Harnessing heritage – Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma“The SandHI Series of articles that the Financial Chronicle hosted … were an effort to give a brief glimpse of the range and rigour of traditional Indian knowledge systems. They suggest strong reasons for integrating Indian knowledge systems in mainstream education as opportunities for discovery, research and interpretation of our intellectual inheritance. This will equip students to critically evaluate the information available and to construct knowledge free from the stereotype labelling of knowledge as ‘traditional,’ ‘modern,’ ‘east,’ ‘west.’” – Amita Sharma

RishiIf one were to represent the contemporary educational scenario in India dramatically, a morality play would probably be a good choice. A host of actors battle the ground for knowledge, each claiming to be truer than the other, accusing the other of ‘tempting the mind’ of the nation with falsehoods.

The more cacophonous the contestation becomes, the more it begins to look like a ‘dumb charade.’ Instead of enquiring into what ‘truth’ is — which, in fact, is the very essence of education and the only way in which knowledge is discovered — the skirmishing sides want the rights to lay down a set of pre-determined forms as truth, defeating the very ground of knowledge or the need for education.

Such claims and counter claims are about power, not about education and the struggle is to seize the education system to make it a means of generating symbolic forms — of whichever hue — that in turn, entrench the power system.

This is the worst form of intellectual paranoia and fundamentalism and is symptomatic of the failure of the education system to develop a culture of critical consciousness capable of rational debate, self-reflection, imbued with faculties to evaluate and sift information to construct know­ledge and to disc­riminate betw­een the spheres wh­ere such knowledge can be used. Where is the great intellectual tradition of India that delighted in debate and celebrated questioning as a way of seeking knowledge? Why has the freedom to let ‘thoughts…wander through eternity’ sunk into the narrow confines of dogmatic facts, swerving between defensiveness and aggression, unsure of what they claim and why.

While there are several reasons for this, the deep-lying malaise is the loss of self-esteem and pride and the confidence in our own intellectual abilities and identity. This is the result of a steady and subtle colonisation of the mind that may have started historically with British rule over India but that continues post-independence. Modern day educational systems perpetuate the domination of western epistemologies.

This has spawned a mimetic knowledge system where the norms of knowledge construction and its legitimisation is on borrowed terms. We do not engage with our own environment and culture. Happy with borrowed language and borrowed technologies, we do not invest enough in research and cripple our ability to think originally and construct knowledge from our own resources, relevant to our society.

As a result, development problems of the nation get mortgaged to imported and ill-suited technologies. For example, dam structures in India often modelled on the slow-moving rivers of the US, do not add­ress the problem of silting caused by the fast-flowing rivers of India.

Oddly enough, the insistence of a ‘national’ educational system enc­ourages prescriptive content and information as ‘knowledge forms’ that cannot be interrogated or be deviated from. Paradoxically, the discourse of ‘national’ concerns be­comes yet another way of colonising the intellectual space of the country.

This is aggravated by the bureaucratisation of the academic system where academic institutions occupy the bottom rung of a hierarchy as subordinate ‘offices.” Bureaucrats as the neo-colonisers devise ways in which education institutions are to be controlled. Excessive control and regulation does not necessarily mean better quality, and standardisation of content does not necessarily mean better standards. So the increased numbers of educational institutes do not add up to quality. In the absence of quality, education barons thrive, commercialising education.

In such a context, educational debates whether in the guise of ideological warfare or regulatory norms or legal frameworks skim the surface of problems, evading the pivotal question of educational reform — how can the nation foster the creativity of its people to trigger their intellectual and material development in sustainable and ethical ways.

The question remains dormant also because it is believed that it is enough to canonise its concerns theoretically in the National Curricular Framework (NCF) which describes educational goals as value development and building a cohesive society, fostering a national identity preserving cultural heritage. The NCF also emphasises indigenous knowledge, the development of aesthetic sensibilities and the interface between cognition, emotion and action, by linking learning to work and life.

Despite the NCF, learning operations in all Indian classrooms are verbatim memorisation of officially sanctioned knowledge available in the textbooks.

Guru & ShishyaHow can educational processes be liberated from their own ent­renched authoritarianism so as to stimulate critical consciousness and holistic development that the national curricular framework posits?

