Medium of instruction should be informed by social and family environment; language is a medium, not the end.
By R Seshasayee
In the unfolding decades of this century, language will hardly be a critical factor for a nation’s influence over or engagement with the world. In fact, even historically, it never has been. Remember the British Empire or Japan and Germany in the postwar world, or in more recent times China—none had to go through a local language test to claim dominance, over their territories or markets. Digital technologies can soon be expected to provide near-perfect translators using algorithms for most global languages.
India’s place on the high table of global powers, as always, will be inexorably linked to her economic and military might; achieving high growth rates is the only way forward to meet the aspirations of her swelling millions of youth. High growth cannot be realised without significant global trade and investments. Atmanirbhar just happens to be a rather misleading title to a programme of actions, to make India globally competitive.
India’s strategy for global competitiveness cannot depend anymore on the comparative advantage of low-cost labour. India regrettably lost that race to China and other Southeast Asian countries. In the coming decades, wage costs in manufactured goods, indeed even in agricultural products, as a proportion of total costs will increasingly diminish, replaced by sustainability, automation and digital costs. India’s strategy should, therefore, be focused on innovation, digital leverage and entrepreneurship to achieve global competitiveness, attributes that are more ascribable to the people of the nation, than policies of the State.
The NEP 2020 becomes crucial, since education will have significant influence in shaping the character and attributes of the people. It recognises that, in the 21st century world, information will flow at the touch of a screen, knowledge will have shortened lifecycles, and lifelong learning and development of new skills will become mandatory to survive and succeed. Hence, the policy emphasises the development of attributes such as curiosity, critical thinking and creativity in the learner, rather than memorising content. These are the very qualities that will foster innovation and entrepreneurship—the prerequisites for a competitive nation.
This directional change is path-breaking. Ancient Indians distinguished themselves as seekers of knowledge and explorers of the external and internal world. It is a civilisational tragedy that we had lost the spirit of enquiry and the will to question, and ceded ground to the West, whose thoughts and discoveries transformed the physical world in the last four centuries.
If we have to reclaim the lost status as vishwa guru, it is vital that education focuses on the development of these very attributes, such as a curious and questioning mind, the critical thinking to find and solve problems, and the creativity to innovate. The NEP is spot on, in capturing this change.
Hopefully, the NEP will be followed with appropriate curriculum designs, assessment processes, and faculty development. The second imperative for a competitive India is the ability to smartly leverage digital technologies. This requires strong school-level learning in mathematics and data science, as well as higher learning focused on application of digital technologies. For example, a young farmer coming out of school should be fully familiar with technologies to improve farm productivity.
The NEP has rightly recognised that technology and education will have a bidirectional relationship. The challenge, however, will be to find high-quality faculty in digital technology, and to adequately fund cutting-edge research on a sustainable basis.
Since technology and markets will keep transforming rapidly, continual retraining in new skills will become necessary for all job entrants. This would require robust institutional mechanisms that will provide non-formal training at affordable costs.
In this new paradigm of learning, development of attributes such as creativity and critical thinking will be more agnostic to the choice of language, while accessing and acquiring theoretical knowledge perhaps less so. The choice of the medium of instruction should be informed by social and family environment that best facilitates the process of development and learning. Language is a medium, not the end.
To be a global power, India will need a high measure of self-confidence that not only fuels exports but also actively supports imports, that not only teaches the world but eagerly learns from others, and that comes out of pride of our ancient past but also from the humility to admit our shortcomings.
It is everyone’s sincere hope that the new paradigm of education would aim to inculcate these very traits amongst young Indians.