when India lost its technological and scientific lead, and its philosophy got subsumed to theocracy. In fact, one Islamic empire would crumble to another - to the Mughals - as India did not have the knowledge of gunpowder, which the invading Central Asians learnt from China.
This is a time of great reform movements, indeed, but these ideas, both of Hindu and Islamic heritage, will come from outside the institutions, rather than from inside. The students and scholars would still be coming to India, marvelling at its great wealth and culture. India would be exposed to globalisation through them, to external ideas and cultures, and absorb much of it - but this was not the time for great Indian universities or world-leading scholarship any more. There would be great courts assembled by enlightened emperors, beautiful poetry and architecture (so the ideas of decline are perhaps overstated) - but the whole civilisation was settled in a resource-rich comfortable existence, led by highly powerful, militarised and centralised kingdoms and empires.
Given the technological and social backwardness, though, it was unsurprising that these empires would be overcome by Europeans. The European ascendancy in India were supported by superior technology, no doubt, but also supported by local groups disenfranchised by the dominant empires. In many ways, Hindus worked with Europeans against the dominant Muslim Kings and their courts, and Sikhs joined the European armies in great numbers. And, the English, among all the Europeans, understood the dynamic better than others, and sought to make it work for them - eventually, with great success.
One may say the English landed with an empire without really planning for it. They fought battles for trading rights (and for rights not to pay arbitrary taxes) and with support of local groups, landed up with large chunks of territories, often heavily populated and economically rich, without having the wherewithal to administer them. The first impulses of modern Higher Education in India came from this need to administer begotten territories, and the first generation of education funding by the East India Company (a join stock company incorporated in London, which had English Aristocrats and Middle Classes for shareholders and officers) were all directed at setting up institutions for training of officers in local customs and languages. This was not about training of the natives, this was not about philosophy, science or culture - this was about training English officers to govern Indian territories which the company landed up with.
This changed qualitatively after a quantitative change in the Companys domain, bigger territories, and as more complex administrative tasks, pilferage by greedy officials and bigger wars, including those with European rivals, gradually ate away its profits. There were signs that the locals were becoming restive, as the unchecked profiteering of the company were wearing down the social structures and disenfranchising the very elite which installed it in power. The British crown eventually stepped in to govern India, and one of the key changes this brought in was a doctrine for educating the natives - in the British way!
In reverse of the earlier policy of learning and preserving Indian languages and culture, the new policy was about training Indian natives on Western science, culture and ways of life. The whole system of education was utilitarian - the point was to get a government job in the end - and it focused not on social harmony but on division - of creating a ruling elite who would work for the empire. This system would eventually become very successful, and the British empire would extend its lifespan by a century - and this system would refuse to die even after the Independence. There would be other Indian universities, prompted by social/cultural (Benares Hindu University, Annamalai University), nationalist (Jadavpur University) or Romantic (Viswabharati) notions, but the dominant utilitarian theme of Indian Higher Education would persist. It would be about jobs and money from the very start.
And, it still is. Today, even after almost 70 years of independence, Indian Higher Education continued in the tradition. One reason for this is India has been a stable society, free of any shocks or any equivalent of cultural revolution. Nehru, in envisioning the Modern India, created great technology institutions, but not great universities or mass Higher Education systems. Indeed, there was some notable achievements in science (in computing, space exploration etc) and a great many Indians have made significant contributions to all aspects of human progress while abroad, but Indian Higher Education has manifestly failed to make such achievements broadbased. Indian universities lagged all others in scholarship and new thinking, and at best, remained narrowly utilitarian.
This is the model which is being questioned now, as India faces globalisation and confused by it. Its sense of identity is deeply disturbed - and its universities provide no answer to such confusion. Its cost-driven opportunistic model of global commerce are being challenged in the face of a new wave of global convergence (when production returns home) and its democracy is challenged by its own structural failings. The answer that many, including my correspondents, are providing that everything was alright in the past, but the origins story of Indian Higher Education may point to a narrative of progression hand in hand with the powers of the day. Following that morale may mean looking for answers in the future rather than in the past.
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