A Gentle Learning Curve

Crucial points ring out about the old debate between traditional and modern knowledge systems. But none resonate a solution

Written by Krishna Kumar | Published: November 25, 2017 1:28 am
The Crisis Within: On Knowledge and Education in India

G. N. Devy
Aleph Book Company
160 pages
Rs 399

The best thing one can say about this elegantly produced little book is that it is a good reminder. But if you ask, ‘Of what?’, then we enter into difficulties. It tries to remind us about far too many important things. Many alarm bells seem to ring as you go through the four chapters of this book, but no ring lasts long enough. The book comes across as a memorandum on just about everything that has gone wrong with education, especially with its relation to knowledge. The nice thing is that Ganesh Devy is far from cynical. He believes that India’s institutions of higher learning can be resurrected and their responsibility can be redefined to include the cultural wealth of the unlettered.

At the end of the book, he asks us to look at four major philosophical resources available to us for devising corrective action — Gandhi, Tagore, Aurobindo and Ambedkar. This is a fine recommendation, but Devy stops short of telling us what to do with their ideas and legacies. Also, he does not examine the distinctive aspects of their educational thought even as he rightly regards their lives and ideas as forming a corpus of inspiration. Nor does he evince familiarity with attempts to engage with the conceptual resources this corpus offers. Indeed, the book maintains a certain aloofness from contemporary debates and attempts to reform. This gives an exotic flavour to the various points brought into the orbit of reflection. The reader remains curious to see how the range of issues raised by Devy will eventually get accommodated in the conclusion. Sadly, our curiosity remains unfulfilled.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Ganesh Devy has tried to bring into focus some key concerns that anybody interested in education in India ought to pursue. One is his concerns for the neglect of oral traditions of knowledge. The advent of modernity under the auspices of colonial rule has meant loss of originality and sense of initiative. Those involved in taking decisions are dealing with issues they don’t fully understand. Devy is particularly anxious about issues pertaining to the people classified as ‘tribes’. The threat that haphazard modernisation poses to them is all too familiar a story.

Devy visits this story from the point of knowledge and education. He is more interested in higher education than in what children, including those belonging to tribes, learn at school. If the four philosophical resources mentioned above were to be applied to understanding and resolving the problems the tribes encounter in their pursuit of education, the outcome would be valuable. Devy does not make a start, not at least in this book, and not for want of space. He uses considerable space to reflect on what the new digital era will mean for knowledge and education. The key question of memory that he poses throughout the book is of great political significance in our time. Education is a means by which cultures can acquire a sense of continuity, but mass schooling under centralised curricular regimes doesn’t seem promising.

I wish Devy had acowledged and discussed recent attempts to make local knowledge a resource for developing critical thinking. All he does is to touch upon the old debate between diverse traditions of knowledge and the options available for modern higher education in India to engage with the West’s univesalistic construction of rational knowledge. This has been an important debate, and Ganesh Devy attempts to revive it. His aim is to widen the debate by reminding different interlocutors  that education cannot become inclusive merely by expanding the enrolment of the marginalised. True inclusion can be achieved only by acknowledging the knowledge traditions of the marginalised and giving it space in higher learning.

The writer is an educationist and was director of NCERT from 2004 to 2010

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