Thursday, 11 June 2015

Different knowledge systems may call for different education formats.

I'm going to keep this post relatively short as the point I wish to make is quite straightforward in my opinion and I believe I'll be able to make it fairly succinctly.

Consider systems of knowledge such as modern day science and technology that have developed and evolved over the last few centuries primarily in the west.

[I'm not saying that these knowledge systems do not have parallels or commonalities with (or are necessarily better than) science and technology as practiced in other civilizations either in the distant past or present times. Perhaps they do and perhaps there are alternate viewpoints and models that are in some ways better. I do not know enough about these matters to compare or comment meaningfully at present. All I am saying is that at least as far as the present day mainstream understanding (and acceptance) of such subjects goes, pretty much all significant advancements that have taken place perhaps at least in the last 300-400 years have been primarily in the west.]

For such systems of knowledge it is perhaps an acceptable premise that the manner in which the rest of the world engages with them and the educational framework through which they are communicated to the next generations of students are aligned with educational methodologies in the west, at least till such a time that someone somewhere either demonstrates the existence of a better knowledge system or establishes that an alternate educational framework would be better.

What the presently and widely accepted educational framework for "western" knowledge systems (phrase used in the sense above) translates to in more concrete terms is three to four year bachelors degree programs followed by two to three year masters programs and finally doctoral programs that can vary a fair bit in their lengths from student to student and advisor to advisor. Within these durations, recent times have seen the implementation of the semester system along with credit based coursework across universities in India. These structures (and degree titles) have essentially been adapted from the west and as I remarked above I can see the validity of doing so for knowledge systems that can essentially be called "western" today since that's where they have primarily developed and progressed for quite a while now.

Again, I'm not saying that these modalities and structures of transmitting knowledge are the best possible. Perhaps there were better approaches in the past that academic communities drifted away from for some reason. Or maybe its the future that will reveal different modalities which prove to be academically more sound in the long run. These are certainly valid debate points in my opinion and I keep an open mind.

I'm simply saying that I do not have any fundamental objections per se in adapting education formats from the west for knowledge systems that have essentially developed there.

However, I do sense a problem with imposing such modalities and structures on every knowledge system.

Consider education in Indian classical music for example:

The first thing to realize is that Indian classical music is a serious knowledge system just as western classical music is, although extremely different in its conception as well as delivery. Music education is taken very seriously in the west and pretty much every university of standing has a school of music that offers education in diverse forms of music all the way till the doctoral level. The west of course focuses on forms that have developed there. Likewise, we must primarily focus on forms that are central to us.

The very cultural identity of any people is intimately connected with their knowledge systems and for this identity to persist it is of paramount importance that these knowledge systems not only be preserved but an ecosystem created (academic aa well as economic) in which they thrive. Integration of Indian knowledge systems in Indian universities is of paramount importance. And we must do this in a way and through an educational framework that is appropriate for our knowledge systems. I'm starting with music but will expand to other subjects soon.

[Any one who even suggests that Indian classical music is any less profound than its western counterpart has basically had one too many for his or her own good in my opinion.]

Coming back to the point I wish to make, I'm not quite sure that the framework of bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees is the best possible framework for education in Indian classical music. In fact if you read about any of the maestros in the field, past and present, you will likely find that the way they have been educated is very different from how we have become used to viewing education. And the results of their manner of education are absolutely beyond any discussion. I'll just take a few names from north Indian classical music to drive home this point: Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, the Dagar brothers. Note that these are names from the recent past and the present. I have not even gone to the distant past: example: Mia Tansen. So their manner of education does extend to the contemporary.

Now I'm not an expert myself in this field so shouldn't really opine on how to go about implementing an alternate method of education that may be more appropriate to the field of Indian classical music in our universities. Can it be done? If so how? What kind of teacher-student ratios would be ideal? How would one qualify to teach in such a university program? Note that some of the best Indian classical musicians in the world today would probably not have "PhDs"! What would be the approximate length of such a program and what would be its structural breakdown (if any)? What might be some of the intermediate benchmarks till one arrives at the status of being called a Pandit or Ustad? Ar what stages (if any) can one be meaningfully absorbed as a teacher at different levels so that the students' (and their families') economic conditions may be addressed? These are all important questions that must be addressed in my opinion by none other than experts in the field of music themselves. So I propose the following:

Let the Ministry of Human Resource and Development along with the University Grants Commission organize a conclave of maestros in north as well as south Indian classical music and seek advice from them on all these questions. Let us adapt the educational framework they recommend. The same university can have different frameworks and modalities for different knowledge systems. I don't see a problem with that. In fact, our universities would only be the richer for it as I see things.

I further propose that such an effort be extended to the following uniquely Indian systems of knowledge:

1. Indian classical dance (all forms).
2. Yoga (philosophy and practice).
3. Vedic studies.
4. Indian philosophical systems and Vedanta.

I look forward to the day when universities across India will thrive in knowledge systems from all parts of the world with each system being addressed and communicated through modalities and structures appropriate to it.

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