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Education and the Global Citizen: Challenges and Opportunities for India


I was invited recently by The Teacher Foundation, Bangalore (www.teacherfoundation.org) to deliver one of the Ten Talks they are doing as part of their tenth anniversary. I spoke about global citizenship and the young Indian and engaged in a lively discussion thereafter with an invited audience of educationists, civil society, youth and media on education today. I thought I should share the text of my talk here:

The theme of my talk today is one that informs most debates and discussions on education today.  Growing up in the sixties and early seventies, the subject of “global citizenship” was not a constant although we were  not taught to be insular.   In fact, my parents’ generation (which came of age in what was pre-independence India) was already exposed to the winds of change and the river of ideas that came their way from  a bilingual education in both Malayalam, their mother tongue, and English a foreign tongue and, through both languages their connectivity with the wide world beyond the palm fringed sylvan landscapes of rural Kerala was built.  It was a time when Gandhiji started a revolution that paved our road to freedom.  I still remember an account written by a young Indian American entitled “How my grandmother learnt to ride a bicycle” – this being an account of how the freedom struggle had literally enticed young women to leave the shelter of their parental homes and break free of cultural barriers that had sequestered them for generations – in this case, the young woman’s grandmother  had learnt the hitherto unthinkable – how to ride a bicycle to deliver messages clandestinely  to freedom fighters who were in hiding from the British.

That, then, was the generation of my parents.  They grew up in times of momentous change for India and the world and their exposure to that change influenced their parenting of us, their children.  Educate a woman, they say, and she educates a family – and we, my mother’s three daughters were the beneficiaries – mother could speak in one breath about the story of  Krishna and Sudama, and in the other of Orpheus and Eurydice.  My father introduced me to the world of history and current affairs.  I learnt about Gandhiji for the first time when I was six years old in 1957, when India was commemorating the centenary of the First War of Independence of 1857.

My straying from the theme of my talk is intentional – because I wanted to illustrate that awakening the imagination of a child, taking his or her hand, and guiding them on that magical mystery tour, literally, of the world beyond the four corners of a family house, is what a ‘vidya aarambam’ should really be about – as important as guiding that child’s finger to write the first letters on a plate of rice on an  auspicious festival morning.

So, ladies and gentlemen, how does education make the global citizen?  How does, as Mark Twain famously said, a cabbage become a cauliflower  - which was how he defined education?  How do we bring the child to that point where he or she, becomes that Descartes who proudly announces “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think therefore I am” - isn't it every teacher’s or parent’s dream for your ward to come to you and say “I am thinking”  - thinking about ideas, places, events and people, beyond the narrow circumference of a text book – determined environment?

Now, I am no educationist – I have never been a teacher, but I am what my teachers made me.  They are long gone now, but the imprint they made on my personality is indelible.  They awakened in me an unquenchable curiosity, that I still possess, about the world around me – they spoke to me like Montaigne who said “Nothing human is foreign to me”.

When I look around me today, I am witness to the enormity of the challenges that confront us in preparing what is popularly called our “demographic dividend” – the 65% of our population under the age of 25 for the future that beckons.  This demographic dividend is often projected as one of the “killer apps” (the words are Niall Ferguson’s but I use them in the present context of the ”advantage” that India possesses in terms of its young population) that will see us outweighing and outpacing China in the medium and long term.

But, to my mind, if that demographic dividend is to be the “killer app” it is designed to be, and yields true dividends for the country, it must, in the ultimate analysis, be also a democratic dividend.  This to me, requires an Indian renaissance in that I would like to see each and every one of these young people become veritable Raja Ram Mohan Roys, with well-formed as well as well-filled minds, to extrapolate on a remark by Dr Shashi Tharoor.  They must be cast in the mould of global leaders with the knowledge and competency to be true global citizens who have shed the chains of narrow thought processes, vulnerability to rumour and prejudice, and are no longer prisoners  of the local, or hostage to small thinking.

Fernando Reimers of the Harvard School of Education says that great schools must prepare students for global life, provide them with the disposition to do and transform the world and our circumstances. Our teachers must be teachers  without borders cultivating academic excellence with an emphasis on character development and the socio-emotional quotient.  (And this is why the training of our teachers is of such seminal importance.  Our schools of education should be as special and distinguished as our I.I.Ts or our medical schools.  Do you know that in cities like Helsinki, getting into the School of Education is more difficult than getting into medical school?)

Our school education, therefore, needs to understand globalization, and to teach our students to be curious about the world and global affairs so that the frontiers of knowledge are advanced.  It must push an agenda of innovation to help students prepare for the future, promote critical thinking and the study of other cultures.  The teaching of ethics should also be one key component of such education. In the social contract that is education, it is important to inculcate a sense of self  that incorporates skills that make peace possible in our society, and understands  that lives are inter-twined in the global commons.

I recently came across the term-“barefoot irreverence”- and it was a term applied to that mind which is taught to question, to critically analyse and to form objective assessments. And, that irreverence, I was told, comes from studying a curriculum that incorporates the study not only of science and math, but also of language, of history, of climate and environmental issues, and of culture.

