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Gurukulas Of The Future: Indian Education Needs An Infusion Of Ancient Wisdom And New Technology

Technological progress has made it possible to consider elements of traditional educational systems from a practical perspective. (Official White House photo by Amanda Lucidon/Let Girls Learn)
Snapshot
  • A synthesis of technological innovation and traditional learning methods can bring the student back into the centre of the education system.

Education everywhere is going through a massive churn. India’s education system has been particularly plagued by poor learning outcomes. But the silver lining is that this is an environment ripe for innovation, especially by freeing the system from the dirigiste grip of the bureaucracy. The recent dissolution of the University Grants Commission and the controversial 'Institute of Eminence' plan are causing flutters in the hidebound, existing system for tertiary education.

However, the rot starts early: in schools. They are also in need of dramatic change, and here are a few steps towards achieving excellence. First, exploring the current system’s origin and shortcomings. Second, leveraging the advance of technology to overcome new challenges. Third, rediscovering what was good in traditional education.

In this context, the Dalai Lama’s statement on 23 April is noteworthy and timely. “Serious discussions on how to include the ancient Indian traditions in educational system should begin. India has the capability to combine modern education with its ancient traditions to help solve problems in the world,” said the pontiff. This is a particularly prescient and insightful suggestion; for India did, at one time, have an education system that was the envy of the world: think Nalanda and Takshashila.

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In addition, on 29 April, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh declared that the state will register gurukulas and treat them as equivalent to mainstream schools. Some observers pooh-poohed this as obscurantism, but maybe it wasn’t such a hare-brained idea, as we shall see.

It is remarkable that technological progress has made it possible – maybe even imperative – to consider elements of traditional systems, including gurukulas, from a purely practical perspective. What we have endured over the last couple of centuries is a system imposed by the imperialists, driven by their needs at the time. It’s time to revisit it.

That colonial education system was a product of the (First) Industrial Revolution. Among other things, that revolution created William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” – impersonal, soul-deadening industrial complexes that pulled people away from the agrarian life. These factories required a cohort of people who were literate and able to follow instructions. No need for them to think, or to be creative: that was the prerogative of the small group of engineers and managers.

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The very same system was imported into India, with the intent of creating drones for the empire: sepoys and coolies, the class of people which Macaulay described as “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect”. This project, we now realise, has succeeded beyond Macaulay’s wildest dreams, but at a great cost to India. The Soviet-style top-down education and research system that arose after independence was no better: it deadened all independent thinking. The net result is that India has steadily dropped lower in the educational sweepstakes.

There is a remarkable contrast between this system and what existed earlier. Despite much misinformation, what little primary data we have – for example through the works of Dharampal – suggests that we had a broad, humanistic education system with significant customisation as well as practical problem-solving. Circumstantial evidence supports this, for the India of earlier eras produced outstanding innovations and intellectual property, for instance, Panini’s grammar, Madhava’s rapidly converging infinite series for pi and trigonometric functions, and the metallurgy of nano-carbon steel, known as wootz from the Tamil urukku.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution that is upon us, and especially the proliferation of computing power and artificial intelligence (AI), negates in toto the requirements of the First. We no longer need armies of drone workers toiling away, like Charlie Chaplin in Hard Times. We have real robots to run factories, and increasingly, to take over white-collar jobs. A much-quoted Oxford study, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation?”, predicted that 47 per cent of all jobs today are at risk of being automated away in the next 20 years.

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We can see that in practice: engineers once used slide rules and log tables, but the electronic calculator has made them superfluous. We had paper maps for navigation, but GPS and Google Maps have made them redundant. Our children still memorise vast quantities of (useless) information, which they could however look up on Google or Wikipedia in seconds. Thus, the very basis of ‘education’, the ability to memorise and regurgitate large amounts of data in examinations, is no longer a useful skill.

Furthermore, the nature of work is changing, and quite rapidly. Earlier, people used to change jobs, but now they change careers, often pursuing three or four in sequence as their interests change and opportunities arise. In addition, the half-life of knowledge is diminishing rapidly. A computer language you learned 10 years ago is almost certainly obsolete today, and so you need to keep learning all the time, just to keep up.

Besides, the very idea of a 'job' is looking shaky: the comparative advantage of large firms – the reduction in transaction costs, as in the Ronald Coase theory of the firm – is being eroded as the ‘gig economy’ grows and the 'death of distance' is upon us. We may instead have ‘federations’ where free agent workers come together for a specific task, complete it, and move on.

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There is also a nightmare scenario: a large number of people may become permanently unemployable, as their skills are no longer useful, and will never be. The conventional wisdom is that the displaced workers could be retrained for the new types of jobs that will arise (e.g. bank tellers displaced by ATMs were redeployed as relationship managers), but that can only go so far. The clamour for Universal Basic Income in some quarters suggests a future, where some people will in essence be surplus and useless to the workforce (historian Yuval Noah Harari expands on this in Homo Deus). The trick for each individual is to avoid that fate through choosing education wisely.

