(Translated from original article in Hindi)
India has a Nalanda. Once it had a Taxila too. But it does not have a Harvard. Why only Harvard, it does not have an university that can match a Columbia or an Upenn.
After seventy years of independence, we have only a few IITs, one AIMS and one ISI in the name of achievements. And the sad thing is that none of even these are counted among the top universities of the world.
What are the the reasons that in the same country, which has the distinction of having been the top educational destination for the entire world, for centuries together, today does not have even one world-class university or educational institution and where research work for new medicines, new scientific principles, new theories is next to negligible. It is not that our students are lagging in intelligence. Indian students are as good in intelligence, hard work, focus and concentration as students of any other country and they are treated with respect all over the world for their intelligence and above than average dedication to acquire knowledge.
Then why is it that the same students, same IITians, are unable to make a difference in their own country? Why does their brilliance lose its sheen here? Why does their potential remain limited to occasional flashes like Flipkart and Infosys?
Being a nation that has been ruled for centuries by foreign invaders may be one of the reasons. The other reasons may be insufficiency of Indic languages in matching the needs of modern science and technology and the helplessness of the majority of students in switching to learning science in English, which is a completely alien language for most of them. The third possible reason may be the de-rooting from our own native culture and a ridiculous half-attempt to imitate western culture on our part. But we will discuss these equally valid reasons some other day.
There is a fourth reason for India’s lacklustre performance in the area of education. And it is the singular lack of a culture of knowledge in our society. Lack of respect for knowledge and education in true sense is also responsible for this crisis and today I am going to focus on this reason only.
There was a time when knowledge and the people who were knowledgeable were accorded the top position in the social hierarchy. No matter how powerful a king was, the policy of governance or its validity was always framed and defined by a scholar or a sage. Kings would bow before our Rishis. Scholars-pundits-rishis did not have any property, they were free only to think, ponder and theorize, so that their intellectual production could ensure larger well-being of the entire society or rather the entire world, including animals and environment. They were barred from holding private property and indulging in worldly pleasures was something that was for the common masses, not for the sagely. Worldly pleasures were simply not meant for teachers, scholars and thinkers.
And their livelihood was supported by the society at large. Entire society had the responsibility of giving them alms and of supporting their basic needs, which were very modest by any standards.
The society knew the importance of someone who wrapped himself in a saffron piece of cloth wandering about the burning pyres in a Shmashan or open crematorium, composing couplets here and there and even indulging in the most uncommon and shocking activities sometimes. And the scholars too did not hesisite or feel ashamed in seeking alms. Even sage Vishwamitra or Durvasa would seek alms and people would give them whatever they could.
When John Nash, the proponent of the Game Theory, lost his cerebral poise and it seemed that he might not recover at all, even then, for full 30 years, he continued to roam about freely on the premises of Princeton University. Even when he behaved almost like an unreasonable person, when he would scribble on walls, would draw meaninglessly on blackboard and would imagine himself to be someone from outside the planet, even then, no one from the administration of Princeton, or its students, or any of its cerebrally more poised professors could even think of getting him out of the university premises.
He contined roaming about Princeton premises for full thirty years. No one handed him any bills. And all kept viewing him as a mathematician who somehow lost grip on his cerebral poise. When he was shining, he belonged to Princeton. When he was not shining so much, even then, he remained belonging to Princeton. Despite having not published a single paper for full 36 years and everyone having lost all hopes of his recovery, finally when he was bestowed with a Nobel, even on that fateful day he belonged to the same Princeton.
Now, just compare it with our own IITs, our own AIMS, or any other school or college. Can we imagine the same thing happening here too? We too had one Vashishth Narayan Singh. Did we care for his well-being even a bit?
But we were not always like this. A thousand or so years ago, we had a society where thinkers could speak out their mind without any hesitation or without any fear of its consequence. This was a land where debates and discussions were part of popular culture. Here, one Charvak had full liberty to question even gods and everything that had to do wih gods. This was a land that accorded the status of a Saint to an ordinary person like Kabir and bowed before the simplicity and knowledge of one Ravidas.
But in the same country, knowledge and education have now become merely a means to grab a fat-salaried job. The person who cracks the most competitive exam is the most knowledgeable person for our society now. And then the toppers start drawing the fattest salary and earnings by other means from the very first month. All their connection with knowledge evaporates from the very first month.
However, truth remains that general knowledge is nothing but a long list of memorizable info-bits. And while the reasoning questions might test your objective thinking skills a bit, they would hardly reflect the level of knowledge you have.
You can hardly spot a Tagore with the mental reasoning questions that are asked in Bank PO examinations. Someone who ponders over one line of one poem for a full week is usually material of Tagore mould. And someone, who can spend his entire life thinking over one possible solution of one question that has never been solved by anyone, may be a possible raw material for a possible Ramanujam.
So, why not ask yourself a question today? You too might have come across one or two such Tagores and Ramanujams in your life. How did you treat them? But, first ask yourself where that potential Tagore, that potential Ramanujam is still alive or not? And do yo even know whether he or she is alive or not? Or have you deleted him from your life by just branding him as a freak or a person of unsound mental health? And what if your forefathers too had deleted that Kabir or Ravidas in the same way? What if they too had ignored Buddha?
I am of the firm opinion that individual abilities have limits. It is true that Einsteins are born. But, for an Einstein to flower, to develop and to express himself to the fullest of his ability, you need a knowledge-thirsty society too.
In a a circle of a few square kilometers around Harvard, there are at least three famous and top universities of the world. It is because the American society appreciates the importance of knowledge. If their universities come to know about a sharp boy living in the forests of Uganda with immense mathematical abilities, they would go to any extent to invite him and rope him in and to invest on him. They would not ask for degrees or certificates, in fact they would vie with one another to bestow degrees on such a genius. That is because they know that today’s investment may result in a big return for the entire humanity some day. One invention, one idea from that boy may turn out to be a life-saver for the entire mankind.
And where do we stand? In our country, the genius of a Budhia dries up even before it could make an impact. Our talents are grazing goats in the fields, dying of malnutrition, dying of a simple dystentery, and dying of dehydration.
Now I have a question for you? You are such a successful person. You have made it big and earned so much for yourself. Yes, even that may be a small achievement on a bigger scale, but even then, you must have done far better than crores of other Indians. And you could do all this largely because of your education. The same education that you received in that same school that had broken walls, seeping roof-tops and teachers who would pronounce most English words wrongly.
Did you find the time to have look-back at that same school, those same teachers or the students who are still studying amid the same condition?
Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambrani, Nandan Nilkeni and hundreds of other successful Indians have donated large-heartedly to their alma maters in USA. And they have done this because they know the importance of preserving the culture of knowlege.
I imagine, you certainly do not have the dollars, and perhaps nothing that can be counted in crores. You may be having only rupees, in hundreds. So, how many hundreds have you spared for those children who have not been able to touch even a slate to write on in their entire life? How many hundreds have you donated to the roofless school just near your house, where children do not go to school in rainy season and keep waiting for the rainy season to come to an end? You have not? Then how come you even dream of a Harvard coming up in your neighbourhoold?
Remember this simple fact – knowledgeable persons develop only in a society that has people who respect knowledge. We are not those kind of people. And therefore we do not get knowledgeable persons. And this is why we do not get Kabirs and Buddhas these days any more.