If India were to achieve an equitable and sustainable development soon, as it has pledged recently, it needed quickly to introduce significant changes to its education and training policy. According to an old Sanskrit saying which preaches disciplined life and discipline, in turn, comes only from knowing what you are, what you need to learn. The National Education Policy seems to suggest a path in that direction.
The Language Debate
Much debate, and rightly so, is happening around the medium of instruction in India’s schools and higher education institutions (HEI). As far as the medium of learning is concerned, most of the states of India needed to adopt the three-language formula to keep themselves unfettered by central policy and necessitated instruction in our schools and HIEs in a particular, privileged language, i.e. English. However, the experience over the past seven decades does not inspire us to feel confident whether that vision attained its fruition: lack of clarity, or even desire to belong to a privileged position, forced many states to allow, even promote, albeit unwittingly, a two-tier education system where English medium would become a stepping-stone for success in life. The division this has caused is so strong that today knowing English is preferred over knowing what one must know.
NEP2020, therefore, suggests such welcome “reforms that bring the highest quality, equity and integrity into the system” (page 3, NEP). Knowledge of the past and an examined and veridical system of acquiring that knowledge is one way to achieving that goal. It is here that the medium of instruction, as well as the paradigms of imparting that knowledge, must be made clear. Who can deny that a child in school will bloom and flourish if she were instructed in the language she speaks at home – her mother tongue? When we had the opportunity to spend an academic year in a German university a few years ago, the school in that city, a Gymnasium, where our son got admission to study that year, had only German as the medium of instruction. Our child was studying in English medium school in Delhi. So, the choice and dilemma before us was either to send him to an English medium school, a rather expensive, unaffordable prospect for us there or to keep him at home without regular schooling, in the process, perhaps, risk jeopardising his academic future. We chose the third option, i.e. to send him to that German only medium school.
It was painful for us to watch our child, a bright student in his class back home, return from German school every day frustrated and irritated. We felt the trauma he went through, helplessly, also feeling guilty of pressing him through that experience. In the end, though, he did learn German, by trading teaching English to his fellow students during break and off-hours, we knew we had put an unimaginable strain on him; we still go through that nightmare of his helplessness, for it was no choice of his own. We narrate this personal account only to highlight the importance of medium of instruction in schools and colleges.
The other important recommendation in NEP2020 is the promotion of a multidisciplinary system of learning and teaching, both at the school level and in HEIs. Bhartṛhari, the 5th Century grammarian philosopher and king has said that ‘learning (prajñā) matures into wisdom (Viveka) when it is watered by the fountain of various systems of knowledge.” Encouraging multidisciplinary learning and training, therefore, will revolutionise Indian education, and this has to be done from the school level itself. A disconnect or disrespect between different streams of learning is painful. Promotion of multidisciplinary system will enhance communication among different streams of learning. This holistic approach should be the path to making a balanced society of the future.
The most important recommendation of NEP is celebration of Indian (read indigenous) knowledge systems – namely, Indian history, economics, languages, literature, politics and sciences sources of which are available in abundance in every corner of India. It means making multiple trips to our past: not every trip to the past will bring a satisfactory result, but even an unsatisfactory trip will equip us with the cartography of that landscape, the knowledge of which will ease our next journey to that far away land, it will take us to the familiar place; at least, our past will no longer remain a mystery. Every effort should be made to unravel that past and brought to light.
When they devised India’s education policy nearly two centuries ago and brought fundamental reforms to our education system, the British rulers categorised the schools and colleges into two separate domains: one who will have English as their medium and which then will become the privileged zones of education; ironically, or perhaps with design, this was supported by the elites and many intellectuals and reformers of India with an objective and a zeal to compete with the best in the world, the British at the time. The rest of them were left to their fate, to fend for themselves with meagre support from the government. Even in promoting Sanskrit – much-celebrated move by many even today – the British had an obvious objective: “the diffusion of Christianity in India,” as Nirad Chaudhuri wrote once. Chaudhuri is referring to the Will of Lt. Colonel Joseph Boden, who bequeathed his entire wealth “for the erection and endowment of Professorship in the Sanskrit language” in Oxford University. The Boden Professorship of Sanskrit in Oxford University was established, in 1832, to further the will of Lt. Colonel Boden, a kind of a psychological project in British India. That is the power of the language of instruction, and NEP2020 appreciates this value.
The main objective behind promoting Sanskrit was to understand the thinking of the “Natives” by training the officers and the clergy serving for the East India Company” (from the Will of Lt. Col. Joseph Boden)
Back to Basics
Another and, possibly most important recommendation of NEP2020 is going back to basics, to retrace our steps from where we began our human journey in this country. While the document invokes our cultural and intellectual roots, which are embedded to the epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, the Ṛgvedic literature our literary and philosophical traditions so beautifully nurtured through various genres, NEP2020 alludes to the institutions which flourished around this heritage: Nālandā, Takṣaśilā, Vikramśilā. NEP2020 yearns to those times when hordes of students, scholars and professors will mill around in these great institutions to find meaning to life through this frighteningly rich tradition. What is required (and NEP2020 makes a particular case for it) is to rejuvenate our traditional knowledge system by promoting the learning of the classical and great languages of India. Training in either Sanskrit, Pali or Prakrit will immensely help to trace back our steps to that treasure of ancient knowledge, but how it should marry the modern system of education is something both policymakers and scholars have to ponder. Hanging on to Indian Knowledge System, finding ways to preserve and propagate it will usher in a new dawn for India’s rich intellectual tradition of the idea that “the wealth of knowledge is the most valuable treasure in life,” vidyādhanaṃ sarvadhanapradhānam. Let us cherish it.
(Prof Heeraman Tiwari is the faculty at Centre for Historical Studies & Chairperson, Centre for Media Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU. Dr Anu Khanna was trained in Oxford University as a Scientist in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology)