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Of Macaulay and Nehru: A dilapidated education system and the need for the phoenix to rise from the ashes

What was taken by Macauley was history, context, and language from primary education, but Nehru took something far more important - the scientific temperament and method from the institutions of higher education.

A nation is all but a community. A community of people who have a commonality, it maybe is language, ethnicity, history, or a common culture. The most valuable or critical aspect of a nation is its human resource. For a nation to thrive, the well-being of its human resource or populace is of utmost importance, it directly affects both the social fabric as well as the economic strength of any nation. It has far-reaching implications to a nation’s economic and socio-political stability; a docile populace will be prone to making choices of short-term convenience while a populace with active thinkers will be able to reason and thereby make choices that can strike a balance between short term necessities and long term aspirations.

These factors are obviously more pronounced in democracies than authoritarian regimes as democracies rely on the wisdom of the crowds and therefore the Achilles’ heel of democracy would be a populace susceptible to groupthink. It is only fitting of a lazy administrator or a cunning one, like a colonial power (or someone corrupt) to subdue the power collective wisdom by limiting it’s people’s judgement, their ability to get information from various sources, and their ability to analyze it while making them prone to forming a collective rationalization with the aid of self-appointed mind guards. The above can be achieved through regressive education policies as was done in the 19th Century by Macaulay and continued by Nehru in my opinion.   

A plethora of research studies available today suggests that the role of instruction during formative years in the mother tongue is immense. A track record of innovation and success of nations with instruction in native languages versus that of the ones with foreign languages is also a testament to the fact that national identity and the language of instruction is strongly correlated to success in academic institutions and therefore the nations themselves (i). Early on under the British rule, there were efforts and “lakhs of rupees” allocated “for the revival and promotion of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories.”  

But in 1835, Macaulay came in the picture, according to Macaulay promotion of science and literature was a lost cause in India and instead of spending that money on Sanskrit or Arabic, the British should use it for rewards for killing Tigers in Mysore and building Churches. As and I quote him verbatim – “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.” Over the next couple of centuries, the existing educational institutions were dismantled, the medium of instruction was switched to English from Sanskrit and Arabic. The curriculum was stripped off of all things Indian and the education was a means to provide administrative bilinguals who don’t question authority and timidly follow orders.

What was taken by MACAULAY was history, context, and language from primary education, but Nehru took something far more important – the scientific temperament and method from the institutions of higher education

Now, one half of the problem is Macaulayism, but Nehruvianism was the last nail in the coffin. Instead of righting the wrongs of the past, Nehru went on with them and further degraded what was left of them. What was taken by Macaulay was history, context, and language from primary education, but Nehru took something far more important – the scientific temperament and method from the institutions of higher education.

By nationalizing autonomous institutions and effectively converting education into a hierarchy of babus with the top being secretaries trickling down to chancellors to then the professors for the students to bear the brunt of it all. India went from having people like Satyendra Bose, Jagdish Chandra Bose, and C.V. Raman, who were in their own right in the leagues of Einstein, Rayleigh, and Plank to none. Advanced research is all but extinct in India.

It is a missed opportunity for leveraging the rich culture and millennia of wisdom through ancient academic texts. The rich heritage of India, the concepts that encompass not just spiritualism but explore philosophy, metaphysics, biology, astrophysics, and mathematics are mostly omitted and not even introduced as a byline to an “educated Indian”. While Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius are known; Kanada and Aryabhata are forgotten. While Machiavelli and Sun Tzu are known; Chanakya is forgotten. While empires of Rome, Alexander, and Qing are taught; Mauryas, Marathas, Cholas, and Chams are forgotten. While Louis de Broglie, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Max Plank have ample space in our books; Satyendra Bose, CV Raman, Ramanujan, and Jagdish Chandra Bose are forgotten.

The last and the only Indian to win a Nobel Prize in Natural Sciences was won by C. V. Raman (ii), Govt. of India honoured him with the first Bharat Ratna, but he smashed that medallion in protest against Nehru’s policies on scientific research. Raman was very much against Nehruvian socialism and believed that science could never be developed in closed rooms taking orders from government and working at the whims and wishes of bureaucracy. Raman was against government control of scientists and scientific enquiry and remained against it till the end of his life. His vision was to have and develop a scientific temperament and believed it was necessary for the scientists and the government in India to reach out to people if science had to grow and wanted Nehruvian Soviet-type hierarchies and politics out of research Institutes. But boy oh boy did we suffer because of it. Over the next few decades, bureaucracy and politics thrived while innovation and science got gutted.

