Saturday, 2 November 2013

At the University of Southern California - Part 1.

While preparing for my talk at the I was asked to speak as the University of Southern California, on the occasion of their starting the program on Indic Civilizations and Dharma Studies, I was wondering why in Indian Universities, we do not have a embedded curriculum of Indian culture, or a more active place for our languages in our academia.

I do think that in this day and age, the knowledge of English is necessary and useful, and should be taught to one and all.  But I have often wondered, why we as a nation, do not give our own languages or our own philosophy, or our own literature and poetry, the importance that other nations do in their own systems.

I firmly believe, that any language, is a storehouse of its own culture and heritage.  And to preserve culture and knowledge, the study, development and growth of one's languages are necessary.  And this must find place in our academic institutions, and not just as a subject.  I see many of my friends and their children today, who are uncomfortable with reading a book in Hindi, or other Indian languages. In a truly Indian education, we must provide such a space for our literature.

For example, if we teach a course in Political Science, we could teach Chanakya and Machiavelli simultaneously, and could have Sanskrit quotes from Chanakya in there, for those who understand it.
For those who do not understand Sanskrit, they would have the translation anyway.  A course that speaks of social oppression, and that has Dalit Marathi literature, would be significantly more powerful than simply talking about it

I was discussing this with a friend in LA, and I mentioned that a course that if in a course of Californian history, primary sources from English and Spanish literature are used, students (who are often bilingual), could read literature from both perspectives.  He said that he had never thought about it in this respect, and thought that the course would be very powerful.

I read Macaulay's 'Minute on Education', written in 1835, in which he states (referenced from http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_1835.html):

    [8] All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.  It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.
        [9] What then shall that language be? One-half of the committee maintain that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommend the Arabic and Sanscrit. The whole question seems to me to be-- which language is the best worth knowing?

        [10] I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.

[12] How then stands the case? We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the West. 

[34] In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  --a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. 

I wonder if this policy, that was used by the English when we were colonized, has become internalized by us, and whether we need to be freed of this legacy.  That we must learn and appreciate English, and that proficiency in English is to be taught, but so is the need for us to be literate in our own language, knowledge, and literature.

And so in my talk, I mentioned that we would try to create such an environment.

Samir Somaiya