Thus, the demand-side for education is undergoing a sea change. People will increasingly demand high-flexibility learning that enables them to come up with creative solutions to new problems at hand. That is what will get them the gigs, and enable them to make a living as free agents.

Fortunately, the supply-side is also changing, and that’s where both technology and traditional learning come into the picture. Consider the possibilities of technology. We can now envision truly customised education. A curriculum, lesson plans, tests, and self-paced learning that are most appropriate for a specific individual are now possible through the application of AI techniques.

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Instead of a large classroom, where the instruction necessarily focuses on the average student, thus handicapping both the bright and the slow, each student can be taught, tested, and challenged according to their own interests and capabilities. This requires the collection of masses of detailed data about current curricula and educational outcomes. Then a machine learning algorithm can crunch these datasets and propose plans for future students.

In effect, AI is acting much like the guru in a gurukula of old. Certainly, in the idealised picture that we have, the guru could and did understand exactly what the pupils' capabilities were because they lived with him, and could instruct them in ways that would make them best use their talents.

There are also several experiments using blockchain as a mechanism to transition from ‘vertical’ learning (where a teacher lectures to a student) to ‘horizontal’ learning (where there is significant collaboration between students as well). In collaborative learning, a student who helps others may also earn ‘credits’ on the blockchain and be able to leverage that in the job market.

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In addition, there is a plethora of learning material out there, available to all – the tyranny of distance is no longer a problem. With 4G bandwidth and a smartphone, most students in India have access to massive open online courses or, MOOCs, much of which are free. There is Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, TED, Wikipedia and edX and Indian equivalents; and then there is YouTube. You don’t have to enroll at a premier institution to be able to (more or less) get the experience of being taught by an outstanding teacher. (Universities, of course, do have other virtues: the value of signaling via a degree, and of peer groups.)

There are lessons to be learned from the 9 May story, heart-warming in many ways, of Sreenath, a coolie from the railway station in Ernakulam, Kerala, who qualified for the Kerala Public Service Commission. Using the free Railwire Wi-Fi at the station, he downloaded question papers, online examination forms, and so forth. Using nothing more than his smartphone and earphones, he managed to study well enough to clear the written examinations. This is a good example of self-paced study at virtually no cost.

If an impoverished Sreenath can do this, imagine what an affluent middle-class adult or child could do by diligently learning new materials from the MOOCs out there. In effect, lifelong learning is now available, and the key for us is to learn about how to learn and not to learn facts that will become obsolete.

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Second, in the future that we can glimpse, the focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) may turn out to have been inappropriate. At least in India, STEM is seen as valuable and tangible; whereas the humanities are seen as soft, intangible, and essentially useless. In fact, the ‘hard’ STEM subjects have become too abstract and removed from reality. Engineers design on computers; hardly anyone does actual things with their hands. That is seen as the job of underlings, because it will get their hands dirty.

In a way, this is diametrically opposite to the very thrust of traditional Indian education, which was focused on the practical. The Sulbasutras of Baudhayana, from 3,000 years ago, are manuals intended for, among other things, the precise construction of fire altars. The so-called Pythagoras Theorem was also known to Baudhayana, as a practical solution to a problem, rather than a theoretical construct (as Manjul Bhargava pointed out, Indians knew the theorem and used it widely, whereas the Chinese came up with a formal proof).

This bias for the practical is also something we Indians have lost somewhere. As a result, we have not produced, despite writing lots of papers, a single – I repeat, a single – world-class, original idea since independence. This is truly galling, considering that under the imperialists, we had C V Raman, J C Bose, S N Bose, and Srinivasa Ramanujan: geniuses. It shows how badly our education system has served us.

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The Maker Movement, which encourages the physical creation of things, for instance through 3-D printing, may also be an antidote for bookish learning. The other problem that has afflicted us is the preference for English. Although some have argued that English has enabled our researchers to get quickly up to speed with original work done elsewhere, it turns out that the Chinese, writing in their language, have now racked up more well-referenced papers and patents than the Americans, in advanced areas of machine learning. It would be better for us to revert to our mother tongues even for technical material, as in medicine or law.

For the first time, we can see a future where real-time translation enables people to learn in their mother tongue. If automatic translation becomes a routine, then all of a sudden it becomes easy for our mother-tongue-speaking students to understand all the material out there in MOOCs.

That brings us back to the original question of what might be useful in traditional education. The curricula documented by Dharampal included grammar (vyakarana), rhetoric and logic (tarka), mathematics/astronomy (ganita), aesthetics (rasa), ethics (darshana), political science (arthashastra), and epistemology (pramana). Remarkably enough, these are subjects that will produce well-rounded individuals, the kind who can learn new things. Quite the broad humanities education, far removed from the narrow technical education of today. The Dalai Lama was right, after all.

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Of course, nobody would suggest a wholesale switch from today’s Central Board of Secondary Education syllabus overnight to a gurukula syllabus, but it appears our ancient gurus knew a thing or two that most modern teachers could well benefit from. A new education paradigm that can take the best of both systems would be perfect. It might just give India’s next generation a competitive advantage.

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