Quality and Excellence in Education
The eternal instinct to explore, investigate, create, recreate and refine distinguishes the humankind from other species. Sri Aurobindo elaborates it in life Divine: "The animal is satisfied with a modicum of necessity; the gods are content with their speldours. But man cannot rest permanently until he reaches some highest good. He is the greatest of living beings because he is the most discontented. The urge to explore generates the desire and determination to break the barriers that come in the way. He alone, perhaps, is capable of being seized by the divine frenzy for remote ideal". The history of human civilization is a great saga of human efforts and initiatives towards 'betterment' in every sphere that impacts their life. As these initiatives began to fructify, socialisation took roots, the worth of love, care, family ties, broad human bondage was realized. The process of human civilization has continued uninterrupted all along and in the modern times, the concept of eternal unity of human beings is acceptable. Likewise, the evolution of moral, ethical and humanistic values became universally laudable. It has not been a smooth onward march, violence, wars, slavery, apartheid, colonialism, caste discrimination, greed, and such negative traits have inflicted enormous miseries on human progress and development all along. However, these have failed to curb the instinct to move towards quality enhancement and excellence in every sector of human endeavour, and also of adventure. It took several centuries to bring mankind to the levels that have finally led to the concept of human rights and equality of all men and women overcoming diversities of all kinds. Every civilization, developing and evolving at different places and in varied conditions, created its own store house of experience, information, knowledge and skills. The process of acquisition of new knowledge, its utilization and preservation generated the need for its transfer to new generations. The process was gradually institutionalized leading to great centres of learning; and advancement of learning. The Universities of Taxila (600BC to 500 AD), Nalanda (500 AD to 1300 AD), Al-Karaouine in Morocco (began as a Mosque in 859 AD and introduced subjects like Math, Physics and Chemistry in 1959), Al-Azhar in Egypt in 970-72 AD and Al-Nizamiyya in Baghdad, founded by Khwaja Nizam ul-Mulk in 1065 AD, are considered by many as the oldest five universities. The oldest centre of higher learning in Western World was in Bologna in Italy. In the 21st century, the level and measure of the cognitive capital of nations depends on how their institutions of higher learning and research are contributing to the creation of new knowledge through research and innovations. The pace of growth and development of any nation also depends on how much advanced it is in technical know-how and to what extent it nurtures its talent pool and provides opportunities and support in the pursuit of better quality and excellence in their chosen field.
The ancient Indian tradition of knowledge pursuit presents a saga of glorious devotion and dedication in pursuit of quality knowledge that was useful for the regular life and simultaneously, also in understanding the basic query on before and after-life, the very purpose of human existence , all of which helped in defining the purpose of life. The present system of education is not a continuation of the earlier home grown tradition, though it is expected to draw heavily from it. The School education provides opportunities to study and identify the talented, their interests, and these are supposed to be nurtured further in the higher education system. It is the level of quality and excellence at which educational institutions functions that determines the subsequent levels of the same in every other sector. The role of the teacher, thus, becomes pivotal in upgrading quality and encouraging in excellence. It is well known that "no people can rise above the levels of their teachers". In 2015, India had 16, 423 Teacher training Institutions, which deserve all the support to excel in their task. Out of 85 lakh school teachers, 79% were trained. Around 23 crore children are supposed to be studying in around15 lakh schools in India. According to UGC data of 2014 - 15, there are 329 state universities, 46 central universities, 128 deemed universities, 74 institutions of national importance and 250 state private universities that are functional in the country. Enrolment is around 3.33 Crores. It is the quality of the products from these institutions that could impact quality in every sector of human endeavour. Before discussing quality and excellence, it is worthwhile to recollect what could provide the epistemological basis to the Indian education that needs to maintain it s continuity with the tradition of knowledge quest and, at the same time is open to ideas and inputs from all around the globe.
Everyone understands the import of quality and excellence. This understanding may be highly subjective, and hence it is not easy to codify 'quality' and 'excellence' into exact mathematical definitions. Probably it is not necessary as well. Even if a predetermined goal is achieved, the shifting of the goal post ahead becomes the first task that emerges from the very process. It is educational institutions that train young persons to comprehend the message contained in the words of John William Gardner:"Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well", and harmonize these with those of John Fitzgerald Kennedy; "Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource". Developed nations of today are the ones that realized the value of the quality and excellence in education and shaped their institutions accordingly. As expected, it paid rich dividends in every sector. The role of Institutions of higher learning is indeed critical. Striving for excellence has been the prime pursuit of scholars, academicians, thinkers, creators and all those who are bitten by the bug to 'better what has already been achieved. All of them chose a tough and dexterous path. It was Aristotle who guided the seekers: "Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives - choice not chance, determines your destiny".
