Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
Ideas and expressions
The author is a lecturer in physics, St. Stephen's College, New Delhi, and currently, Visiting Professor, Raman Research Institute, Bangalore.
The most obvious function of education is material and economic. It enables us to codify, augment and transmit skills - engineering, medicine, law, and so on. A thousand years ago, a wheelwright needed no manual - he looked, listened, and learned. Such learning is still possible today for a carpenter or a potter, but it is rapidly becoming extinct. It is true that the majority of human occupations require no specialised skills - to run a supermarket we need not know economics - but they do require the assimilation of written information and communication with a wider audience than a voice can reach. When reading and writing are taken for granted the illiterate find themselves at a great disadvantage. Furthermore, because of the faith humans appear to repose in the written word, literate learning makes it mark even where instinctive or other kinds of learning might have been more effective. (Hence, for example, How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
All employers recognise that certain qualities they seek in their employees cannot be taught formally - cooperation, sincerity, creativity, willingness to work hard - but most believe that these qualities can be picked up by osmosis in educational institutions. Education also serves as a filter - when a high-school graduate and a B.A. compete the latter almost invariably comes out on top, even though the job might require little that is learned in college. Finally, education in a democratic society bestows (especially in elite institutions) qualities that a "good family" or the "right class" did in earlier, more feudal times. It is important to appreciate, however, that education is, materially speaking, an investment with very high returns and that withholding it from anyone cannot undo the misunderstandings and prejudices built into it. The success of education is reason enough to make it available to everyone.
Another important function of education is emotional and political. A thousand years ago, a tribesman needed no civics lesson to identify with his tribe; he learned it without awareness of the process of learning. Such a life is still possible today, on an Andaman or Nicobar island, but it will not remain so much longer. The entities with which we identify now are much larger - a nation, a planet - and go back much further in time - to the Indus Valley or Greek or some other civilisation. To be citizens - i.e. to balance our individual needs and desires against those of the entities with which we identify ourselves - we need to know much more than in earlier times. It was easy for an illiterate tribesman to be a full and effective member of his tribe; his 20th century descendant cannot if illiterate be a full and effective member of his country.
Education is a uniquely powerful political instrument. In extreme cases it can warp the thinking of an entire generation. Becoming completely aware of the subliminal indoctrination to which we are all subjected may be impossible (perhaps even undesirable) but anyone who wishes to be a free citizen must be aware at least of the major influences acting upon him, and, if they are baneful, to combat them. In today's complex world - unlike that of a thousand years ago - even recognising such influences often requires a certain amount of education. As importantly, education, because of its successes, confers confidence and power, without which it is impossible for anyone to assert his identity and fight for his rights.
The final function of education that I will dwell on is the creative and expressive. In a sense this is the most important function because the others are subsumed under it. Every act of creation or expression takes place within a matrix (meaning, literally, a womb) or an ensemble of matrices: ideas or images come together and something new comes into being. Some of these matrices we are born with, some we acquire unconsciously as we grow up, and still others we learn through formal education. The most extreme examples of learned matrices are those within which scientific and mathematical discoveries are made.
For most of us, however, the matrix most easily available, and also the most fertile, is language. In an average child the ability to speak is magical compared to the ability to draw, sculpt, sing, dance, or add and subtract. Through most of human history speech was the only medium in which language found expression. But with the invention of writing language took on a life beyond the moment of utterance: it began to reach out into the far corners of the world and long into the future. Ideas expressed in writing bore more fruit and more of the fruit survived. Homer and Valmiki speak to us through the written record of their words; the greatest geniuses of earlier times are forgotten.
Of course, it is not just poets who need to read and write. Anyone who wishes to express an idea effectively must do so in a form more durable than speech - he must write it or otherwise communicate it to a literate audience. The world of the literate is like a vast grid in which ideas flow like electricity. Literacy defines the channels of communication not just for those who read and write but for all. Even an unwritable idea goes much further in a literate world.
So long as the written word remained just that - written - its influence, though much wider than that of the spoken word, was limited to clusters. For thousand of years, percolation between clusters occurred only through slow and arduous travel. The invention of the moveable type by Gutenberg in the 15th century suddenly gave ideas a mobility they never had before. With the advent of the railways and the radio, percolation between clusters increased dramatically. At the end this millennium, with air travel, satellite television, and the Internet, the clusters have begun to merge.
The intermingling of ideas and cultures (and indeed of human beings) is something most of us support and benefit from. At the same time, it is impossible not to mourn the passing of the particular and the peculiar. At the beginning of the last millennium several thousand cultures flourished and as many languages were spoken.
Even 100 years ago, innumerable styles of arts, literature, music, and dance (even something as impersonal as science) thrived in different parts of the world. An inevitable result of rampant communication is that the weak among cultures and languages are wiped out. By the end of this millennium, this may not be an issue at all - there may be just one culture and one language in the world.
Patterns in education
Until not too long ago, only the elite were literate; but it would be naive to think that the rest were uneducated. The majority of human occupations required little formal training. In the absence of the web of literacy, influences were local, and most skills and matrices required no formal education. Literacy was not essential to education.
