The other source of information for society or the public – that of formal education – has to be analysed at two levels: the content of education and the autonomy of educational institutions. Education is moving out of the hands of educationists and into those of politicians, bureaucrats and cultural and religious organisations with strong political agendas. This makes it crucial to be aware of how politicians today relate to intellectuals – if at all they do.

There is a substantial change in the qualities that currently mark those that enter politics as a career and hold responsible positions and those that did so fifty or so years ago. Sensitivity to the educational process is not so apparent these days, to put it mildly. Educational qualifications in themselves do not necessarily qualify such people but there should be more comprehension of the purposes of education.

Ideally, the essence of learning lies in enabling a person to think in forms that are analytical, logical and autonomous, not to mention creative. This applies to every aspect of learning. Thus, for instance, it is only by using the power of reasoning that an educated person can be made aware of the fact that knowledge, where it takes the form of a technology, has a particular context that produces that kind of knowledge and sustains it. A technological invention cannot take shape if nothing existed before.

Specific technological inventions of the twentieth century can only have been made in our times because there was pre-existing knowledge just prior to it, duly recorded, and that made the technology possible.

Such inventions cannot have existed three thousand years earlier without the technical and associated knowledge that is required for each invention. So instead of claiming that modern discoveries of science and technology made in the West had existed in ancient times in India, it might be more to the point if we asked some pertinent questions about India instead.

If the Kerala mathematicians discovered calculus in the fifteenth century as historians of mathematics have suggested, then what stopped these mathematicians from making the leap into modern science, as indeed was done by Newton a little later? This question is pertinent to understanding a body of knowledge in Kerala at a particular point in time, and its social and intellectual context.

Or, there is the question that the science establishment in India could be asking: namely, why is it that Indian scientists working in Indian centres of science in recent times do not get awarded Nobel Prizes, as they do when they work in western centres of science? What inhibits innovative, autonomous research in our institutions? Is it because of the control exercised by the bureaucracy and the government over these institutions that inhibits questioning existing knowledge? Is this also somehow related to the self-perception of scientists?

There is also the other question of scientific work and its social context. This remains separated in the way we teach science, sometimes giving it an aura of obscure knowledge, almost esoteric. One misses its connection to various human concerns. I am often puzzled by how few scientists in India pick up the debates that were once provoked by the writing of J. D. Bernal or Joseph Needham, or J. B. S Haldane, or more recently the analyses of Thomas Kuhn. Or for that matter even the more popular writings of Stephen Jay Gould or the controversies raised by Richard Dawkins.

Science is not something that happens out there. It is embedded in the societies that practice it. The specific issues raised in these writings may not be immediately pertinent but their broader context and the questions addressed have a resonance. These need to be widely debated if science is to be seen as it should, as more than technology and invention.

At the initial stage, education provides information of existing knowledge. The next step is to assess whether there is a need for replacing existing knowledge with new, improved knowledge through the process of learning. This is not a question merely of opposing existing knowledge but of analysing it in the light of new knowledge.

The educational system as it works today in India, with rare exceptions, does not even get to the first step in most schools.

Some suspect that the acute shortage of schools and the poor condition of those that exist is conditioned by the fear of various governments that a citizenry that is not only literate but educated will not be easy to keep subordinated. It may of course simply be an inability to understand the value of an educated citizenry. Hence, the atrocious neglect of school education in the last half century.

Education is invariably among the lowest ranked items in the budget. And even when we say that our goal is development, the expenditure on education does not increase, rather it is cut, as has been recently done. Why don’t we recognise that even the quality of the much talked of “development” will change dramatically if we have a properly educated citizenry?

There is virtually no preparation for secondary school, leave alone college and university, in terms of both acquiring information and knowing how to handle knowledge. Nevertheless, we are rushing to open more Central Universities, IITs, IIMs and what have you.

Inevitably this situation leads to diluting education to the point where it becomes almost meaningless – in fact to reduce it to the lowest common denominator, what might therefore be called “LCD Education”. Institutes of advanced learning are now complaining about having to admit ill-educated graduates to whom they have to give basic training before they can proceed with post-graduate work.

Universities are institutions where existing knowledge is assessed and, if needs be, revised, and certainly brought up-to-date and where new knowledge should be created. We are busy destroying the education infrastructure that exists rather than augmenting it and making it better.

The current move is to bring in an Act whereby all Central Universities, almost fifty of them, will have a standardised uniform syllabus, centrally controlled, taught to students admitted through a central admission process, taught by teachers, again recruited through a central organization, and then allotted to various universities.

Such a degree of centralised control has in the past been associated only with totalitarian societies, and even in these some diversity eventually had to be conceded. This ensures that there will be no room to either experiment with a different perception of knowledge or relate it to local needs in diverse ways.

The attempt is to make everyone conform to one body of information. Inevitably, that will be dictated by those who are without specialised knowledge – politicians and bureaucrats. It doesn’t take much to predict what that body of information will consist of. Those that have knowledge also know that it has to be periodically assessed and critiqued by those professionally involved in creating it. And the latter are never bureaucrats or politicians. They are invariably teachers and researchers working in the disciplines that constitute knowledge. But in the proposed system it is not the professionals who will debate and determine the contents and methods of teaching and research, but those who are, as likely as not, unfamiliar with the frontiers of knowledge in any subject.

Excerpted with permission from The Public Intellectual in India by Romila Thapar et al, Aleph Book Company.