Changing Contours of Education over the Last Few Centuries


Dr. Ravi P. Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

14 Jul 2020 – The world has seen different forms of learning as well as in the means of acquiring useful skills in society. For instance, in the early Greek system, the objective was to train young children — mainly boys, to become good citizens. They were also trained in some art forms such as music and painting, and also provided with skills such as debating or horse riding. A bit of science, mathematics and philosophy were also imparted to the students.

In India, in earlier centuries, a system called the Gurukul was the means of upbringing of children — again usually only boys. A student would not only learn some basic subjects such as Sanskrit language, Vedas, Upanishads, and Mathematics but also learn housekeeping chores since he stayed in his guru’s house. Unfortunately girl children were deprived of this facility. In recent times, some persons such as Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi regretted the fact that girls did not receive adequate formal education.

For some students who did not show exceptional qualities, the main emphasis was on rote learning — not only reciting verses of Vedas or Upanishads (which were in Sanskrit language) but also some aspects of Mathematics. Rote learning was not looked down upon as usually happens in current times, but was considered a means of retaining knowledge since books and libraries were generally not available in many regions. In Islam, the Holy Quran is, even in contemporary times, memorised by children in addition to the formal schooling that they undergo.

The Sanskrit language was a storehouse of many Indian epics and its influence spread to many countries through the interaction with Persian and other languages. The word for place (or country) in Sanskrit is sthan can be seen from country names — Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, etc. India was also earlier known as Hindustan. Sanskrit grammar is also considered beneficial even in computer science.

In India, girls were required to do household chores — cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the house etc. Sometimes they tended to the animals — cows, goats and milking them. But occasionally they also would start singing — usually religious songs in favour of Lord Krishna or some local God.

When the British colonised India, they brought in changes in all spheres of life — political, commercial, technological (introduction of train services), etc. In education, Lord Macaulay in February 1835, suggested major changes in our traditional system, by making teaching of English compulsory, and introducing various science subjects so that students acquire modern education. He was also disdainful of the traditional educational system. However, he felt that Sanskrit language should continue to be taught.

The major change that we are witnessing today is online teaching and learning because regular schools and colleges are shut due to the pandemic. A lot of analysis about the effectiveness of online teaching has already been made which need not be considered in this essay. But one adverse effect has been the increasing disparities that already exist between children of rich and poor parents . Online teaching requires dependable quality of internet and laptops or smartphones which the poor children are deprived of. There does not seem to be an effective remedy to this dilemma in the continuing pandemic.

Another trauma that poor children are experiencing (that I discussed in my essay published by TMS Digest on 13 July) is hunger. With schools shut, the mid day meals that were provided to the students have come to an end leaving the children traumatised even further. Hungry children cannot become good students.

The form and contents of education have naturally evolved over time. Formal education in the form of science and technology in addition to social sciences, language and mathematics teaching is welcomed but this need not be at the expense of traditional forms that emerged in earlier times. A wholesome mix is needed.

Emphasis on the nutritional aspects of children is also essential. Unfortunately, huge disparities occur between institutions for the rich and for common people. There are no easy answers to this dilemma. Let our traditional life styles provide a provisional answer.

One important benefit of digitisation in India is the fact that a large number of computer scientists and required infrastructure do exist. This is borne out by the fact that the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai (incidentally an Indian) has decided to invest 10 billion US Dollars in India over the next seven years in various projects. These are aimed at promoting digitisation and construction of various platforms and apps now that many countries as also India, have decided to ban several Chinese apps such as Tik Tok among others.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi.



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Jul 2020.

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