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Opinion | The new education policy goes vocal for local

While the stress on teaching in Indian languages is commendable, the cautionary tale of Ernest Binfield Havell shows this will succeed only if it's accompanied by robust paths to gainful employment

The new policy lays emphasis on teaching in the mother tongue. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
The new policy lays emphasis on teaching in the mother tongue. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Reading the text of the new National Education Policy announced last week, I wished its framers had considered the case of Ernest Binfield Havell. Born in Berkshire, Havell was appointed superintendent at the Madras School of Art in 1884 at the age of 23. He developed a great admiration for India’s visual arts traditions and pleaded for their preservation in essays collected in a volume titled The Basis For Artistic And Industrial Revival In India.

Putting his ideas into action on being appointed principal of the School of Industrial Art (now the Government College of Art & Craft) in Kolkata in 1896, he replaced the teaching of European academic portraiture based on single point perspective, manipulation of light and shade and the use of oil paint, with a course based on the indigenous tradition of miniature painting. What the idealistic Havell failed to comprehend was that art degrees needed to create a path for students to earn a living. At the end of the 19th century, this meant working in the European academic manner, because the tastes of patrons in India’s big cities were shifting decisively in favour of large, naturalistically painted, enticingly tactile, oils on canvas.

Havell’s changes to the syllabus led to the bizarre spectacle of an Englishman promoting Indian artistic techniques being rebuffed by Indian pupils who demanded instruction in the European style. Students went on strike in 1897, holding open-air classes of their own in Kolkata’s famous Maidan. Eventually, they set up a parallel school headed by a final-year student named Ranadaprasad Das Gupta and named it the Jubilee Art Academy in honour of the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne.

To explain why Havell is relevant, it is imperative to say a little about the new education policy and the controversy surrounding it. I found the document well reasoned, with an unexpected and refreshing emphasis on the role of the humanities in creating rounded individuals. The policy emphasizes flexibility, creativity and critical thinking over rote learning and highlights the need for school lessons to be enjoyable, for teacher-pupil ratios to improve, and for education as a whole to be inclusive and equitable.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Between the idea and the reality…between the conception and the creation…falls the shadow." It remains to be seen how many of the policy’s high-minded ideas will come to fruition. For the moment, debate has centred around its recommendations regarding language. It states, “Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language." Although there is no compulsion here, the new policy is being interpreted as an attempt to diminish the role of English.

This has riled commentators who believe India’s path to prosperity is tied to an ever-greater emphasis on English. They argue that our historical familiarity with the language provides a natural advantage in the contemporary world. I, for one, have yet to see any evidence that development can be enhanced by making English the primary medium of instruction within a population where few speak it as a first language.

Among nations that have grown affluent since World War II, only Singapore’s education system fit this pattern. Japan, South Korea and China, among other countries, experienced extraordinary rates of growth and massive leaps in scientific research and technological capacity without using English extensively. Conversely, some two dozen nations, mainly in Africa, have languished economically despite decades of having English as an official language or primary medium of instruction.

In these nations, as in the subcontinent, a small elite speaks the language fluently, while a large majority never masters it and faces a lifetime of professional setbacks and social humiliations as a consequence. I can imagine the impossible obstacle I would have faced had the medium of instruction in my college been, say, Tamil. Hundreds of thousands of students experience similar trauma each year while transiting to English-based higher education, and most fail to fulfil their potential in the new linguistic environment. We set ourselves back considerably as a nation by hobbling so many of our best minds. Equity demands we allow Indians to study in the language in which they feel most comfortable or in one closely related.

That is why I support the stress the new policy lays on home languages, and think of English as a necessary second tongue for the majority rather than the primary medium of instruction. But the cautionary tale of Havell becomes pertinent here. Given a choice between an excellent regional language school and a mediocre English language one, most parents would choose the latter because they rightly see it as a better stepping stone to a career for their children. A shift to teaching in the mother tongue could spark a revolt from the very people it seeks to benefit unless accompanied by a structural change in the economy.

English currently has such a hegemonic hold that reversing its dominance will require enormous and sustained effort. While the Union government’s plan does recommend updating the vocabularies of regional languages and making educational software available in them, these moves, while necessary, are far from sufficient. We would need to create, at the very least, hundreds of new medical, engineering and law colleges, hundreds of multidisciplinary universities and research facilities, and hundreds more vocational and technical training colleges, in which the primary medium of instruction would be one of India’s regional languages, with English serving as a mandatory ancillary. There are 11 Indian languages spoken by over 30 million citizens each, and we ought to build a comprehensive tertiary education infrastructure in these 11 at the least. The idea is not as extravagant as it might seem, given the new policy recommends a tripling in outlays on education to 6% of GDP.

But that would only be the beginning. In order for there to be demand for seats in such institutions, states would need to recruit graduates in every department of their administrations. Given the multilingual nature of India, we will still require professionals who speak and write English with high proficiency for jobs with a national or international profile. Filling those posts is never going to be a problem. The crucially important task is to create robust paths leading from primary school to gainful employment for the tens of millions who would prefer to study in their mother tongue. Thus far, all we have got from Union and state governments is tokenism and chauvinism. Hopefully, the new education policy is the first step towards real change.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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