Ironically, Nehru is heralded as a man of science and someone who leads the Indian scientific community. Yeah, right. He led the Indian scientific community into bureaucracy and babu raj. Nehru took away the scientific temperament and replaced it with a bureaucratic socialist hierarchy which forbade the very essence of science and innovation i.e. questioning the authority, for science cannot flourish without questions, and questioning the person who got us freedom was almost a sin, it still is. Not just C. V. Raman, another pioneer scientist that managed to get into the crosshairs of Nehruvian socialism was Homi Bhabha. Nehru delayed the and resisted the nuclear program, his misplaced idealism or (as I would put it) pro-soviet stance prevented technology transfer from the US (So much for Non-Alignment). Under Homi Bhabha, the scientific community started lobbying for the bomb and as is evident, it was Bhabha himself who was most vocal about nuclear aspirations.

However, Nehru’s ambivalence on nuclear decision making continued to be the brick wall against which the scientific community kept running into. As Former foreign secretary, Maharajkrishna Rasgotra reveals in his book, Nehru not only had turned down United States’ offer of a permanent seat in the UN but had also turned down an offer by US president of nuclear technology transfer to India. Had Nehru been more concerned about securing India’s strategic interests rather than pushing for his by then increasingly untenable idea of NAM, India could have become a nuclear power way earlier. (A. Kapur, “The Nehru-Bhabha Years, 1947-64,” in Pokhran and Beyond: India’s Nuclear Weapons Capability, Oxford University Press, 2003).

What followed next in the chain of events as India went through successive leaders from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, meritorious scientists were supplanted with sycophantic pseudo-intellectuals which formed an establishment and just as one would guess this establishment, a nexus of connected gatekeepers of truth and opportunity, the Orwellian Squealers if you will, hailed Nehru as a visionary while gutted initiatives of academicians. The result is that India lost the edge, from being at the forefront of scientific discovery we have become laggards. While the needs of the nation increased, these gatekeepers hailed exclusivity and shortage of supply as their way of limiting competition and thereby limiting opportunities for the students. Which was evident from the fierce protests by the chancellors of IITs and other institutions of higher education when the Govt. recently proposed new IITs.

The overall result is that institutions of higher education are grounds for political activism, case in point the DUs and JNUs and are not producing economists and scientists who can solve the problems of India. The IITs are gold-plating gold by taking in crème de la crème of India and sorting them into streams based on ranks and not aptitudes, they have become a steppingstone to foreign universities, the MITs and Harvards of the world. The fact that an average graduate from the best government institutes chooses to go abroad for honing or deep diving into high tech research is a testament to that.  

Textbooks were hijacked by leftists and communists who distorted facts and presented half-truths, over the years an attitude of self-deprecation was inculcated by eulogization of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s achievements, British rule, and highlighting achievements of Islamic invaders and subjugation in the mind of an average Indian. If that wasn’t enough, a sense of classism based on command of English language was also added to the mix (it already existed due to Macaulay but it was amplified by Nehru and his kin as they were a product of and sole beneficiaries of the prevalent system).

Science and education took a back seat in institutions and politics were at the forefront, merit gradually lost its sheen and became a casualty over the years. The primary education produced zombies who are good test takers but lack emotional intelligence, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking as Macaulay intended. Rote learning was and is a preferred criterion over the actual understanding of concepts and their applications when evaluating a student. As for higher education, I’ll rest my case with the following – India produces, about 2.6 million STEM graduates every year and that translates to roughly 16,000 patent applications, compared with China and US, which produces about 4.7 million and 600,000 STEM graduates respectively which translates to about 1,400,000 and 285,095 patent applications respectively for the two countries. [8] [9]

A major consequence of the dilapidated education system is that an average Indian graduate is a test taker and a job seeker, crucial parts of the value cycle – entrepreneurship and innovation are KIA. But it is not all doom and gloom, Indians are foremost, survivors. They have endured millennia on this Earth and have resilience entrenched in their DNA. Though they are victims of their own systems, over the years they have developed a sort of herd immunity and a self-defence mechanism, lacking infrastructure at home, they have flourished abroad.

Indians now make up about 20-30% of the graduate student population in top institutions across the globe, the tech giants of the world also have a similar trend among employees and companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Pepsi (formerly) have CEOs of Indian origin. Also, in recent years, the Startup ecosystem has flourished in India and the number of Indian unicorns is surging. A new education policy (NEP 2020) has been introduced, which provides a glimmer of hope, though I wouldn’t count my chickens before they hatch, NEP 2020 seems to be a step in the right direction with supposed thrust on actual learning and not just rote memorization and getting a degree. As an optimistic sceptic, I hope there is a transformational change and a phoenix rises from the ashes.

[i] Correlation does not dictate causality, and obviously many other factors contribute to success in advanced technology development. Nonetheless, the instruction method does have a huge impact and therefore is one of the major factors.

[ii] Not to construe that winning a Noble prize is a sole indicator, but it is one such measure to gauge or quantify innovation

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Kshitij Chopra
Kshitij Chopra
Learner. Explorer. Cinephile. Excursionist. Inventor. Entrepreneur.

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