With the invention of writing, about 5000 years ago, there naturally arose a class that learned to read and write. Since written ideas are more durable the literate class was able to build rapidly upon its learning and the discoveries made through it. In the ancient civilisations of Central America, West Asia, North Africa, and India, the literate class was almost entirely priestly, and its learning was in fields like religion, ritual, and mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, and some engineering and architecture. In ancient China and Greece, the dominance was less priestly and the emphasis therefore more humanistic - i.e. more concerned with fulfilling the potentialities of human beings. Everywhere, however, formal education was elitist. This elitism began to lift only in the middle of this millennium, and has not completely disappeared even after 500 years.
The Greek model of education was absorbed almost unchanged by the Romans and continued in southern Europe until about the 5th century, when the Gothic and Germanic tribes from the north vanquished Rome. This model, revitalised by Europe in the middle of this millennium, was eventually to dominate the world.
In the meantime, the Arabs kept alive the classical cultures of Greece and Rome, and enriched it with their own culture and those of other parts of the world, e.g. India, that they came in contact with in their travels. In India this was the age of the Guptas and Harshavardhana and of Taxila and Nalanda. Aryabhata lived in the 5th century; the significance of the zero, one of the greatest mathematical discoveries, was realised in India at this time. In China this was the time of the Tang Dynasty, when classical Chinese civilisation reached its high point.
By the 8th century Europe was ready to learn from the Arabs what was partly already theirs. By this time, the dominant learned class were Christian monks. Consequently, the essentially humanistic bent of the inherited tradition was obscured and religious learning was again emphasized. However, the ancient cultures were kept in suspended animation in the libraries of the great monasteries of Europe. By the 12th century, universities had come up in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. Though education remained largely a religious affair, some of the scientific and secular ideas passed on by the Arabs inevitably leaked out into the minds of the most determined scholars. Beginning in the 14th century there was a period (called Renaissance) of the rebirth of classical ideas in Europe and, with it, a rebirth of Europe itself. As these ideas caught on, they came together to form two major goals, which came to dominate the world by the end of the millennium: the fulfillment of human potential and the technological society.
Copernicus, who was trained for the church, propounded his heliocentric theory of the world (largely derived from ancient Greek ideas) in the 16th century. Galileo, Kepler, and Tycho Brahe laid the foundations of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries. Newton arrived on the scene in the middle of the 17th century and with his unmatched genius laid order on the scientific findings of his time. His theories of nature introduced into the minds of thinkers the idea that scientific understanding could be used to control and use nature, i.e. the idea of engineering.
Nevertheless, science remained largely a philosophical pursuit for the next two centuries. Then, in the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution suddenly changed everything. Mechanisation required an understanding of the principles of science. Skills required of craftsmen became complex and could not be learned by apprenticeship alone. Engineering became an essential part of formal education. At the same time, the success of technology gave a great boost to science.
Meanwhile, in the emotional and political world too enormous changes were taking place. The humanist idea of seeking fulfillment for the potentialities of men and women began to regain ground during the Renaissance. In the 16th century, Erasmus became a champion of humanist education. Though his ideas were powerful, Erasmus was too much of an elitist to allow that fulfillment might be for everybody, not just the upper classes.
Even in this era of elitism, however, there was one route towards higher education that the common man could take - the Church. One such common man was Martin Luther, the charismatic and profoundly influential founder of Protestantism. He favoured, and made possible, education for the children of miners and peasants. As a result of the great religious and social changes during this period, called the Reformation, education began at long last to emerge from the cloister. The idea that fulfillment was for everyone began to catch on.
In the 19th century, the formalisation of both humanistic and scientific education increased rapidly in Europe and its offshoot North America. The university system, which dominates higher education the world over today, was perfected in 19th-century Germany. Faraday and Maxwell laid the foundations of electro-magnetic theory, which made electricity and radio communication possible. The son of a brick-layer, Gauss, became the prince of mathematicians. Darwin proposed his theory of evolution which radically changed man's view of this place in the universe. John Stuart Mill and John Ruskin wrote influentially on the means and ends of life. This was the early youth of the idea of democracy, born of humanism, and of the idea of the ever-progressing technological society, born of science and engineering.
The transformations that changed Europe in the last half millennium and dominate the world today entered India (and most of the world) rather deviously. The Industrial Revolution was at least partly responsible for the colonisation of India. India fed the mills of Britain and bought their products. As the domination of India by the British became more complete, it became expensive to import the large numbers of white men required to govern the country. Indians, it was discovered, could, if they knew English and something of European culture, ably assist the British to govern. In 1935 Macaulay introduced the European model of education into India. Along with babus this education produced Indians who became aware of the humanistic and scientific goals of western education, and saw no reason why Indians too should not strive for them. In addition to the intrinsic worth of these goals, the very denial to the colonised peoples of these goals, and the human worth that they presupposed, made them all the more alluring. Education in India and other colonies therefore automatically followed in the steps of Europe.
The extraordinary material successes of Europe and America in the 20th century made the western model of education a juggernaut that flattered every other in its path. We celebrate, of course, the political freedom and material comforts that this system of education has made possible. We seek them for the whole world as we begin the millennium. But perhaps we should sometimes stop to wonder what an Australian Aborigine or an American Indian of a thousand years ago would have had to say about the education and the goals that we take for granted.
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