First it was brain-drain then it was reverse brain-drain. The first term was coined when Indian intellectuals took flight to Western shores for picking up higher education and working there. Then came the reverse brain-drain when intellectuals who studied, worked and settled in the west took wing for the Indian shores. Both these phenomena had one thing in common, the desire to get higher education from western shores, more specifically USA.
This from the citizens of a country which, once upon a time had world-class universities like Nalanda and Taxashila. India has always been the cradle of and one of the preeminent producers and exporters of knowledge, ideas and values to the rest of Asia. Today, we are the most eager consumers of concepts taught by Western institutions.
In fact so strong is the lure of a western education that our elites feel they must get certified by the West in order to get credibility back home in India. But all this can change as we are at an inflection point from where, if we want, we can reclaim our leadership role as knowledge producer and exporter. This inflection point rests squarely on the internet.
So what is the scenario in the US universities today? Firstly, there is a growing participation by Indians, in the affairs of universities. This has directly affected India by the large number of US educated people returning to India and carrying with them the American values and principles, indoctrinated while there. For the US, educating our students is not only a great source of tuition fees but also a way to spread its intellectual influence.
A second trend is of wealthy Indians investing in US universities for personal brand building. They see their family name on a building or attached to an academic chair as their next step in climbing the social ladder. Only a handful of donors take the efforts to be sufficiently involved in the details of the subject matter and the impact that it creates.
China is on a different trajectory, the country exercises a strict control on disciplines pertaining to its civilization, values, domestic politics and culture. While they eagerly lap up knowledge in the disciplines of Western science, technology and business knowhow. This approach is a carefully thought out one as the Chinese don’t want their youth to be brainwashed with Western prejudices in areas of the humanities. India has not been able to appreciate this strategic point even now.
The single most important trend that is revolutionizing every aspect of our lives is information technology and even education is not left untouched by the internet. Rapidly proliferating teaching platforms like the Khan Academy are the wave of the future, not a physical classroom. A disruption is long overdue and India should see this as an opportunity for creative entrepreneurship.
The classrooms have shifted to the Cloud threatening the old school systems in many ways:
1 Huge campuses will not be needed. Only laboratories and high-tech infrastructure that cannot become virtual will continue to exist.
2 Old teaching materials will be redundant. Class notes are available online so are explanatory videos. Video conferencing will take out most of the physical interactions.
3 Together this sounds the death knell of academic snobbery. Internet as a great leveller has allowed for not only the teachers but also other knowledgeable individuals embedded within communities to share knowledge.
While all the above are the impacts of the internet on the teaching and learning side of education. Let us look at the experience on the research side, especially in the humanities.
25 years ago, to make any impact, on the American research on Hinduism it was crucial to get inside the system one way or another. But today, a large amount of quality works are being published by scholars and practitioners from outside the American academia. In fact with the surge of organised guru movements in India, their own writings and publishing houses too have surged. The new works produced by Hindu movements are not only about standard topics like Bhagavad Gita, but also cover a range of issues like society, politics, family, health, etc.
In fact, so strong is the wave of publishing material that many other people groups started by civic society now nurture non-academic research and publishing. These new suppliers are seen as threats to the turf traditionally controlled by the academicians.
The sheer outreach of the internet has ensured that the number of readers who receive knowledge from outside sources far outnumber those who attend a class. The American academicians refused to remove their blinders and accept this trend developing from the past 2 decades. The pride of being the exclusive source of knowledge had been instilled in them during their PhD. This attitude of the senior professors has misguided the new generation of academicians, and made the American academic system insular and vulnerable.
So if it is amply clear that the channels of knowledge consumption even if it pertains to religion is increasingly shifting to television, online sources, personal travels to sacred and holy sites, teachings from their gurus and swamis, and reading materials published by non-academic writers, then elite Indians are far better off in investing on such platforms and not feeding the rapidly deteriorating old system.
Instead of blindly funding American higher education’s pre-internet era system, India should develop the next generation platforms. Besides developing the platforms and delivery systems, Indians should also lead in content development and educational methodology, especially since all the original material lies in our ancient texts which means the competitive advantage lies with us.
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