Friday, December 05, 2014

What's Wrong With Western Education: 4

I did write about developing countries and western education before (see What's Wrong with Western Education, and its Part 2 and Part 3). But it is also interesting to see how far this agenda can be carried forward, and how this argument about an indigenous education plays out in the face of globalised politics. These are exactly the issues on the table in India, where the newly elected government wants to push through a neo-liberal economic agenda along with social conservatism. India is hardly unique in this, it must be mentioned, many governments, including United Kingdom's, is doing the same. But the debate in India warrants some consideration, given that this is predominantly young country setting off in a quest for a past.

Usually, the conversation about foreign education, as I noted earlier, is painted in black and white - either you like it or you don't. That this may be a far more nuanced issue than just liking or disliking it, is usually ignored, because such discussions don't rouse passions. So, the recent moves by the Indian Human Resources Minister in promoting the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit, at the expense of German in Indian universities, or the claims of ancient Indian science being superior to all modern inventions as made by the Prime Minister, are the ones which become representative statements, as opposed to the Wall Street backed claims of borderless education and inherent superiority of the Western Education (perhaps simply because there is more money in it). So, as the conversation in India gets dominated by the relevance of the ancient myths and the plans to set up schools and universities emulating the 'gurukul' system, the question of impact of Western Education on development, both economic and social, should be revisited with seriousness.

What complicates this further is that the socially conservative government in India, as in many other developed and developing countries, also wants to carry out a free market economic agenda. Even if 'utopia' is kind of a hate word forever associated with socialism, the vision for India now is to create a business-friendly land forever attached to the ancient values. In this vision, the roads are built in a tearing hurry and communities are displaced easily to make way for industry, while, at the same time, the society is preserved through strict observance of rituals, women remain attached to their homely duties and attire, and we experience a revival of the ancient values, and with that, the glory, of the once-great Indian civilisation. The education doctrine that the Indian government is trying to promote has these twin interests at the core.

It is a strange place to be, where one wants to embrace all the rapaciousness of Western business and yet reject the Western science and enlightenment, blaming the latter for colonial subjugation and hailing the former as the road to freedom. This may run counter to any reading of history, but history is a much contested territory in this young nation, which is justifiably touchy and generally view all attempts at resurrecting history as a conspiracy of some kind to undermine its identity and its aspiration. Indeed, this disregard of history isn't peculiar to the Hindu revivalists who are in power; the populist modernisers who preceded them in New Delhi also operated in a vacuum of history, engrossed in a mixture of technocratic vision and get-it-quick ideology, which, not unexpectedly, degenerated into a morass of corruption and inefficiency. The Hindu Revivalists represent an improvement of sorts, who intend to fill the vacuum of historical understanding with a made-to-order mythology, which is grounded in the rather obvious observation about Indians being different but come with an elaborately fabricated, if entirely misdirected, Vedic code of business.

This context, where the legitimate question of whether Western Education historically created and sustained power asymmetries and deep divisions in traditional societies (and in effect, destroyed them) get obscured by the newly concocted pop religiousity, make discussions about the impact of Western Education of great complexity and relevance. Yet, in this new challenge, one could see the issues involved in greater clarity: That it is not what is being taught, but why it is being taught, is the central question where the assessment of an educational approach may really start. The formula as constructed today is based on the rejection of enlightenment practice of questioning everything and dependent on technocratic observance of the rules, and yet that is an essentially Victorian practice which the hated Lord Macaulay imposed on India. A rejection of Western Science runs counter to the Indian value of assimilation, while embracing the World Bank mandated infrastructure-led growth may essentially violate the Indian idea of harmony with nature. These new dimensions of the debate, in many ways, open up new possibilities of inquiry, bringing together the discussions about educational approaches (which is predominantly Western) along with discussions about History, Culture and Economic Development.


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