As a first step, there is a need to re-examine the existing epistemological hegemonies that inform the text books without which the spirit of critical enquiry cannot be the guiding force of our educational system. The dominant epistemological paradigm in the current educational processes is based on western knowledge systems. Colonising constructs of India have marginalised its own powerful knowledge systems, or brushed it off as an amalgam of rituals and myths.

The long unchallenged dominance of such discourses, have not only spawned questionable and spurious theories about Indian culture and society, they have unfortunately obviated the memory of our own history and knowledge systems from the minds of our own people.

The strength and rigour of Indian knowledge systems have been elaborated upon by several scholars in diverse contexts, quite a few eminent ones being of non-Indian origin, but are strangely enough rejected by modern Indians — a testimony of their allegiance to their progressive education! It is said that if one does not know one’s own language, it is doubtful if one will have the ability to acquire competence in a foreign language. Indians need to know their own intellectual inheritance and to be able to evaluate it in its own context as well as its contemporary significance. And in a way to understand the critical implications of the choices they make now.

This kind of a statement arouses mainly amused disbelief or vehement rejection. Why deal with what is obscurantist? An indulgent attitude prefers to treat traditional knowledge systems as interesting antiquities, objects as in a museum, cultural/ethnographic studies rather than knowledge systems. Even those who believe in the strength of Indian knowledge systems ask the question — why should one know of one’s intellectual inheritance? Of what use is it to us? Does it offer a better solution to current problems? If not, how does it matter if one knows it or not?

The SandHI Series | Indian Knowledge SeriesAll these criticisms stem from a very limited idea of what is rejected. The SandHI Series of articles that the Financial Chronicle hosted in the Know pages from April 2015 to June 2015 were an effort to give a brief glimpse of the range and rigour of traditional Indian knowledge systems. They suggest strong reasons for integrating Indian knowledge systems in mainstream education as opportunities for discovery, research and interpretation of our intellectual inheritance. This will equip students to critically evaluate the information available and to construct knowledge free from the stereotype labelling of knowledge as ‘traditional,’ ‘modern,’ ‘east,’ ‘west.’

Such intellectual decolonisation will spur original creative discourse. It will also encourage a greater engagement with the local context as many traditional knowledge systems that have continued historically to serve human needs have been preserved as community practice. Such knowledge has an inherent dynamism and innovative energy generated by the real life contestations of its users but is relegated the place of folk customs and finds scarce place in text books or any formal educational curriculum. Research shows how several of these folk practices tested by time and real world challenges are constructed on valid scientific grounds. Neglect of these traditions has been a loss to its practitioners and researchers.

Local problems create a new idiom of knowledge by compelling innovation and encouraging re-interpretation of traditional knowledge forms in terms of their contemporary relevance. A study of traditional practices will offer opportunities to evolve appropriate technologies to address problems ranging from every day existence such as water, food , productivity to major environmental hazards on a more sustainable, equitable basis.

This will also imply the re-legitimisation of traditional knowledge practitioners as equal knowledge partners. Currently, there is a hierarchical relationship between the main curriculum like math and language and a co-curriculum like vocational education, privileging the former over the latter and discouraging lateral movements. It also creates a paradoxical situation, wherein despite the emphasis on skill development and practical knowledge, existing skills honed in real world and relevant to the knowledge domain are not recognized because they are not encoded in formal treatises. As a result, there is a dearth of skilled teachers, the real practitioners for whom the skill is not just a curriculum unit with a credit but a source of survival.

A good example comes from the community of artisans and artists. Design schools can conduct workshops with artisans and artists but they cannot be acknowledged as teachers because they lack formally prescribed educational qualifications. This restricts knowledge transfer.

IIT KanpurAn interesting innovation to break this impasse is IIT Kanpur’s intervention with the toy clusters of Varanasi, the moonj grass weavers of Allahabad and the metal sheet workers of Kanpur integrating traditional production processes with improved technologies in ways that empower traditional artisans while also working out IPR related issues of community owned traditional design products and technologies and to outline fair-trade strategies for these creative communities. The Design Manifesto released by the ministry of human resource development in January 2014 builds on such initiatives, foregrounding community needs to evolve appropriate technologies, valuing local knowledge systems, and integrating experiential learning with formal theorisation, well exemplified in the design education curricula and pedagogies in IIT Bombay.