Today, in our country, it would seems that the sense of entitlement reigns supreme in the hearts and minds of most of our citizens.  Is this the result of our education and what it teaches our young people?   Should not our education also  stress the importance of another sense-the sense of responsibility-should we not awaken to the responsibility of teaching and creating  a generation of  exceptional young people?  Should we not harmonize as Swami Vivekananda said, the traditional values of India with the new values brought by science and technology? And those values emphasize respect for others. It is said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.  That is the entire law, all the rest is commentary." This, then, should be the foundation for civic engagement and it synchronizes well with the principles of global citizenship.

We live in a “flattened world” today and this has crucial implications for educators and for the definition of citizenship.  Indeed, the challenge in this flat world is to create a new model of citizenship, one that links global learning with local community engagement.  In fact, the situation today demands as Benjamin Barber said, a "citizenship which is both transnational and local, rather than strictly national”.

In the next decade and a half, India will become significantly urban.  In the words of Kwame Appiah, “ the problem of the city is the strategic problem of our time”.  The youth who will increasingly come to populate our cities cannot be ghetto-ized, thinking in narrow silos of expectations  and entitlements alone-while trying to improve conditions locally, they must also develop that sense of  “rooted cosmopolitanism”-being aware of the interconnected would.  They should grasp the value of global interdependence.  The challenge for India, as it is for other democracies, is help the vast majority of our young people reach levels of skills and competence once the privilege of only a small minority, while furthering the goals of a just civil society that is the very pillar of democracy and democratic life.  And, our teachers and faculty should be made aware, more and more, of global issues so that they can teach our students the realities of the would they live in.  They should prepare our students to be, what someone terms, “Stewards of India”, practicing active citizenship, far beyond the individualistic goal of getting a job.  And, it has been pointed out by thinking people that this will involve setting our students to reflect on issues like the environment and its depredation, gender violence, food security, sustainable development, simple living, socially responsible entrepreneurship, pluralism and diversity, and  the history of our land.

The school, then, ladies and gentlemen, is the chief architect for the creation of a better India.  The school must develop the democratic character, it must help cancel and eradicate the intolerance that threatens our social fabric today.  It must teach an openness of mind, self-discipline, obligation, civility, tolerance, fairness and generosity.

There is an anecdte about John Dewey, the American philosopher.  A school reformer reached Dewey in heaven and asked how we create the schools our children need & deserve.  To this Dewey said  “ well, there is  the natural way and the miraculous way.  Which do you want?”  The reformer asked for the natural way.  “The natural way” Dewey said, “would be for God to send down bands of angels to visit every single public school and transform them into places of true learning”. “Good heavens” gasped the reformer “what then is the miraculous way?” “Ah” said Dewey, “The miraculous way would be for the people to do it themselves”.  A tall order indeed!  No easy task, then to create places of true learning.

The passage of the Right to Education which has made education a fundamental right for the children of India is naturally seen as a watershed development in the history of our nation.  But the challenge is to ensure that the Right to Education does not produce aggressive, intolerant adults-The academic and educationist, Amitabh  Mattoo has said rightly that education must not only teach the 3 Rs but also the 3 Ss.  The first ‘S’ is sensitivity-aesthetic sensibility, compassion and humanism.  The second ’S’ is security and freedom from fear.  The 3rd ‘S’ is to teach children to develop a spiritual & scientific temper. Amitabh Mattoo also reminds us  of Jiddu Krishnamurthi’s words in this context: and his definition of the religious mind- "not  one that goes to churches, temples or mosques.  The religious mind is that which is completely alone: not being nationalistic, such a mind has no horizons, no limits.  It is explosive, new, young, fresh and innocent".

I think we in India also need to look at the state of our Libraries.  Much needs to be done, to improve their conditions and provide our students particularly the underprivileged among them, with proper reading facilities.  It is the habit of reading that opens minds & creates awareness of the world.  A well read individual would never for instance, name his shop “Hitler” as one saw recently.  It has been suggested that Doordarshan could have also a dedicated educational channel and thus help disseminate interesting and relevant learning for young minds in a multi disciplinary fashion.  The work of EDUSAT also can be amplified to include more than science education alone.  My plea is that we must not ignore the importance of history and  the importance of philosophy.  We cannot afford our children's horizons to be intolerant and narrow.   The final test of schooling is the kind of identity it creates.  That identity in itself is based on multiple factors in a pluralistic society like ours, if  it has to inculcate many different perspectives.  And to paraphrase HG Wells, if human history is a race between education and catastrophe, let education win the race, let it triumph, let the tribe of the truly well-educated thrive and increase.

A global education that creates a global citizen is like a revolving door-a truly creative space.  It reminds me of the pilgrimages along the ancient Silk Route,  of the Zeitgeist of places like  Nalanda University,  literally the giver of learning and  of education. In all these institutions of excellence, the central tenet observed was that education should be modern in life and spirit, making as Sri Aurobindo said, the student a worthy unit of the larger humanity from which we draw our strength and inspiration. Let that be our goal.

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