Tagore’s Unheard Song

Starting in 1912, Tagore traveled across the world for nearly two decades, interviewed educators, visited schools, and studied textbooks and educational materials. At the end of those travels, he wrote a letter from Moscow in September 1930: Not merely in numbers being educated, but the thoroughness, and intensity of education was very impressive. In his view:’ the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education. Caste division, religious conflicts, aversion to work, and precarious economic conditions, all centre on this single factor.’ Webster had expressed the same sentiments in the context of the metamorphic role education played in the USA from 1776-1861 when ‘it welded together people of diverse backgrounds & conflicting loyalties &even of the strange tongue, into one nation’.

The American hegemony in the world is largely attributable to the founding fathers who signed the Document of Independence. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about educational institutions. Their treatises helped coalesce a growing sentiment in the new nation for a strong education foundation. Benjamin Rush, the best-known physician of the time wrote: investment in education would increase the profits of agriculture and also promote manufacturing. American civilians played their part by paying property taxes to finance and run free schools in local communities throughout the country by the early 1850s, all boys and girls were enrolled in primary schools. Educating girls was not merely a matter of gender equity; it was a recognition that educated mothers have better-educated and healthier families. Through property taxes, rich community members paid to educate less fortunate neighbors, and the current generation paid for future generations. Equal opportunity through education was a moral obligation of the government. The Americans took a century for the full flowering of their primary schools and another half century for secondary schools.

The Japanese wanted the same excellence in their schools but wanted to do it faster. In 1872, four years after the Meiji Revolution. Though Japanese action in the early years of the 20th century was limited to primary and partial success in secondary education, it played an important role in fostering economic growth and providing equality of opportunity. Japan was also in a position to absorb state of art technology received from the USA after the catastrophic bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Its solid education &skill base even helped it to outcompete the USA in the automobile sector. In 1872 Japan promulgated the fundamental Code of Education as per which: there will be no community with its family uneducated, nor a family with an illiterate person. Taking a leaf out of Japan’s commitment to education, Countries like South Korea & China also invested heavily in education & skilling after independence to become global manufacturing hubs.

On the hand, Nehru, the first PM gave primacy to machines over men as the second Plan reduced allocation to education to 5.9% from 7.9% of the GDP in the first Plan. It is also ironic that though India adopted the Soviet model of Planning, Nehru paid scant attention to the overwhelming attention the USSR paid to the spread & depth of education, which catapulted it as a superpower. Interestingly, when Milton Friedman, the high priest of the free market, visited Delhi, in his report to CD Deshmukh, the then FM, in 1955 advised ‘widened opportunity for education & training as a basic requirement of economic development, in which the state should play a dominant role.
In fact, India’s tryst with education was by way of a nonjusticiable goal of free and compulsory education till the age of 14 in the Constitution. It took a scathing indictment from the Supreme Court in 1993 in Unnikrishnan vs AP case stating that the government has slipped badly in its constitutional
commitment & that the right to education is part of the right to life, that the government introduced Art 21A in 2002, to make education up to the age of 14 a fundamental right. It took the government 16 years to introduce the RTE Act of 2009!

In this unfortunate neglect of education since independence, Kerala has been an outlier that became a new state in 1956 due to the reorganization of states on a linguistic basis. Robin Jaffrey writes that the initial impetus came from the princely state of Travancore which ensured wide availability of primary education as his government’s priority in the 1880s. cochin followed. The Nayar caste in Malabar which had a matrilineal tradition played a stellar part in reducing the gender gap in literacy. Robin writes: Literate men have literate sons; literate mothers have literate families. The educational policy stands on a tripod of access, equity, and excellence. It was Kerala that achieved universal access and gender non-discrimination by the turn of the 19th century. The apathy of Nehru was continued by Indira, despite the Kothari Commission’s report in 1966 that the state should earmark 6% of its GDP to education as against a little over 3% that it was earmarking. Modi continues the same refrain of not increasing allocation to education from 3% of GDP, though NEP 2020 has clearly reiterated that 6% of GDP should be earmarked for education. One of the unique features of education globally is that the allocation is ideology neutral. Be it socialist or capitalistic, we find that the Mean years of schooling in both USA and Russia is above 12 & they accord the highest priority to education & research.

India sadly is caught in the pincer of an ideological war, where free market preachers like Bhagawati openly batting for private schooling. in his book Tryst with Destiny, he brings out how a study by Murlidhar (2006) reveals that the attendance rates and test scores are better in private schools, with less teacher absenteeism. His protégé Panagariya writes in his book India the Emerging Giant that those in the BPL category should be given education vouchers of Rs 2000. This will entail much less public expenditure, with the better choice available to parents, which school to send the child to with a princely sum of Rs 2000! On the other hand, prof Amartya Sen has been constantly clamoring for a larger state role in public school education, with a view to giving equal opportunity to build human capability. As per the report of the Niti Ayog on the achievement of SDG goals, Kerala which is following the Sen model, scores 80% in terms of education quality while Gujarat which has been following the Bhagyawati model scores 52 only. Quite clearly the state must not abdicate its responsibility to impart quality school education.

In America, the vision for the spread of education came from the founding fathers. In Japan, it came from the bureaucrats & ministers in the early Meiji era. In Kerala, the Maharajas of Travancore and Cochin were the catalysts for schooling. Nehru’s fascination for heavy industries pushed him away from creating a world-class education system for India. Tagore would have regretted that Nehru did not hear him. He might well have said that ‘the song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day

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