Decolonising Education
Introspection and action must go hand in hand. What starts with alternate education for children eventually leads to alternate lifestyles for the entire family
Deshavidha Sharma
The child is taken to school, and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool, the second thing that his grandfather is a lunatic, the third thing is that all his teachers are hypocrites, the fourth that all the sacred books are lies! By the time he is sixteen he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless. And the result is that fifty years of such education has not produced one original man in the three Presidencies.” This stark characterisation was made by Swami Vivekananda in 1897. This was made at a time when British education in India was in force for more than 50 years. What could have caused Swamiji, himself a receiver of this education, express such strong displeasure with the British education system? What would be the consequences of the education system that teaches you that your father, grandfather, traditions and your past is worthless? What kind of men and women come out of such a system? And when it is done over multiple generations and not just one? Let alone producing original men, can normal well functioning men be produced by such an education? Can we expect a functioning society to result from outputs of such a system? Have we blindly followed the same British imposed education system even after 1947 until today?
It may be true that the current education system does not incorporate the needs of a foreign ruler to remake the students to suit their regime of loot and destruction. But this is largely due to the fact that such a remaking has been mostly completed during the last 100 years of British rule. The average educated Indian of today clearly believes in linear upward progression of society as theorised by the Europeans. He leads a technology driven lifestyle with scant regard for the environment, society, and family much like the West. Overall, he has bought into the competition driven individualism peddled by the West. His remaking is complete!

The current education system in the country still retains a stale flavor of the British remaking of Indian mind and society. This continuation of the British education system in post-Independence India still follows a capital intensive model of education. It needs exclusive buildings, playgrounds and furniture. It is centralised, its syllabus being decided by a handful of boards and is funded mostly by the state. Its content does not reflect the society in which the education is situated in. The syllabus is the same whether the school is situated in a city or a village and has precious little to help students understand and cope with their surroundings.
One has to overcome the intellectual inertia that the education system and subsequent aspirations and lifestyles have imposed upon us. We need to revisit the past and acquaint ourselves with the beautiful system of life that our forefathers evolved and practiced 
Its predominant goal is to prepare students for employment under an employer much like the administrative clerks under the British. It reduces human beings to a resource which are transferred from villages to towns, from towns to cities, from cities to metros and from metros to the West. For those who resist or fail the final transfer out of the geographic land mass of India, it promotes mass migration within the various parts of the country. It does not build discrimination and clear thinking in students lest they question the current system. It drills in a glorification of the West and an aspiration for a western lifestyle. Its methods are colonial and pay scant attention to more sensible traditional understanding of human development. It relies exclusively on competition and fear to force students to swallow the curriculum unquestioningly.

The education system of Independent India which should have been a key tool to undo the remaking of the Indian mind during colonial times instead perpetuates it. It is important to understand that education of a country cannot be looked at in isolation. Education reflects the social mores in which it is situated and is intricately tied to the societal outcomes of the nation. In fact, most of the reasons for our dysfunctional society today can be directly traced to the education system imposed upon us over the last 200 years. Of course it is unreasonable to expect the education system to be an exception when we continued with most of the colonial systems post-Independence such as administration, economic policies, societal organisation, politics and most importantly, our national conception of the universe. In all of the above we have been content to imitate and borrow from our former colonial masters. There have been a few attempts to question existing models in all of the above areas, but they have been either focused to a very narrow area or inspired by the latest available western fad.
Alternative Education System
What are the alternatives to this system of education? Are most of the alternatives of European extraction? Is there an authentic Indian framework of education? Some answers can be found in the seminal works of Gandhian Shri Dharamapal. He says that India had a thriving education system in the 18th century. The most definitive documentation of this education system is from Dharampalji’s book — ‘The Beautiful Tree’. After painstakingly collecting and analyzing numerous British records from the 18th and 19th centuries, both within the country and in the United Kingdom archives he builds the reality of the education system in the 18th century in India. From hard data he tells us that lakhs of villages across the country had at least one school in the form of Pathashalas and Gurukulas. Primary education was universal. The subjects included reading, writing and basic arithmetic at the minimum. The content invariably included the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Basic education lasted typically for 7-8 years starting around 6 years of age and lasting till 13 years of age. Apart from the near universality of the education two more significant insights are presented—first, the composition of the students reflected the proportion of jatis in the population and second the schools were locally funded by society, either through donations or through a portion of revenue of the region. A person desiring to educate their children did not have a spend a pice!

