The case for Cultural Education in India

India's New Education Policy - which sets the legislative agenda for Indian education in the coming years - recommends that the core of India's higher education should be a system of 'liberal education'. It cites several reasons for this: Human capital justifications such as the changing nature of work and workplaces and the need to be broadly educated (what some will call 'T-skills'). What I want to argue here is that this is only a limited view of the requirement and we need to define what kind of 'liberal education' India may really need.

The central problem of Indian nationalism has been that while it defined itself against the European, and more specifically the British, imperialism, it was itself built upon essentially European concepts and ideas of nationhood and self-determination. Not only such concepts were only understood by a small, European-educated elite, these did not provide the broader populace any clearer definition  of their own role in the society. With the passing of the Independence generation and more crucially, as a new 'digital native' generation coming to dominate, such concepts need a serious do-over. The cultural confidence that sustain the European nations - or for that matter, even the Americans - looks distinctly fake on a self-denying English educated Indian middle class. The NEP writers, it is safe to guess, were aiming to address this chasm by bringing a form of cultural education back on the agenda.

I am acutely aware of the distinction between a 'liberal education', which is based on secular human rationality, and a 'cultural education', which is grounded in the experience of a specific community (including religious ideas that this community may indeed hold). It is not clear though whether such a  distinction was made explicit in the policy. In most discussions about the NEP, 'humanities' and 'liberal education' are used interchangeably. Overall, the intent of the policy seems to be of 'Indianising' education, a cultural agenda rather than a liberal one. It may seem that the term 'liberal education' has been borrowed from America but has been given a particular Indian meaning, without risking an explicit reference to  'cultural education', to avoid the accusation of being driven by majoritarian revivalism. 

However, while 'cultural education' may seem out of place in an India whose middle class has been an winner in the latest round of globalisation, it does not necessarily need to be revivalist or majoritarian. The only reason this is seen as revivalist because of the lack of cultural confidence inherent in post-independence Indian psyche, the very problem NEP is trying to deal with. Further, if we dispel the colonial ideas about India, its history and its communities, cultural exploration does not have to be majoritarian either. Rather, a forward-looking cultural education that seeks to engage with the present and build it, may indeed encourage Indian students to find new ideas for themselves, rediscover the spirit of the ancient Indian republics and move beyond the binaries of Hindu-Muslim identities. The agenda of 'cultural education' should not be seen as a revivalist trojan horse, unless we want it to become exactly that - a revivalist trojan horse!

I shall argue that 'liberal education' is, in fact, part of the imperial project, within which it's hard to escape the Eurocentric worldview. In fact, the identification of 'liberal education' with the American republic is misleading: This view hides the imperial and slave-holding nature of the American state, built around the idea that some men, English speaking and white, are fitter to rule than others. The American 'liberal education' was about marginalising - and shall I say, exterminating - the native American culture, completely at odds with the project of Indian education. 

Often, we refer to 'liberal education' as if the term has no history and no political content, and justify the same with the neo-liberal logic of 'national productivity' and sometimes with the need for 'democratic education'. It should be plain to us that, hidden in this 'productivity' logic is the spectre of global value chain, in which the individual is expected to submit to a vast and complex structure of economic activities, whose levers she would never control and upon whose masters' mercies she must live her life and limit her desires. The 'preparing for democracy' logic, in turn, hides the assumption that these individuals, by themselves, is expected to have no way of knowing what's best for them. It posits that their locally- and traditionally-informed judegements are inadequate for participation in a modern world-system. And, within the world's material economy and economy of the ideas dominated by Anglo-America,  liberal education is an integral part of the mechanism that secure the consent of the governed.

Hence the question: Does India, a national community that, shaped by geography and common culture, existed thousands of years, need a 'liberal education' American style? Or is its path to superseding its colonial past and finding a path to its own unity and identity lie through a system of cultural education? This cultural education should not be about looking backward or seek to exclude whole communities of Indians, of course; but rather involves a careful consideration of what made India a civilisation that carried on through several millennia connecting the Eurasian and Indian Ocean worlds through language, ideas and culture. That, perhaps, is the path to the future that should connect and inspire all Indians, and release them from the Anglo-American empires of the mind.


Preceptor said…
A timely warninng! However, we need to explore the purpose of education on the basis that 'form follows purpose'. This means letting go of thinking that has got us to where we are today whilst learning from the past to help us imagine what the future could be.
We also need to encourage 'ordinary' people to imagine the future that they want - relying on academics and politicians we will continue to pursue ideas that have halted progress in previous times because the very thinking that made them successful may not be the thinking that is needed now.

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