Designing Integrated Knowledge Systems

Published: 04th March 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th March 2014 01:19 AM   |  A+A-

Indians have grown up learning about Pythagoras, Archimedes, Galileo and Newton without ever learning about Panini, Aryabhatta, Bhaskar or Bhaskaracharya, reading Homer or Dickens but not the Panchatantra, the Jataka tales or anything from the Indian epics. As early as the Indus valley  forms of technical standardization,  measurement, calibration are evidenced. Large scale constructional plans,  cartographic material, and use of large numbers are cited in the Vedic period.  The BaudhayanaSulba Sutra contains Pythagorean triplets. Panini contributed to  phoneticsand morphology. Kanad propounded the Vaisheshika school of atomism. Pingala knew the Pascal triangle and Binomial coefficients, Aryabhata,  trigonometric functions and Bhaskara II Rolle’s calculus theorem.  Indians knew  negative numbers, decimals, andthe concept of zero. Rust control in iron is exemplar in the  Delhi Iron Pillar.  Ancient systems   created highly efficient irrigation networks, ensuring replenishment of   water tables.

Indian thought systems combined mathematics with music, grammar or poetry,  astronomy with metaphysics,  medicine with  philosophy, rituals with water conservation. This creative cross-disciplinarity is lost sight of in modern education.

India’s worldview inspired scientists both Indian (J C Bose, P C Ray, S Ramanujan, C V Raman, S N Bose) and Western (Tesla, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Oppenheimer, Bohm). Why has this ceased?  Dominated by western epistemologies, Indian education  has led to cultural desertification, colonial and post-colonial  intellectual hegemony,  a loss of identity and mortgaging the development problems of the nation to imported and ill-suited technologies.

Technologies  streaming in through educational curriculum and text books uncritically adopted from the West  are  not always  suitable to the conditions here, as for example dams in India where the dam structure  mostly has been modelled on the fast flowing rivers of the USA, and does not address the problem of silting caused by slow moving rivers of India.

Awareness of such anomalies has  prompted efforts to promote short courses / special papers on Indian Knowledge systems. The CBSE has developed texts on the history of Indian Science and culture.  There is in fact considerable writing on Indian thought systems, some quite encyclopaedic. However, these remain as optional  ‘information’ supplements outside a valorised body of knowledge so constructed as Truth in mainstream educational systems  that they assume the form of intrinsic epistemological categories- like programming the mind.

There is a need to deconstruct   entrenched hegemonies of intellectual discourse.  What is needed is a  pedagogy of critical consciousness that interrogates given terms of debate towards a more inclusive episteme by   integrating   our intellectual and cultural inheritance in formal educational systems. Some nascent work in this direction led by IITs  briefly  illustrates a process  of critical enquiry  that seeks to  correlate plural sources of knowledge in order to construct a holistic world view. This implies emphasis on problem- solving  learning with   project -based experience combining  lab and  field work, actively  engaged  with the local context and community. Such research reflecting and analysing real –world concerns inevitably encourages multi-disciplinary perspectives. C-TARAinIIT Bombay, the dry toilets designed in IIT Kanpur,  the study of traditional water harvesting systems in  IITDelhi, the Centre for Rural Development in IIT Kharagpur are examples of  efforts to address local needs and build on local knowledge interpreting traditional knowledge systems in India and the way in which   cultural forms are informed by  science and technology over the ages. The Design Manifesto released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development  in January 2014 builds on such initiatives, foregrounding community needs to evolve appropriate technologies, valuing local knowledge systems, and integrating experiential learning with formal theorisation. The manifesto enables IITs to set up   Design schools engaged with local problems. Local problems create the new idiom of knowledge by compelling  innovation and encouraging re-interpretation of traditional knowledge  forms in terms of their  contemporary relevance. New projects on frugal technologies and creative economy  focus on the bottom of the pyramid needs, such as  IIT Kanpur’s work  on toy clusters in Varanasi integrating traditional production processes with improved technologies in ways that empower  traditional artisans.  The Science and Heritage Initiative (SANDHI) of various IITs enables acritical study of traditional texts as knowledge sources along with experimenting and lab -testing traditional technologies and developing sustainable solutions for modern problems such as  water, buildings, energy,  health. In IIT Kanpur this includes  the  study of cultural forms, example musical instruments, traditional architecture and classical Indian languagesand of natural forms such as water harvesting systems as cognitive structures integrating experiential  and abstract learning,  aesthetics and science.   It also includes  Indian philosophy and its contribution to scientific thinking. SANDHI in IIT Bombay involves  both a multi –layered analysis  of  Ajanta paintings  and of a wide range of classical Sanskrit texts for their scientific knowledge and  verification.  In IIT BHU and IIT Kharagpur efforts are on to study the cultural and intellectual inheritance of Varanasi and its contemporary relevance in  cross-disciplinary ways as part of their Design Hubs. The Schools of planning and Architecture Delhi and Bhopal are integrally involved with participatory city mapping in Varanasi.   IIT Roorkee is working on Himalayan ecologies beginning with Uttarakhand focussing on its environment and livelihood.  These initiatives are driven by faculty, students and professionals and engage with local communities. The success of such a participatory research based pedagogy will be tested if it can move from a project approach towards integrating our cultural and intellectual heritagewith mainstream education. This will strengthen  cognitive capabilities of critical enquiry that sift and evaluate knowledge sources  without the dogma and  reductionism  of binaries as ‘traditional’  ‘modern’; ‘east’ ‘west’, sans apologia and glorification. It will also enable  greater engagement with the local context and this will spur original creative discourse  and innovations that benefit  life more equitably and sustainably. In all this the effort is  to  combine local rootedness with global best as Bhartrhari (5th c.) said, “What does he know who knows only his own tradition?”

The author is an Additional Secretary (Technical Education), MHRD, Dept. of Higher Education, GoI

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