I accepted the invitation to speak this afternoon with some trepidation in view of the quality of the audience that I would be speaking to. Sandeep Bamzai was kind enough to let me have the choice on the topic that I could speak on and he readily agreed that in the mould of a teacher I could ramble a bit. So I told him that I would speak on the state of education in India, the condition of our schools and colleges and universities, the seriousness of students, the quality of teachers, the facilities that we provide to most of our universities because I do believe that the confused collage that we see in India today is largely a result of the education we are imparting to our young. But as I thought more on the topic I realized that most certainly this intelligent audience would be fully aware of the situation around us and, therefore, I should endeavour to think up something which would keep you engaged over the next 20 minutes, at the end of which I do not look like a fool and you are awake enough to let this become an engaging discussion post this talk.
A few months ago the UPA Chairperson, Shrimati Sonia Gandhi delivered the Convocation Address of the Aligarh Muslim University. At this Convocation she quoted a couplet from the Tarana of the University penned by one of the greatest Urdu romantic poets of the second quarter of the 20th century, the great Majaz Lucknawi and I quote “Jo abr yahaan se uththega, vo saare jahaan par barsega”. This was a dream of a University dreaming that its students step out, inspired by the knowledge they had acquired at their institution of learning and become inspirational enough to leave their footprint in the world. The founders of the University, or for that matter any university in the world contemplate a kind, gentle, evolved human being who can contribute to a modern, secular and compassionate world.
Gandhiji once said:
“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the students to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated. As long as such ideas persist there is no hope of our ever knowing the true value of education”
Having spent 12 years in the field of higher education I understand that there are three elements in education: elitist, professional and philosophical. The elitist element acts both as a threshold for higher social mobility as well as a means for developing the best intellect. The professional element offers specialized skills and knowledge required for controlling and navigating in modern society. At the same time, the second element generates new knowledge, fosters advances in technology and society. The third element in education, that is the philosophical, provides enlightenment on the conditions of human existence, teaches us to ask the correct questions and to think critically. It is also this element which guides the individual to cultivate good habits and attitudes like nurturing respect for oneself and for the other, arming himself or herself with the necessary skill to navigate through life. In other words the third element of higher education helps inculcating true values in individuals.
The problem lies in the fact that there is an imbalance in the importance given to these three elements by the students as well as by the teachers. Stress is today laid on the elitist and the professional element and all steps are taken to see that students excel in these elements – in terms of speaking, sense of dress, quality of English etc. Philosophy or rather a philosophical element in education is terribly neglected.
Unfortunately, humanities (philosophy, religion, literature, history, art) that have a rich tradition of seeking for the meaning of human life, exploring human values like justice, respect, tolerance, esteem for other; of grappling with human realities like guilt, joy, or suffering, the capabilities and limits of humans; as well as of analyzing the ethical and moral dimensions of action related to the categories of the good and the obligatory have gradually progressed to a back seat. And the interest today is in natural sciences and formal sciences, an interest that is solely concentrated on the elitist and the professional elements that these sciences offer. The stress is on economic growth. In other words, the focus and interest is on material well being and individual success, technical progress and economic development.
I believe that most of this informed and distinguished audience has heard of a world famous critic on philosophy, Will Durant. His most famous work was “The Story of Philosophy” in which he commented on the works of philosophers from Socrates to Gandhi. But there is another relatively lesser known work of his called “The Pleasures of Philosophy”. In this Durant laments that while there is so much emphasis in teaching mathematics and the sciences, that the mother of knowledge, which is philosophy is rarely taught and here I believe lies the crux of the problem. The best brains today sit in research labs. We have forgotten that evolved thinking cannot lie in dogma nor any in pure scientific progress and mathematics. True evolution of the human being comes from “knowledge”. And knowledge is the hand maiden of introspection, of attempts to understand the “nizam” around us, of an appreciation of the miracle of this “kayanat”, this magnificent world that deserves more than what we are giving it. So the question before us, more in the context of India is `whether we are even trying to bequeath our children with a knowledge, the word “knowledge” going beyond the term “education”. And this is where we falter. The question is that can we educate our young as Marcus Aurelius said:
“To perceive the swiftness with which things will vanish away;
their bodies in the world of space,
and their remembrance in the world of time.”
Can we open to our youth that, in a nutshell, the body is as coursing waters, all that is of soul as dreams and vapours, life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land, and after repute, oblivion.
or as Omar Khayyam in his first Rubai has said:
Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."
And then he goes on to say
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted---"Open then the Door!
"You know how little while we have to stay,
"And, once departed, may return no more."
To my mind a life of what we must teach our young is that in nature, there shall be kindness and benevolence. Having said this they must also be prepared to face the vicissitudes of life and the harsh reality they would be confronted with yet never forgetting the formulae of love and compassion. Here allow me to quote the famous Allama Iqbal on the advice he gave his son Javed when the young man was leaving home to study in England.
“Khuda tujhe kisi tufaan se aashna kar de, Ki teri bohr ki maujon mein istarab nahin.”
“May God confront you with some storms, for the waters of your life have been too placid?”
The youth that we teach can lead us to deliverance. We will be able to build an India with a semblance of idealism. We must challenge compromise that is the first principle of Governance today. We must invoke a rare sensitivity towards our citizens, a respect that unfortunately has been taken away by centuries of caste dominance, feudalism and faulty education systems. As Dr Amartya Sen has said, it is important to understand the long tradition of accepted heterodoxy in India that at all points of time we have given space to all religions – Budhism, Jainism, Agnosticism and Atheism and allowed them to compete with each other and in many ways transform themselves in now what we called Hinduism (a much later term). With the passing of centuries and in the wake of a number of thinking rulers, sawants, sufis and bhakts, we have evolved into a uniquely secular society. We celebrate celebrations of diversity in Kalidas’s Meghdutam (the cloud messenger), which applauds the beauty of variety of human custom and behaviour. A similar commitment to accepting and exalting – diversity comes in the prose and poetry of Amir Khusrau in the 14th Century, to the rich culture of non-sectarian religious poetry drawing on the Bhakti belief of Hinduism and the Sufi tradition of Islam. Therefore, secularism is part of our great inheritance. We must now transcend religion and caste and region and instill a firm belief in the young of India in a nation that can govern with strength and confidence, exhibit governance on similar ideological terms as that of Ashok, Akbar, Dara Shikoh and Jawaharlal Nehru. I harp back to Martin Luther King Junior who spoke of Gandhian notions of social provision that people knitted together into a human tapestry.
So as to sit in this room let us dream to translate the visions of a great India, an India that can neutralize the huge young talent at its disposal to create a country that can have the ability to once again rise above the murkiness of extant politics and reignite the visions of Ram Rajya, not just at a theoretical plane, but at a practical level to dominate the fields of technology and modern existence. I conclude by drawing your attention to the seven sins enunciated by Gandhiji.
· Politics without principles.
· Life without work.
· Pleasure without functions.
· Knowledge without character.
· Commerce without morality.
· Science without humanity.
· Worship without sacrifice.
May our youth rise above all this in our own lifetimes.
Thank you Ladies and Gentlemen. I am exceptionally honoured of being given an opportunity to speaking to such a distinguished audience of thinkers and teachers.