Ashoka University chancellor Iconic Speaker at BCC&I virtual conclave
History and the nature of modern education in India was at the heart of the Iconic Speaker lecture at the 4th Annual Education Conclave held virtually by The Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in association with ABP Education.
Rudrangshu Mukherjee, chancellor and professor of history at Ashoka University, spoke about the birth of modern education in Bengal, Tagore’s influences and the road ahead.
The historian and author was introduced by Sumit Das Gupta, managing director, Allcap Communications.
Excerpts from the session:
History of modern education in India
Modern education in India can be said to have begun with the establishment of Hindu College in Calcutta in 1817. This institution can be called a public-private partnership. Some wealthy individuals of Calcutta were enthusiastic to make sure their sons would be taught the English language, literature and western sciences and they were assisted by the then British government.
In 1831, an episode occurred at Hindu College which led to it becoming Presidency College in 1855. This episode reveals the real purpose and intention behind setting up Hindu College. The episode was the sacking of a young and brilliant teacher named Henry Louis Vivian Derozio.
Derozio was a child prodigy of Indo-Portuguese origin. He taught literature, ethics, philosophy. He was self-taught and did not receive any formal education after the age of 14. His mode of teaching and purpose was new at the time.
He wanted to open up the minds of the students, to allow them to think for themselves, to question the environment surrounding them.
Some students started protesting the traditions, superstitions and mode of life. Their mode of protest was quite radical at that time and that alarmed their parents who were connected to the governing body of the Hindu College. They thought their sons were challenging their religion, lifestyle and that was not the reason why they had been sent to Hindu College. They wanted their sons to have western education so that they could get jobs in the growing British-Indian administration. They were alarmed by Derozio’s new ways of teaching.
After investigation, they concluded that Derozio’s teachings were at the root of the revolt.
People were not concerned with the quality of education. The vision of these pioneers of modern education was thus narrowly instrumental. The purpose of education was to get a permanent government job.
This remained the purpose of education after the establishment of the first universities in Calcutta and Madras in 1857.
Rabindranath Tagore’s method of modern education
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen refers to Rabindranath Tagore's Visva-Bharati as a “school without walls”.
Tagore wanted his method of education to act as a bridge between freedom and the fettered mind. He wanted the students of Santiniketan to be taken gently by the hand and ushered into a world that was free and full of wonder. Students of Visva-Bharati were not to be educated to get jobs but they were to be educated for life.
He wanted to free education from the shackles of government control. In an essay called Reform of Education, he quoted a passage from Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. He wanted education to touch the inner souls of individuals that, he believed, was not possible under a state-run education curriculum.
Tagore led a quiet and persistent protest against the prevailing education system and its narrow and instrumentalist orientation. He wanted his method of education to imbibe introspection and solitude among pupils. Thus the deliberate decision to locate the abode of learning in a rural setting, away from the squalor of the urban world.
One of Visva-Bharati’s most famous students, Satyajit Ray, had said that Tagore’s adobe of learning helped opened windows of the mind.
The road ahead
Students should look at the world through the windows of their minds. To do this, students would have to be enabled to think critically and articulate their thoughts lucidly. The minds of the students have to be opened.
Over several generations, we have witnessed the closing of the Indian minds because of the narrow instrumentality of our education system, beginning from school. From heavy school bags to the pressure to perform to the drive to land a lucrative career, everything in our education system suppresses the ability to truly learn. Our classrooms and lecture theatres are confined rather than liberating. Where students should be taught to doubt and question, they are taught to accept.
The challenge before us therefore is to retrieve what Derozio and Tagore wanted to achieve. Only then will the creative and innovative energies of the youth of India be unleashed. For all of us engaged in the field of education, this is our collective responsibility and we should have the courage and commitment to live up to this responsibility.
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