The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is one of the most significant announcements by the government this year. A roadmap for moulding the young mind, the true impact of the policy will only be visible after many years.
Some of the key phrases in the policy document include reference to the rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge. “The pursuit of knowledge (jnan), wisdom (pragyaa), and truth (satya) was always considered in Indian thought and philosophy as the highest human goal... The aim of education in ancient India was not just the acquisition of knowledge as preparation for life in this world, or life beyond schooling, but for the complete realisation and liberation of the self;” noted the policy. The policy, therefore, wants education to move towards less content, and more of learning about how to think critically and solve problems, how to be creative and multidisciplinary, and how to innovate, adapt, and absorb new material in novel and changing fields.
If the execution of the policy is true to this sprit, then it will not just change the outer appearance of the Indian education system but will transform its very core. And why would one say so?
The present system was inherited from what British transplanted and words of Lord Macaulay still resonate on the very purpose of English education in India. The system underwent many changes but essentially retained the core reductionist principle on which the Western system of knowledge is based. The Western system assumes that knowledge of reality/object can be gained by dividing it into simpler parts. How will the atomistic view be integrated to derive the complete view remains an open question. This explains the plethora of university departments, each working in silos and developing its own world view. Attempts have been made to cross fertilise such areas as law and economics, behavioural economics, econo-physics in social sciences, etc, to derive a better understanding, with limited success.
The follies of this approach have been recognised even in the West. John Henry Cardinal Newman
authored a book the Idea of a University
which critiqued the state of education in England in the 19th century. In particular, he coined the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘servile’ education to explain the difference. Servile education is one which is tied to a utility, say employment, or economic growth. This education has a detrimental impact on the moral fabric of an individual and does not develop the discriminatory power of the intellect which liberal education develops as it is not tied to a utilitarian end.
Now, the Indian knowledge system is in complete contrast to the Western system. Vedanta propounds that reality can be identified at two levels – the pramarthika (the ultimate) and vyavaharika (the relating to business or practice). The knowledge of the former is para vidya and later the apara vidya. Both ought to be acquired and both are equally important. Nor are they mutually exclusive because the ultimate reality manifests itself in diverse form. That one is, therefore, incomplete without the other, is emphasised by the Isa Upanishad.
The implication of this insight touches Indian life at many levels. The entire journey of an individual from student to householder to retirement is a gradual motion from vyavaharika to pramarthika. Even scientific disciplines, such as Ayurveda, recognise two levels of human body: the gross and the subtle and good health is a delicate balance between the two. In political science, as explicated in the Arthasatra, complete education involves knowledge of – Ānvīkṣikī (scientific/philosophical enquiry), trayi, varta (commerce), danda-niti (law and public administration).
Even quantum physicists were aware of the correlation between quantum mechanics and the way the ancient Indians described reality.
The Indian system then progresses to explain how knowledge is acquired, what are the right means of acquiring knowledge and methods of logical reasoning. Only when an individual is exposed to such a diverse thought process since childhood that the discriminatory power of the buddhi (intellect) develops and education becomes a way of life. Of course, within this, an individual is free to choose his own subjects based on his natural inclinations.
Thus, what is liberal in the Indian system is very different from what is propounded by Newman – the underlying tension between the ‘liberal’ and ‘servile’ does not exist as is visible in recent debates on educational reform in Australia
to move students away from humanities courses and towards those deemed more likely to result in a job at the end.
In conclusion, what path the policy adopts in future is not certain. How will the proposal of multidisciplinary education integrate to form a creative, motivated, economically productive and balanced individual? If the approach is truly Indian, then things will ultimately fall in line because of the integral unity but if the multidisciplinary education is a reaction to ‘liberal’ and ‘servile’, then not much will change.
Nevertheless, the step deserves praise as it recognises the failure of the past system and has moved to rectify the same. Stress on regional and local languages, inclusivity and the use of technology are emphatic. One also hopes that the Euro-centric bias in the history of many disciplines (not just political history) such as mathematics, architecture, medicine, metallurgy, etc, are also conveyed in a proper perspective to cultivate a sense of “pride in India, and its rich, diverse, ancient and modern culture and knowledge systems and traditions.”
(Saket Hishikar is an economist in the banking sector. Views are personal)