Such engagements of premium academic institutes with local problems and the traditional knowledge resources in creative communities should help steer Make in India towards tradition bonds. They reverse the process of epistemological schizophrenia caused by formal educational systems wherein multiple world views clash, those that inhere in the community and those that the academic institution imports and the ability to negotiate between them instead of being encouraged is suppressed leading to a sense of alienation. Ironically, having driven a wedge between the school and the community by the way knowledge is legitimised, educational policies of the state then expect the school to be a platform for community participation.

An inclusive epistemic approach recognises the significance of culture as the locus of knowledge and its use. This recognition has the potential to make knowledge transformative. The World Dev­elopment Report 2015: Mind and Culture, underscores the importance of culture, which provides mental models that influence what individuals understand and espouses integrating knowledge scattered across many disciplines to inform development strategies.

While the implications of such an epistemology for formal education in India appear to prompt a radical re-designing, it is interesting to note that theoretically at least, the National Curricular Framework recognises that “ideally, various learning experiences should make an integrated whole.” This seems close to the way traditional Indian knowledge systems entwined multiple knowledge fields. Fragmented worldviews and the domination of economic reasons have been partly responsible for splintering knowledge into ‘useful ‘ and ‘useless’ with deleterious impact on the individual and society. Socially, this creates a false division of the math type as bright and gifted and the arts type as frivolous and unemployable. This has had a reductionist effect on educational systems, by knocking off subjects deemed irrelevant denting the traditions of liberal education.

At the individual level, this creates what T.S. Eliot calls the dissociation of sensibility, the disconnect between reason and im­agination, the loss of in­tuitive cognition — the source of creativity and innovation. Increasingly, even the market now recognises the higher productive value of holistic cognitive capabilities over simply specialised skill sets as these become rapidly obsolete and fail to respond to complex situations.

Both from an intrinsic and an instrumental perspective, it becomes important to consciously encourage cross-disciplinary studies, specially between science and liberal arts, technology and culture. The pedagogy of such cross-disciplinary study needs careful designing. The challenge is to develop processes that transact learning objects in ways that stimulate exposure to multiple knowledge fields encouraging the abilities for multiple interpretations, for analysis and synthesis of different ways in which reality is constructed, broadening and deepening comprehension , making for more inclusive perspectives. For example, a musical instrument can teach music, material sciences, physics, engineering, math, history, aesthetics. Examples can multiply. This will reduce the burden of too many subjects, while enriching understanding at many levels.

Such cross-disciplinary organisation of knowledge would also, for example, enlarge the study of history from just a narrative of political events to the study of ideas and the development of different knowledge systems. It would also nudge the study of history from the refracting lens of contemporary ideologies to scientific evidence. This in itself would do much to liberate us from the political prison-house of communal identities and to discover a truly national identity.

Most significantly it would change the way languages are taught. Lan­guages are taught as me­ans of social communication and fall in the domain of culture or literature. Never of science or technical knowledge. Cons­equently, they are not regarded as vehicles of knowledge. Worse, they get confounded with the religious beliefs of the community to which they belong. Politicisation of language has spelt the death of several important knowledge systems.

SanskritA good example is Sanskrit — one of the oldest Indian languages which holds much of our scientific, technical, philosophical and linguistic knowledge from the Vedic to the medieval period. There is a growing interest in this intellectual heritage, not only to clarify India’s place in the growth of ideas, but also to explore sustainable, and locally relevant solutions to current societal, environmental, and medical challenges. A similar case can be made for other classical languages in India. A study of classical languages will not only unlock a vast reservoir of knowledge of significance to the contemporary world, but will unravel an inheritance of ideas that have much in common, again highlighting a shared identity despite manifest differences.

The reason that this sort of cross-disciplinary study that knits together traditional with modern knowledge systems, and traverses multiple knowledge fields, has not taken off is the difficulty of finding teachers competent to use integrative pedagogies. To nurture academic institutions in this direction, it is important to allow them academic autonomy. It is this that will, over time, build the three pillars of a strong knowledge economy: creative thinking, innovations and a holistic world view.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a study of colonisation, Caliban accuses Prospero: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language.” A nation cannot build itself if it cannot think for itself. The SandHI Series of the Financial Chronicle reminds us that we have a rich inheritance of thinking in India. Modern India, in making itself, will be the stronger by building on it. – Financial Chronicle, 22 June 2015

» Amita Sharma is former additional secretary in ministry of human resources development. Right to Education

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