It is said that two things that universally defines an Indian are color of skin (brown skinned people) and our attitude towards education. Out of the two as well, color of skin varies, but not the importance of education in our lives. It’s been part of our roots and cultural upbringing for so long that may be, it’s also become part of our evolution allowing our genes to mutate to strengthen our cerebral nerves, perhaps at the expense of other parts of our body ! Hence while Kenyans & Jamaicans keep producing great athletes and keep winning Olympic medals, and Russians do the same with gymnast, we Indian spend our time taking over software business ! It’s this same proclivity that, about 150 years back made illiterate, indentured Indian laborers in South Africa to spend their hard earned money to import teachers, instead of frittering away in good life for themselves.
Understanding why we are what we are requires us to take a journey 1.500 years back and relive the fascinating history of Indian education. A journey that, ironically started with a near-perfect-system of education, before losing its way into mediocrity, followed by it’s recent revival. It’s a story of hope.
As early as 1500 BC, India had Gurukuls – from Sanskrit word Guru ( teacher) and kula (extended family), a type of school that was residential in nature, with pupils living near the guru, often within the same house. Gurukuls were supported by public donation, making Gurukul one of the earliest forms of public schools in human history.
Instead of preschools, those days formal education started with “Upanyama” , a compulsory set of learning activities that was prescribed to all children ( including girls) between age of 8 and 12, teaching the essence of good living . After this, till the age of 25, individuals are prescribed to remain unmarried as students at the Gurukuls. Education at Gurukul essentially involved three basic processes, ‘Sravana’ (acquiring knowledge by listening). ‘Manana’ ( to think, analyse themselves and assimilate the lessons taught by their teacher) and lastly ‘Nidhyasana (comprehension of truth and apply it in real life). This is exactly the principle followed by top education schools today ! However there is one major difference ! Teachers those days were more than just role models for the students they lived with. Students were taught to worship teachers (along with parents ) as human face of God !
With time, some Gurukuls evolve into full-fledged Universities. Thus world’s 1st University came to be established in 7th century BC in Taxila. Syllabus those days, constituted of Vedic literature expounding different branches of human knowledge, covering almost all the aspects of life, be it arts, literature, medicine, polity, law, philosophy and astronomy. Vedic literature even covered topics like how to stay healthy, avoid social evils and improve concentration. Taxila University rose to become world renowned for medical studies, while Varanasi University was known for religious studies and so on. Nalanda University earned the reputation of being the highest learning center in the world and students from foreign countries like China, Japan, Korea used to come for higher studies. It had eight colleges, one of them even had a four storied building and about 10,000 students and teachers. It is one of the earliest examples of full fledged University in human history. .In nutshell, education those days was in India what we see in USA today !
To dispel a common perception, those days there was no bar to enter Universities based on gender, cast etc. Hence individuals from humblest origin got opportunity to become highly educated and were respected in society as great achievers. For example, Vashishta, a son of a prostitute (Urvashi), became a great scholar. Vyasa of Mahabharata fame was the son of a fish-woman. A culture prevailed that furthered science. An age when Sushruta – the father of surgery was born. Ayurveda medicine was in full bloom and was amazingly sophisticated. One example is of delicate cataract operations on eyes performed without any of our modern facilities (obviously) ! In the field of mathematics, Brahmagupta created the arithmetic symbol of zero. Aryabhatta, the great astronomer & mathematician was the first to explain solar and lunar eclipse, introduced trigonometry etc. and is dubbed as “the man who first taught the world how to count”
Sadly such an exalted education system was confined to a relatively small section of society. It was not so much that common people were denied access to education due to any discrimination. Masses were busy in their traditional occupations like farming etc. Skills were learned on job under the guidance of elders.. Pursuing formal education had no relevance in their lives. Learned men of those times (sages and saints) pondered deeply over this matter and devised a clever way to impart the essence of their knowledge to common man by creating set of rituals and practices. These rituals inspired people to lead a more harmonious and healthy life. Some of these rituals have passed on thru generations and are practiced (perhaps blindly) even today.
As India progressed from ancient to medieval, education system deteriorated specially as western education system got forcefully implanted by British rulers. The primary purpose for the British to introduce their education system was to prepare Indian clerks to run local administration for them, when it became impossible to bring enough of their own countrymen for such low category jobs. Education served a second objective as well for the British..Through them British devised a unique method of distribution of power, keeping balance of power so as to prolong their rule by keeping Indians busy with their in-fighting’s. For a very different reason, missionaries supported this policy, they believed that western education would lead people to adopt Christianity.
