The tragedy of Indian Education

As India's universities fail to cling to their already precarious positions on global league tables, old concerns about Indian higher education have been newly voiced.

There is much to be unhappy about, not just the position on the league tables. The skewed structure of Indian higher education means the significant number of bright graduates, educated at great expense by the Indian state, leave India every year for fortunes abroad. Despite the overt focus on technology education in India, the technology gap with its neighbour and competitor for global influence, China, is alarmingly wide. And, for the all their swagger, Indian business schools have languished at the bottom of global league tables and their graduates still struggle to find good jobs in India.

But I don't want to lament here about the obvious. In fact, I wish to make a point which is its opposite: The obsessions about global league tables, technology lead or employability, the three key factors driving Indian Higher Education policy, are parts of the problem, rather than the solution. India, a young country, is afflicted by an education system without a soul. India's higher education is part of the poisoned legacy of colonialism and this part has received little attention and have never been truly reformed. It remained, along with the structures of Indian Civil Service, a barrier, rather than an enabler, for 'making Indians'.

It's a tragedy, therefore. The history of post-independence Indian higher education should be written as one of the great tragedies in state-making, one that may yet have catastrophic consequences as the Soviet 'education for decline' of 70s delivered. And, its story may yet illustrate the key challenges for a country to become truly free: Affording such a change would have displaced India's elite and therefore, never featured on the 'independence' agenda.

I must clarify what I protest against. This is not about 'British' education as opposed to an 'Indian' one, and therefore, replacing Western medicine with Ayurveda, or English with Hindi, or some such thing. Fads such as those are already plentiful in India. My point is rather about more fundamental, what education is for, question: The East India Company administration answered it in a certain way. We have never got away from it.

The key change at the turn of the eighteenth century was the shift away from India's place in the world economy as an advanced manufacturing economy to a vast market of consumers and a source of raw materials, a change that the Company, its Anglo-Indian agents and their Indian collaborators, mostly rich Hindu beneficiaries of colonialism, brought about. The roots of English education in India should be found, not in the narratives of benevolent introduction of modern science or statecraft. Of Macaulay's famous pronounciation, 'English in taste' was perhaps the most relevant descriptor; and this was indeed the point of the idea of university in India.

At that point, English higher education was layered over an Indian one - 'engrafted' was the word that was used! And, Indians flocked to English education for the sake of employment and trade. At this time, as contemporary records will bear out, educated Indians conveniently came up with a dichotomy between education and morality: Education was a tool of professional advancement, and all moral lessons must be kept outside educational establishments. Only on this condition, an orthodox Hindu would allow his sons to go to college. 

On the other hand, the Company, and the English administration that succeeded the Company rule, tried hard to keep any moral education - Christian or otherwise - outside formal education. Alexander Duff's various attempts to include Bible studies in the official curriculum was rebuffed; Colonialism was never to be - apart from the missionary efforts at the margins of the society - a christianising enterprise. The earlier ambitions of a 'pulling a Constantine' by converting a great noble to christianity were never really pursued in India. Instead, education in India was to remain an extension of capitalist enterprise, a secular, amoral, consumerist institution.

This divorce between education and moral thinking still underlies all Indian education today. The morality lies at home for Indians and the universities have nothing to do with it. All the well-meaning American disruptors who worry educators worry too little about employability should actually speak to any Indian educator: Employability is the only thing they worry about. It has always been that way and remains so. In fact, such an exposure will adequately explain why American assumptions are not applicable everywhere, as well as the limits of the obsession with employability.

I am arguing that this fundamental issue, rather than technical questions about curriculum, is the most important thing for Indian policy-makers to address. This is not a case for introduction of vedic studies or ancient science in the curriculum, nor of forcing Hindi down everyone's throat. And, on the other end of the spectrum, Liberal Arts, american style, will not solve the problem. It's like treating the symptoms badly (Indian education is already too literary) rather than the disease. 

This, therefore, is the tragedy I occupy myself with. My endeavour is historical - trying to find the pre-independence thinking what this answer looks like - but that's just one dimension of the issue. But I think the answer should be forward-looking, rather than historical. It should be historically informed so that we don't miss the point all over again, but the key is to figure out what kind of India we want and therefore, how Indians should be educated. Many nations have had to go through similar reinventions of their education system at critical junctures of their history; it's India's turn now.


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