K Kasturirangan, former ISRO chief and chairperson of the committee that formulated the draft of the new National Education Policy, speaks to Uma Vishnu on why the document needs to be relevant over the next 20-30 years and that the communication over the three-language formula was “totally misunderstood”
While working on this report, what was the biggest learning for you about India and its education system?
When you are looking at such a major area of national endeavour, you start wondering about where it all starts. India is one of the most ancient civilisations which had one of the most sophisticated educational system millennia back — Nalanda and Takshashila are examples of that. Of course, along with that, they propagated arts, craft, culture, music etc. I could understand there is something very hidden in this in terms of a rich culture and heritage.
The second part of it is the country has undergone major changes since the last National Education Policy was enunciated in 1986/92. The Internet was not in place then, technology had not taken over many of the national endeavours. Then there is the impending Fourth Industrial Revolution which is going to put disruptive requirements on the ways of doing things for which we need to appropriately gear the knowledge society that India is going to be… Does the existing policy satisfy the expectations that India has of the educational system — not today, but over the next 20, 30, 40 years? That’s where the importance of an educational policy comes into picture.
The report talks about English being a language of the elite — how large sections of society are marginalised because the privileged use English to exclude. What was the debate within the Commission on this?
First of all, India’s pluralism and multilingualism can’t be overlooked. We have a large number of languages, and then there is English… It was at one time thought to be an international language; it didn’t become a link language either. But it certainly is a language for mass communication when it comes to the question of modern endeavours. At the same time, when we try to ensure that we underline the importance of English, we need to put additional efforts and resources to improve English, contribute to the development of English and most importantly, facilitate the learning of English on a much wider scale than the 15 or 16 per cent today who use English for their own profession and therefore become elite. We need to do research in the language, need to have good books, good translation of local knowledge in English and ultimately make sure that infrastructure, teacher availability and quality of teachers who teach the language is considerably improved than what it is today.
While the report places a lot of emphasis on multilingualism, in the course of your academic career, have you encountered the problem of children not being to express themselves properly in any of the languages?
For me, personally, the learning of language came as part of an immersion. Though I was born in Kerala, the conversation in the house was Tamil. But it also had a corruption of Malayalam. So as T N Seshan, the former chief election commissioner, used to tell me, the Tamils in Kerala speak ‘Thalayalam’, a mix of Tamil and Malayalam… And when I went to Bombay, I learnt Marathi. Then my father said you should learn Sanskrit. I didn’t know the importance of learning the language then but today, when I deliver so many convocation addresses, I quote from Subhashitani, which was part of my Sanksrit course. So there was a tremendous experience of learning four languages. So especially if you put the base as between three and eight years to learn three languages, for example, the area of the brain that deals with cognition and language learning gets stimulated. That stimulation is carried forward as the ability to learn more languages in future. That’s where the three-language formula is important.
So do you think this controversy over the three-language formula was needless?
This particular thing was misunderstood. Totally. The communication that we wanted to give people who were concerned about this was not exactly the type of sense it made to them. So we removed that para and put in another para — which was also approved by the committee — and which maintained the same sense.
The report talks extensively about how the curriculum has to draw from India’s rich past and heritage. Is there a danger of the curriculum becoming inward looking?
The Indian economy is growing rapidly, it has a global outreach. That’s a time a nation should worry, what is our identity as Indians, where do we come from? If you look at the present level of knowledge among youngsters of the country’s heritage and its very many other areas like architecture, music, literature… Sanskrit literature, for example, has content that exceeds the totality of Latin and Greek. How many youngsters understand this kind of thing?… If you ask me if we are inward looking because of that, the answer is a categorical no. The draft policy addresses questions related to the post-Internet revolution, technology… We have recommendations on foreign students visiting Indian universities and Indians going abroad to study. Now, do all of them seem inward looking or outward looking? We want to ensure that the knowledge society really reflects the kind of things we are proud of.
The report talks of liberal education as being the basis for higher education. How will that alter higher education as we
have known it?
For my undergraduation, physics was my major subject and mathematics secondary. My Intermediate (10+2) was the last point that I studied history or humanities or languages. When I was involved with satellite technology in later years, I found that there was quite a bit of mathematics, quality control and many other areas of discipline… The initial portion of your undergraduate course should be such that you understand and appreciate this connectivity, for example, between sciences, arts, humanities and math. If you need to look at a problem in totality… chemistry or physics alone won’t solve your problem, you have to look at the human element in that, the environmental element in that.