Of course, the new education system did succeed in producing enough people to fill the lower levels of administration, as the British wanted. In addition, as an unintended consequence, it also produced Indian national leaders, intellectuals and reformers. This class then took upon themselves the responsibility to build a modern, open, plural, culturally rich, prosperous and powerful India. The first step in this endeavor was to free India from British rule and so they launched their struggle to free India.
After independence in 1947, free India had education as its key area of focus and continued the British education system (after all the leaders themselves were products of western education). Making education a priority resulted in opening of schools in every village, providing free education to rural, poor and girl child. The result is evident today. Literacy has gone up to 74% as per 2011 survey and India is fast becoming a global economic super power. Outside India as well, Silicon Valley, NASA and growing number of multinationals are dominated by Indian today. Indian children in US, keep dominating the national spelling bee competition, perhaps signalling growing dominance in the years to come. In South Africa as well, impact of indentured laborers using their hard earned savings to bring teachers from India, is evident today in the disproportionately high contribution South African Indians have made during freedom struggle and beyond. Indians in East and West Africa came mostly as traders, educating their children back in India & western countries and grown the family business further..
However limitations of present education systems are glaring as well. In absolute numbers, the figure of illiterates in India (25%) is alarming when you consider the country has population of a billion. No country can afford to have such large number of its population remain illiterate, ignorant and unskilled. Secondly, education that is still essentially based on British system has made Indian students crammer instead of developing their overall personality. Worse, students are losing their natural character because they are drifting away from traditional aspirations and values in preference to western materialism. Outside India, African governments are not focusing on Indians being minority, making a poor African Indians very vulnerable. Sadly, well to do Indians today are not coming together to invest in good education for poor Indians, the way their forefathers had done.
Good news is that now that visible gains can be seen, interest in education among Indians are at fever pitch today. Drive around any city in India today and you are greeted with a plethora of posters advertising local tuition classes reminding you importance education has in India’s lives today. Education’s become big business in India today. After school private tuition classes have as many as 50 students in a class -almost the same number that they have in schools as well ! No more of the personalized imparting of knowledge that the word “tuition” conjures in our mind. Tuition classes operate like mini-factories focusing exclusively on marks, rankings and entrance exams. It’s a serious indictment of education. Has Indian education system outlived its usefulness?
Its a question I pondered during my last trip to India. As i was walking in one of the busy marketplace, a small, barely visible tuition poster caught my eyes. They called themselves Gurukul. I conjured images of the residential school from ancient India, with bearded wise old men as teachers, where students learnt as much from how teacher lived his life as they did with what he taught. I got curious about this modern version and so entered the place. I realized that I have entered someone’s home instead of a formal school. In middle of city where space is at a premium, this was a tiny one bedroom flat. The lounge ( instead of sofa and dining table) had about 15 school chairs with a board fixed on the armrest to help students write , facing a TV fitted on the wall, instead of the usual blackboard. I noticed the room also served as a prayer room, since one of the wall had picture of the Hindu Goddess of learning ( Saraswati), resplendent with fresh flowers, flickering lamp and scented lit agarbatti. A gentle lady in her sixties welcomed me in. She was a retired English teacher, a widow living alone in her flat, she told me. No one comes to take tuition for English subject, she continued, they all come for maths and science. Since she is not qualified to teach these subjects, she has her daughter in law, a science teacher living in California, teaching via internet that’s shown on the TV. A webcam makes the class interactive. Her own daughter, she says is a brilliant maths teacher but is now a full time housewife in Johannesburg. She pitches in to teach maths. Very different set up from the usual tuition factories I mentioned to her. Internet based teaching is better than real classes, she explains, since students get taught by best teachers without having to travel to them. It’s also a great way for her to spend her retirement time since her students usually stay back for hours at times after the class, chatting with her of all that is going on in their lives. They act like family members, helping themselves in kitchen and even running errands for her sometimes. She lends them a patient ear, regaling them with her own stories and those that she taught as an English teacher. For me, she adds, this is not business, my students are my family, my life.
As I walked out of the tiny place, I turned to read the signboard again. Gurukul. This little place has unwittingly come as close to becoming a modern day version of Gurukul, our forgotten ancient heritage. Perhaps future of education lies in claiming back our past, starting again from where we first began.