Ghost in the classroom: Finding and banishing the empire from Indian Higher Ed

Colonial university in light and shadow
India - with its new education policy - wants to make a new start.

In a world of weakening institutions, China-US competition and a rapidly changing climate and disease environment, this is overdue. India's young millions is great power, but also great responsibility: If not tended, its demographic dividend can turn into a demographic disaster.

But the first call of duty for an Indian educator is to address the elephant in the room. For far too long, Indian higher education carried on the colonial legacy, casting successive generation of Indians in the empire's shadow. Despite its independence, and perhaps because of the troubled legacy of its partition, India remained a marginal player in the world higher education scene, consigned to following the agenda rather than shaping it. Its higher education system, always big and now the second biggest in the world, curtailed its own aspiration and carried on the business as usual. It has failed its people, comprehensively and spectacularly.

Hence, the new education policy announces its intent at the outset: It wants to purge the ghost of the empire. But having said this, it goes about doing it precisely the wrong way. It accords the state an ever greater role in shaping what goes on in the classroom, reemphasizing the colonial legacy of the bureaucratic oversight of everything. It looks to replace English, the colonist's tool, with Hindi (or an indian language), and aspires to define what would be permitted to be worth knowing. While it stays away from prescribing religious teaching, in keeping with India's secular ethos (at least for the moment), it promotes the sacred texts of the past as the fountain of wisdom, to be studied with devotion and care. In short, what it attempts to do is to repeat what the English did with Indian higher education mid-nineteenth century, but going the other way, promoting the superiority of 'Indian' knowledge over foreign ones.

But there lies in the ghost in the system. The rage against English language and foreign knowledge mirrors the colonists' disdain for the traditional Indian languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) and Indian knowledge; it's the same revolutionary aspiration of wiping out a people's ways of thinking and living through the state-imposed education. The English liberals claimed that they were setting off an Indian enlightenment; today's reformers claim the same, with similar tools: The only matter of dispute between them is what really counts as Indian.  

An Indian educator, however, should see things differently. A deeper understanding of the colonial transformation of the Indian education should take us beyond 'what' - the question of language, for example - to 'how'. What changed in Indian higher education in the nineteenth century concerned the role of the state, learners' relationships with knowledge and the definition of educational privilege. The first of this might have the part of a worldwide trend - the state took an activist role in higher education in differet countries - but the second was very specific to India. But while many other nations, where educational policy was under democratic control, managed to push back the state control and establish significant institutional autonomies through the twentieth century, this hasn't happened in India. And, finally, the ideal of a educationally privileged minority, Macaulay's 'native in colour but English in taste', served the colonial purpose, but continued after the independence untainted by the republican aspirations.

So the questions we ought to ask now are: 

  • How much role the state should have in shaping education? Is that the way to educate a rapidly growing young country, and, to bring about an Indian golden age? 
  • What relationship should the learners have with knowledge? Is devotion to approved texts (being teary-eyed about Shakespeare, or, after independence, doing the same for the Vedas) the most appropriate method of education in the twentyfirst century? Does that adequately reflect India's diversity, which allows for more than 300 versions of its most celebrated epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata)? 
  • Is the assumption that there should be a gifted elite with access to elite institutions consistent with republican principles? Does the Indian government spending 50% of the state educational budget on 3% of its students, something that it wants to increase further by adding new selective institutions, help it to escape the legacy of colonialism and build a strong, self-reliant country? 

One notable feature of the New Education Policy is that the way it extolls the virtues of liberal education, presumably making the United States an example to follow. But that enthusiasm seems limited to mimicking the style rather than absorbing the substance, as it stops short of defining what Liberal Education is. In fact, it seems that the Indian policy-makers take liberal education as a scholastic one, one driven by ancient texts of indigenous origin, instead of the Kantian enthusiasm for questioning everything. Its aspiration, expressed through a modern metric of 50% GER, is also anachronistic; by its very definition, GER only considers students who progress straightline into college after school, still a privileged minority in India. It is much more muted on open and distance education, outreach and widening access, which is what a republican aspiration will demand. Even as they look at the future, these policymakers do so with neoliberally-tainted glasses of university rankings, both in defining the roadmap for Indian universities and for the country's engagement with universties abroad. One perhaps should not be surprised - India is the disneyland of new capitalism, unable to wake itself up even in the middle of a complete meltdown of its economy - but its inability to escape the ghosts of colonialism is a cautionary tale.

Of course, outing the ghost serves no vested interest, as the ghost is indeed the vested interest. Indian independence was stolen by the privileged even before it was born and the Indian state has always served the interest of a minority of its people. But India is in the middle of a full-fledged cultural revolution now, primarily as the independence has failed the majority and the flaunting of this privilege has become unbearable to this vast country of aspiration. And, yet, the privilege lives on, in our ways of seeing; and it has showed up again even in the attempt to undo it at its core. The promise of India lies in putting the colonial ghost to rest and in becoming an open country at ease with its past and hopeful about its being. Rehashing the old ideas into new language wouldn't make that happen.









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