How India can become a global knowledge hub again – Makarand Paranjape

JNU : Known today as the national centre of anti-national politics.

Prof Makarand R. ParanjapeSince Independence, we have invested in mediocrity and deprivation. Our universities have become hotbeds of politics where disgruntled students with few skills and uncertain futures are easily lured to become “anti-nationals”. As for our primary education, it is a colossal mess, especially in the unwieldy and inefficient government sector. – Prof Makarand Paranjape

Not a day passes without some major meeting or event being announced on Prime Minister Modi’s popular, informative, eponymous app/web page narendramodi.in. This May Day, tucked away between louder and important consultations and policy statements, was this communiqué: “PM Modi holds a review meeting to discuss the education sector”.

I immediately felt enthused. Not only because I currently hold the position of the Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study. But because all my life I’ve done practically nothing except to read, write, study, teach and think of what constitutes education. The business of learning is thus like breathing as far as I am concerned. I also believe that it is through the transformation of our education system that we can re-awaken “Bharat Shakti”, the power of India.

Beginning of ruin

Bharat has been a knowledge giver to the world for millennia, a beacon of light and hope. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we were the original knowledge society. While much of the rest of the world subsisted in backwardness, our rishis and savants were composing magnificent monuments in verse. We were also leaders in town planning, architecture, sculpture, painting, science mathematics, metallurgy, agriculture, astronomy and medicine, and more.

All this has been well-documented, though it is astonishing how little we still know of our own past greatness. What the famous English historian A.L. Basham called “The wonder that was India” is still much of a mystery to us. That is because we are standing, as it were, on the rubble of a broken civilisation. Though we are striving to rebuild it, we are only now developing the means. The irony of our colonial past is that though the British looted India and sucked our lifeblood, without their intervention it is doubtful if we would have known the extent of our ancient glory. Colonialism impoverished us, but also spurred our renewal.

We might argue that after the burning of Nalanda around 1200 CE by Ikhtiyar al-Din Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji there was probably no internationally recognised university or academy left in India. True, there were some centres of excellence, even a wonderful new school of logic, Navya-Nyaya. But by and large, the system of patronage that supported Sanskrit and Indian knowledge systems was destroyed by our Islamic rulers. India’s energies were not entirely snuffed out, though. We had an efflorescence of vernacular and regional literature during this period in a multitude of our languages across the subcontinent. However, the sort of systematic and superior scholarship and research that characterised our classical past was, arguably, absent during our medieval “dark ages”.

Current challenges

Coming to our present, we have, some would even say, the paradox of plenty. Increasing outlays in education but decreasing outcomes. No surprise that our greatest scientists, poets, philosophers, writers, and thinkers in recent times belong to the era when we were fighting for Independence. Afterwards, few Indians matched the genius of Rabindranath Tagore, C.V. Raman, Swami Vivekananda, or Mahatma Gandhi. It is as if in resisting the British empire, we became great ourselves.

Unfortunately, since Independence, we have invested in mediocrity and deprivation. Our universities have become hotbeds of politics where disgruntled students with few skills and uncertain futures are easily lured to become “anti-nationals”. As for our primary education, it is a colossal mess, especially in the unwieldy and inefficient government sector. Unbelievable sums of money, running into lakhs of crores are spent across the country, but our children leave schools without proper training or abilities. On the other hand, private schools, whether secular or religious, breed elitism from the early years that is never quite eclipsed or offset no matter how many counter-compensations are offered later on.

Our challenges are vast, varied, and well known. From providing access to all to reskilling the nation and enabling lifelong learning—with everything in between, such as structural, syllabus, and textbook reform too. The May 1 meeting proposed many lofty goals and outcomes: “It was decided to usher in education reforms to create a vibrant knowledge society by ensuring higher quality education to all thereby making India a global knowledge super power.”

Goals for future

The means proposed were “extensive use of technology including Artificial Intelligence.” But to make India a “global knowledge superpower” technology alone will not help; we need commensurately great vision and values. We need smart ideas and good people. We must focus on excellence at all levels of education. This means freeing the system from too many regulations, moving from negative reservations to positive support to the disadvantaged. We have to move from student politics to student government in higher education. We need not focus too much on nation-wide policy documents but implementing fundamental changes on the ground.

Primary education must change from being entirely funded by the state to public-private partnerships with clear benchmarks. As for higher education, we suffer from both over-regulation and under-regulation: the former afflicts state-funded institutions, the latter private players. Our system has enshrined mediocrity and sidelined smart people. Education in India cries not for a piecemeal tinkering, but for root-and-branch reform. – Daily-O, 6 May 2020

Prof. Makarand Paranjape is an author, poet, and humanities professor. He has been the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla since August 2018. Prior to that he was a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India for 19 years.

Takshashila University