What could be the basis of marching ahead in imparting quality education in the Indian context? Apart from rich traditions, India is privileged to have sound philosophical inputs to set its education system on the rails with adequate speed and confidence. Every serious discourse on education, one invariably comes across certain pet laments, the most prominent being: we are still following the transplanted system of education, a brainchild of Thomas Babington Macaulay. His landmark minutes of 1835 were indeed a great piece of imperialistic strategy formulation to subjugate Indians by depriving them of their own culture, history and heritage. Education was the key to achieve this objective and they succeeded to a great extent. The indigenous system was in ruins when the freedom struggle began to make its presence felt. In no other country under colonial rule, education was given such importance as in India before 1947. Our thinkers, philosophers, scholars and political leaders were all convinced that extending the light of education to all is the only key to succeed in efforts to march towards an egalitarian society. For Swami Vivekananda, it had to be 'man-making education' that aims at Character building. Gandhiji wanted education to draw the best out of 'head, hand and heart'; or 'body, mind and spirit'. Sri Aurobindo wanted mind to be consulted during the process of growing up and gave that famous one-liner that 'nothing can be taught', which fully harmonizes with the revelation by Swami Vivekananda that 'Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man". For Rabindranath Tagore, "The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence". Eminent philosopher-statesman Dr. Radhakrishnan conceptualized quality education as: "The end-product of education should be a free creative man who can battle against historical circumstances and adversities of nature". These, and several other ideas and thoughts clearly indicate the richness of conceptual base on which an Indian policy on education needs could be formulated. Then alone it would be 'rooted deeply in the Indian soil, simultaneously open and alert receive to new ideas, inventions and innovations from across the planet Earth. The philosophical basis expounded by Indian thinkers in education harmonizes effectively what John Gardner has to say; "We don't even know what skills may be needed in the years ahead. That is why we must train our young people in the fundamental fields of knowledge, and equip them to understand and cope with change. That is why we must give them the critical qualities of mind and durable qualities of character that will serve them in circumstances we cannot now even predict."
In his brilliant essay 'The Pursuit of Excellence", M.V. Kamath recalls the words of JRD Tata who epitomizes excellence in his area of pursuit: "If you aim at perfection, you may achieve excellence". In any system, those who really devote to their persuasion with dedication and commitment are often expected to 'do more'. Achievers are always expected to 'achieve more'. Kamath emphasizes the use of the word 'may'. Tata achieved excellence in life, in profession and also as a human being; but there is always the query; you did very best, but why not better than it; strive for the better than the (present) best and shift the goal post further ahead! The pursuit of excellence attracts others on the Path. When Meghnad Saha was elected to the Fellowship of Royal Society in 1924, the event became a source of attraction of young students towards science. The interest in science was generated but access remained confined to lucky ones only. Saha was always on the lookout for talented young persons, and one whom he identified was D.S. Kothari whose contributions in physics, education and, science and spirituality testify what a great visionary Saha was. It also indicates the continuity and dynamism of the efforts in pursuance of excellence. D.S. Kothari headed the National Commission on Education (1964-66) and based upon it, the National Policy on Education -1968 was formulated by the government of India. This in itself was a step towards quality improvement in education as for the first time it was postulated that up to class X, both boys and girls shall study a common curriculum and that it shall have science and mathematics as compulsory subjects. Dr. Kothari had understood how significant it was to let every young person study science for ten years as that would lead to the development of scientific temper, provide adequate manpower in the fast growing areas of science and would contribute to the opening of a far bigger and wide canvas before growing children; eventually contributing to the quality of education that would be relevant to the demands of the future. Simultaneously, he laid great emphasis on value education, skill development and vocationalization. It recalled the strength of Indian education system and exhorted to embrace science and technology to move ahead in the global order.
The quest for fulsome personality development; and hence talent nurturance; has traversed right from IQ to EQ to SQ. There could be varied interpretations and articulations on who is most equipped to delve in the fascinating field of quality and excellence. Based on his recent researches, Author Paul Tough has identified a set of seven' skills': persistence, creativity, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control, optimism and grit. If institutions realize that early childhood and adolescence are the most congenial stages to develop these, the individual would be fully equipped to contribute in quality and in the march towards excellence. While the numbers 'seven' may not be sacrosanct, these skills; or values or traits; just cannot be ignored. In societies that still have considerable number of learners in schools and colleges from first and second generations, any neglect of late bloomers would be unpardonable. At the same time, by not providing lateral external pathways for those who may not be interested in higher learning results in overcrowding in echelons meant for higher level of intellectual work. However, none should ignore the cases of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and several others who have excelled without 'higher education' and created new standards in quality and excellence. One may quote again from MV Kamath to put things in pragmatic perspective: "The hallmark of Excellence, of course, is in excelling oneself more than excelling others. We cannot all be saints, Nobel Prize winners or Olympic champions. But there is one thing that we can do: and that is to do something better today than what we did yesterday and aspire to do something better tomorrow than what we have done today. The process is continuous and calls for great a deal of self-examination and self renewal". It is the individuals own self-image, confidence and assurance that transforms the horizons.
(The author is former Director, NCERT, New Delhi.)