Education Reviews

Poverty of ideas and a crisis in learning

Why has Indian education failed to imbibe the teachings of Gandhi and Tagore and lead students towards a path of inquiry?

Shashikala Srinivasan attempts to articulate what Tagore seems to have learnt from folk traditions and Gandhi from his practice of crafts, especially spinning. Together, they stand as tall and exceptional figures in the history of ideas about education. Their special contribution lies in critiquing colonial education. There were other critics too, but Gandhi and Tagore went deeper in realising why colonial ideas about educating Indians were going to prove a long-term liability.

This book looks at the present-day crisis of higher education by, first, probing colonialism philosophically and, then, listening to the deeper voices of Gandhi and Tagore, to seek answers for the future. As one might imagine, these answers are of a radical nature. In fact, this book is not about solutions at all. It helps us to understand how lost we are as a society, in terms of our idea of knowledge and its authentic pursuit in colleges and universities.

Colonial rupture

Srinivasan starts her complex critique of India’s higher education by tracing the evolution of liberal education in Europe. She explains its socio-cultural and political roots that permitted it to blossom under the conditions created by industrial growth.

The European model of education offered to the young student a route to development of the self by inquiry into the natural and social worlds. Theory-building and personal verification played important roles in the student’s growth. It is common knowledge that Indian education fails to develop these habits of mind and capacities in a vast proportion of students. The question why this is so is mostly answered with reference to poor management of higher education, paucity of funds, political interference, and so on. All these surmises may be true, but Srinivasan’s approach takes us to a different plane of questioning.

She persuades us to recognise the rupture that occurred in our collective mind and ethos about two centuries ago when the colonial (or modern) system of education got established. Older institutions faced ridicule and destruction.

Srinivasan’s sharp analysis of historical documents from early 19th century reveals that colonial observers could not fully grasp the nature of education imparted by indigenous institutions. The external gaze missed certain key characteristics of the older system, especially its conception of knowledge and the practice of learning. Without being emotional, Srinivasan tells us why the colonial rupture had such crippling effect that we still cannot reflect and converse at leisure about the crisis our universities and colleges face today.

Srinivasan devotes a substantial part of her book to Gandhi. She helps us to recognise the deeper epistemology of crafts like spinning that Gandhi practised as a matter of personal culture and promoted as a symbol of struggle against colonial rule. Crafts provide a reflective space for the growth of self-discipline as a necessary ingredient of social ethics. This kind of practical learning helps us conceive education without compartmentalising it into hierarchies of various kinds.

Healing art

Srinivasan’s analysis of Tagore points out that he too was aware of the problem of treating the isolated individual self as the learner. Art, he thought, will heal the injury colonial rule had inflicted on the Indian psyche, especially on its capacity to think freely and with confidence.

As one might imagine, Srinivasan has no solutions to offer. She hopes that by drawing on different traditions of thought, we can “create a richer milieu of discussion about education, enlarging our notion of what it means to lead a life of learning today.” That is the last sentence of this incisive book, which must be read — and re-read — by people who are concerned about India’s educational institutions. It is an exceptional contribution to a field currently wading through a long bog of trivialities.

Liberal Education and its Discontents: The Crisis in the Indian University; Shashikala Srinivasan, Routledge, ₹995.

The writer’s latest book is Padhna, zara sochna (Reading, with a little care to think).

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 2:46:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/poverty-of-ideas-and-a-crisis-in-learning/article30821710.ece

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