This thought flashed through my mind like a lightening rod yesterday when I saw the video of a BBC debate in the Westminster Hall in London
The subject of the debate in which two heavyweights participated was Ancient Athens vs. Ancient Rome! Who were the participants?
Mr. Boris Johnson, currently the British foreign minister in the Theresa May Cabinet and the venerable academic, Ms. Mary Beard, currently Professor of Classics at the Cambridge University. To put it rather crudely, the question was which civilization exemplified the political values we all dearly uphold? Democracy as contributed by the history of ancient Athens or the Roman Republic as exemplified by the ancient history of the Roman Empire?
Here is one personal note. At Oxford, I once read an extract from Thucydides (500 BC), from his famed history, the History of the Peloponnesian War (431- 404 BC), the famous funeral oration of Pericles (494-429 BC), the Athenian statesman (who also built the famed Parthenon Acropolis temple). I was stunned by the soaring rhetoric. When I mentioned this fact to one of my Oxford Eton Public School friend who read the classical languages of Greek and Latin, he in a moment recited the original lines from the original Greek language!
Such was the proficiency of the average British public school boys! Of course, lately, as a personal note I have to confess, I was very much pre-occupied with these questions. Even today, I spend considerable time on the two great civilizations’; have travelled to Rome and Greece with my family and spent considerable time among the ancient ruins and monuments and am still engaged reading about these two great civilizations.
After my Oxford years, I realized soon when I returned from UK that in India our education, as we all know, has been shaped by the Macaulay system of education, English medium and also by a process of rote learning now, looking back to the very history of the Macaulay “minutes” from 1834, what our education has done for us, Indians?
We might have become ICS, IAS but in essence, remained slave citizens, right? At Oxford I saw the best of the British society learn the classics, Greek and Latin languages and literature. That is the basis of the famed British Public Schools education programmed. We at Oxford called it as the “Greats”, while what I studied, the famed PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics, we called “the Modern Greats”.
Leaving aside the minor details or quibblings, the fundamental strength of the history of the British Education created a modern Britain, an empire and even now, a leader in higher thoughts and very many institutions. The very important point I want to convey to Indian people is that when we still rate British education as a world model, inspite of the current US education, the British education remains at the top when it comes to culture and civilization values. Now, in the case of Indian education we still remain just imitators, more so when it comes to even the liberal education. Our school and university education remains just rote learning, just for passing the various exams.
Unfortunately, we never inherited any education traditions. In spite of there being some initiatives in the 1930s,by Tagore and Gandhi, why even after Independence, Pandit Nehru leading the country, there was no real basic thinking or any public debate as to our own model of education befitting a great country and a great civilization.
Even now, under Modi, the self-proclaimed Hindutva philosophy, what we see is mere and even poorer imitation only. What I want to emphasize here is that we have to go for the very history and very inheritance of the man’s rich legacies, from ancient Greece and ancient Rome. We have to inherit the Greek democracy legacies. We have to inherit the Roman legacies. We have to enrich our democracy, governance, rule of law, freedom of man etc. with these rich inheritances. Let us inherit the great European Enlightenment values! What is the European Enlightenment, by the way?
Those of the readers who might be school and college heads must take some time off and arrange for debates on the very legacy of the European Enlightenment. The birth of modern sciences, the values of the French Revolution, the evolution of the modern world, the post-wars legacies and right now to the current spread of democracies globally. The current Indian education is no education at all. We are talking of very elementary things, the Board exams; the tuition industry has almost replaced any other education thought at all, right?
So, I plead with policy makers, thinkers and others interested to see that India gets the very foundations of education and philosophy. Please let us go back and trace our legacies from Plato, Aristotle to Roman contributions to the rise of the Roman Republic from which springs “the rule of not of the few but of the many”, as Pericles speech exemplified the very origins of democracy to the French Revolution that upheld man’s right to liberty, equality and fraternity and our own aspirations and search for knowledge, the sciences and very many rights and privileges of the “unto the last”.
In 1947, we just got political freedom transferred from Britain to India, and the country partitioned, in such a hurry.
But we have failed to stand up and think of many issues of fundamental strength for the evolution of the country as a modern and open society. One of such issue is an education suited for modern India modern democracy in which citizens would learn of education’s enduring values and lessons. Now, at least the time has come to take time off and reflect on such issues.
Before I conclude, I request the readers to reflect for a moment that in how many countries, you can have a practicing politician like Boris Johnson who can stand up and debate with a polished academic and great scholar like Mary Beard? That is one more indication why British education is basically still the most well-founded and evolved education system. Let us give credit where it is due!