Integrating Modern Education with Ancient Knowledge 
We complain that modern school syllabus is devoid of ways to inculcate moral values in our children. Education today is deemed to be a business model than a service. However, in this scenario there are several efforts to rekindle the spirit of our ancient Gurukula system where the impetus is on gaining and mastering a skill rather than rote learning. On such effort is ‘Samvida’ in Bengaluru.
Samvida is a community of closely knit group of learners—parents and their children. Samvida, based out of Basavanagudi, Bangalore took shape in 2013, when like-minded parents who wanted an alternative to conventional schooling came together to create a learning environment they dreamt for their children. The objective of Samvida is to create a learning environment where learning is based on the values enshrined in the Hindu school of thought:
  • To prepare an individual to live with the world in harmony 
  • is driven by the interest and aptitude of the individual learner
  •  is wholesome and not compartmentalised into various “subjects/topics” 
  • happens by doing, discussing, reflecting and introspecting 
  • is a natural and enjoyable process is not a rat-race of scoring more marks.
Again, even this thriving education system cannot be looked at in isolation. The society in which such an education system evolved has to be recounted. And fortunately Shri Dharampal has done this for us in his complement of books to ‘The Beautiful Tree’. These include ‘Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century’, ‘Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition’, ‘Panchayat Raj and Indian Polity’, and ‘Essays on Tradition, Recovery and Freedom’. The picture of the Indian society in the 18th century built from mostly British records is fascinating and fills one with hope for the future. It is characterised by high self-employment, low taxes, advanced medical care, superlative food production, a careful cultivation of the arts and crafts in harmony with nature and a high degree of cooperation and mutual respect among the various jatis. It was only under such a well functioning society that the education system thrived.
Fair Bit of Effort
What is also captured in these books is the heart-breaking reality of how the British destroyed this system for their petty loot and gain. And the unforgivable part is that this destruction was a cold-blooded conscious effort. Crafts and trades were destroyed by massive taxes and bodily amputation, agriculture and irrigation destroyed by confiscating most of what was grown towards taxes which were set upwards of 80%. And education was destroyed by centralising revenue collection and introduction of the factory education system.
After collecting and analyzing numerous British records from the 18th and 19th centuries, both within Bharat and in the United Kingdom archives Gandhian Shri Dharamapal provides the most definitive documentaion of India’s thriving education system in his book ‘The Beautiful Tree’What does the functioning education system as recent as 200 years back indicate. For one, it surely gives us hope that as we move into the future, there is at least a framework upon which we can lean to build a saner education system and society. But a fair bit of effort is needed from every capable individual. One has to overcome the intellectual inertia that the education system and subsequent aspirations and lifestyles have imposed upon us. We need to revisit the past and acquaint ourselves with the beautiful system of life that our forefathers evolved and practised. And this is not some faint old pauranic times millennia ago, but as recent as 200 years back. We need to question our own current understanding of the world, our actions and our interactions with people, nature and the world first at the individual level, then at the family level and eventually at the societal level. Individuals need to familiarize themselves with a wealth of analysis and critiques of the West ranging from Swami Vivekananda and Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya to Mahatma Gandhi and Dharampal.
While we try to recover and invent alternate frameworks, lifestyle and societal organisation, we have to be intensely aware of the danger to them from barbarians near and far. While we rebuild our society, one eye has to be constantly focused on the marauding outsiders like the British who have reduced us to our current sorry state in a matter of 300 years. Introspection and action must go hand in hand. We need to derive inspiration from like-minded people and believe in the strength of organisation. It is heartening to see people dissatisfied with the current education system forming alternate schools and curriculum forgoing the safety of boards and institutional support. What starts with alternate education for children eventually leads to alternate lifestyles for the entire family. A new generation embodied in our children provides that unique gap in the continuum of one’s life when an opportunity for reassessment and repair naturally presents itself. Let us resolve to make the best use of it.
(The writer is an engineering researcher for large multinational corporations)