Is India on track to become an education superpower?

As World Student Day approaches on 15 October, to honour the birthday of APJ Abdul Kalam, one of India’s greatest Presidents, it is time to soberly reflect as to what India can offer the global student community in time to come. India has certain advantages that make it possible for it to become, in due […]

As World Student Day approaches on 15 October, to honour the birthday of APJ Abdul Kalam, one of India’s greatest Presidents, it is time to soberly reflect as to what India can offer the global student community in time to come. India has certain advantages that make it possible for it to become, in due course, a world leader in providing education services. All this is however subject to the government of the day implementing certain policies such as substantially increasing investment in education, unleashing the power EdTech in cooperation with the private sector, and so on and forth.

These days there is much talk about India becoming a global player in higher education, the way it once was with Nalanda, Taxila and other universities. Is this prophecy going to come true? It is indeed possible for India to become a world leader in higher education in the future but paradoxically enough, in order for this to happen, one of the first things we need to do is cease all such talk. Why is this the case?

It is because this is often the talk of men who love to make idle boasts and indulge themselves in meaningless chatter. It is the talk of the idle dreamer. We cannot recreate the past and we should not aim to do so. If India is to become a world leader in education, we must accept that it will happen in ways that will exploit the inherent talent of its people but also be very different from how we attained glory in the sphere of education in our great past. There is a marked difference between being positive-minded and optimistic on the one hand and being too self-congratulatory too early in the game. The attitude that helps both individuals and nations achieve great things is one of humility and a willingness to learn combined with iron-clad determination.

This does not mean that we should ignore the great achievements of the past. Indian confidence in its own institutions, culture and knowledge was shattered during the British colonial period. In recent years there has been a revival of indigenous knowledge which is all to the good. For instance, our ancient system of medicine, namely Ayurveda, has been revived and it has taken off in a big way, not only within India, but globally. This is excellent, and Ayurveda has much to offer to the world through treatment of illnesses using medicine with far fewer harmful side effects as compared with Western allopathic medicine.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking out textbooks in English and other languages popularising our ancient medical science, introducing courses and qualifications for Ayurvedic practitioners even as we devise ways to weed out the many quacks who may prescribe medicine without sufficient understanding and knowledge.

We should keep in mind, however that we invite ridicule when we contend that Ayurveda has a solution to all the world’s illnesses, including cancer and corona. While appreciating the great achievements of the past, it is important to retain perspective and not go over the top in attributing supernatural powers to our forefathers and ancient systems of knowledge.

Decades ago, Indian classical music too was dying out but with the help of groups such as SPICMACAY and the endorsement of Indian classical music by the Beatles, that too has experienced a revival. Similar efforts need to be made to ensure that Urdu, a great poetic language and part of our heritage and history continues to thrive and flourish.

With growing affluence, thought is also being given to the revival of indigenous architecture as far as the construction of important buildings is concerned. Soviet style large and ugly concrete structures are sought to be replaced. This too is a welcome development though we should possibly take care to put emphasis on refined artistic endeavour and eschew unnecessary extravagance.

There is perhaps no need to mention the revival of yoga for it has taken the world by storm. Yoga centres have been set up across the world from South Korea to Japan to the United States. International Yoga Day is now celebrated each year on 21 June by millions across the globe.

The last but by no means the least of the gifts that India has given to the world is that of ‘meditation’. Rationalists still voice scepticism but increasingly the benefits of meditation are recognized globally, including by the scientific and medical community. Thousands of centres have been set up across the world that teach different forms of meditation.

It is true that all this knowledge– Ayurveda, yoga, meditation – could never have existed in a vacuum. They could only have existed because there were great centres of excellence in education across India. A question arises here. Just as there has been a revival of Ayurveda, yoga, meditation, could there not be a revival of those ancient institutions? Unfortunately, this is neither possible, nor desirable. It is not possible because life does not go backwards. The model of education for a populous industrial society cannot be the same as that for a less populated pre-industrial society.

While fully acknowledging the greatness of our past, there should be a careful avoidance of any triumphalism and beating of drums. Each Indian, be he a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sikh or Parsi has a valuable contribution to make to our collective future and while there is nothing wrong in admiring the great achievements of our ancestors, in the end boastful talk will always be counterproductive.

Our ancestors too taught modesty, not boastfulness. It is important that we shine the light of self-awareness on our own limitations and focus of ways to improve and excel before speaking of leading the world. Humility combined with self-confidence is a leadership skill important for individuals as well as aspiring nations. We do have the capabilities and if only we have the right attitude as well, nothing can stop us from attaining great heights.

(Rajesh Talwar is the prolific author of thirty-eight books across multiple genres and has worked for the United Nations for more than two decades across three continents. His latest book is ‘Where Elephants Danced and Dragons Flew.’)