Just as numbers give democracy legitimacy, education gives it the oxygen to evolve for public good. Education gives the electorate better knowledge and wisdom to elect the right representatives, and thereafter to keep them on a tight leash, to ensure that their actions are directed towards common good, that they do not abuse their power or betray the trust of the people.
India's age old education system received a fatal blow during the century preceding Independence, which was as traumatic as the ruination of its economy under British rule. And the effects of both continue to persist even today. Mahatma Gandhi said in London on 20 October 1931, "Today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, because the British administrators, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out ... and the beautiful tree perished."
Despite the conquests and historical turmoil of the last millennium, India was never a country with low literacy rates, as it became after two centuries of British rule. It had a well-established traditional system of vernacular education, carried out through pathshalas and gurukuls that had existed from thousands of years, and madrasas. Several scholars and British authorities, notably William Adams, a missionary turned journalist, record the existence of well-established education institutions in every village and town teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. William Adam's Report on the State of Education in Bengal and Bihar (1837-38) states that there existed about 100,000 village schools around the 1830s, something confirmed by Max Mueller. Governor Thomas Munro found that every village had a school in most portions of Madras Presidency. British government reports from all provinces also recorded that the content of studies was better than in England, the duration of study more prolonged, lasting from about 7 to 15 years, and the method of school teaching was superior and more natural. The Report also busts the myth that education was denied to the lower castes. Records indicate that education was very widely diffused amongst all strata of the Indian society, the average percentage of higher caste students being less than 40%. It also exposes the misinformation perpetuated by 19 th century British Indologists regarding our educational status and civilisation, prior to British rule.
An analysis of British records of the early 19th century done by Dharampal, a Gandhian social worker suggests that prior to British arrival in 1770, the literacy rate was around 70%-80%, almost double that of England during the same period. But as British rule started getting entrenched, this indigenous system was starved of resources, and was replaced with William Bentinck's "English Education Act 1835", based on Macaulay's recommendations. This stipulated that the British government should promote European literature and science among the natives of India; that all funds appropriated for education should be employed on English education alone; no portion of the funds shall hereafter be employed for printing of Oriental works; and that the native population should be imparted knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language.
This Act, with help of missionary organisations, may have created an army of clerks that the British Government needed. But the future of India's literacy was killed in one stroke. When the British left India, our literacy rate had plummeted to 18.33% (female literacy 8.86% and male 20.16%). We had to restart the cycle of education afresh, in a socio economic environment of poverty, illiteracy, with an alien language that had established itself as the language of government creating further inequalities in our already unequal society. The contemporary world had left us far behind.
Just as crippling India's manufacturing base destroyed our economy for a long time to come and impoverished our people, stifling education stagnated their social development and upward mobility and caged them in a vicious cycle of poverty and caste for generations to come. We see its pernicious effects all around us even today.
It has taken independent India decades of financial and human investment, to reach the huge and multiplying target group of illiterates. Even though its programmes have lagged behind the numbers they are expected to touch, India's illiteracy has been reversed. The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002, introduced by the NDA government inserted Article 21-A to provide free and compulsory education of all children between six and 14 years as a Fundamental Right. Of course, there have been innumerable problems, such as, lack of teachers, lack of school rooms, corruption, withdrawal of social participation as had existed before British rule. Even so, according to Census 2011, we have reached a literacy rate of 64.8%, a little less than what we had in 1835. But we trail far behind the rest of modern societies that enriched themselves through colonisation, and thereafter conquered the world through breathtaking advances in science and technology.
Coming to education and the modern world, a little modesty and honesty are enough to convince us that life and the world are too complex and subtle for even our most brilliant minds to ever fully comprehend. The more we learn, the more the frontiers advance, and the less we know. Every advance reveals new mysteries and uncertainties. The molecule discloses the atom, the atom discloses the electron, the electron discloses the quantum, and the quantum defies and overleaps all our categories and all our laws.
Education in a modern, secular society should be the melting of dogmas, and progress in the science of doubt. This should teach us some humility, the greatest virtue in a democratic society. Even a Yale degree should not produce intolerance and lack of respect for intellectuals who know more.
As knowledge spreads, slavery decreases within caste, class and among nations. Knowledge leads to freedom of people and societies, recognising no master other than their reason. Women achieve equality with men. Perhaps it could liberate mankind to unlearn war and terrorism.
The purpose of education is to instruct rather than forbid. If we wish to improve our people's values, the shortest and surest way to do so is not by fettering them by laws, but by setting an example. The need of the hour is more schools and education, not more legislation. A great statesman, like the subtlest teacher, will guide and suggest through information and example, something our Prime Minister is striving hard towards, rather than invite pugnacity with prohibitions and commands. India must make high financial, infrastructure and human investment in schools and universal education at all levels.
We need not despair in the belief that our people will be in the hands of corrupt politicians forever. The corpus of knowledge and the knowledgeable will expand with each generation, creating a heritage of values of common good, which will not tolerate the charlatans that we have suffered so patiently and so long. Our children's children, lifted through our care, will choose their rulers more wisely than we chose. They will ask not for lawmakers but for creative teachers; they will submit not to regimentation but to knowledge; they will achieve peace and order not through violence and compulsion, but will advance through spread and organisation of intelligence.
Let us, however, confess to ourselves that our educational system today is unfortunately lopsided; it gives rote knowledge but no creativity or character; it gives degrees but no wisdom; it gives jobs but no conscience. This has to change and sooner the better. The quality of civilisation depends on the respect in which teachers are held. It is unfortunate that our teachers almost invariably live in a state of honourable poverty, and the best minds do not take to teaching. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's remark that "those who are incapable of learning have taken to teaching".
The one subject which ought to be a compulsory and most vital part of the curriculum of our schools and colleges is "secularism". True secularism proclaimed by the Constitution of India is not understood except by a few who do not matter. Some politicians have made it a word of political abuse. "I am secular but my opponent is communal," was the unholy propaganda which made a mockery of our electoral process and our democracy. Fortunately, this evil failed its votaries and they are no longer in control. The new government must ensure that true secularism becomes a compulsory subject in the education curriculum, with students tested about its knowledge in their examination systems. More about this in my next piece.
I must acknowledge that I have derived a lot of inspiration from James Martin's most readable book, The meaning of the 21st Century, a "vital blue print for ensuring our future".