Few outside Israel have perhaps heard of Ben-Zion. His father Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was a lexicographer and editor who believed that Hebrew, which was then used only by the ecclesiastic in religious ceremonies, needed to be revived among Jews and used to reunite them in the Promised Land. Inspired by him, a section of Jews in Palestine started to speak only Hebrew at home as well as sent their children to schools that taught only in the language. When they grew up, they intermarried, and their children became native speakers of modern Hebrew. But Ben-Zion was the first, having been taught only Hebrew by his father. Today, it is classified as a revived language, two millennia after it ceased to be the lingua franca of the Jews.
The government’s efforts to revive Sanskrit through children are laudable, since so far it was being promoted only as an eccentric curiosity—the language of Hinduism in Socialist India. It is the world’s oldest language, “more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin”, as a world-renowned philologer put it. The arguments for its revival are copious, but the methods of today’s language engineers are less than perfect. Force-feeding only creates hostility among students who see English and foreign languages as the means to succeed in the job market—perhaps the reason why Catholic children do not speak Latin.
But before our language activists fix the curriculum, we need to fix Indian education. The number of Indian students abroad has grown by over 200 per cent in the last decade. Over 9,000 Indians enrolled in German universities in 2014, compared to around 7,500 last year. The number is a miniscule percentage of India’s overall student population, but symbolises the wish list of the youth stuck in a grim educational trap. Twenty per cent of Indian children are not enrolled in primary schools and 26 per cent drop out before Grade V.
Some 34 per cent of the world’s illiterate live in India. Sixty-six per cent of our graduates are unemployable. Only 25 per cent of technical graduates are employable in the IT sector. Over 70 per cent of India’s 1.5 million engineering students are jobless. The government spends just above 1 per cent of the GDP on research. Only 10 per cent of Indians between ages 15 and 29 receive vocational training. India’s higher education system is the third-largest in the world, but over 40 per cent of college teachers hold temp jobs.
Most Indian students who study abroad, unlike the Chinese, do not wish to return home, because life and pay is better overseas. Hence dropping German or English from the syllabus is not the answer, because India’s economic reality has to go beyond swadeshi slogans and activism. In 2012, enrolment in English medium schools jumped by 274 per cent over the previous decade. The fault doesn’t lie with the students or private schools—teachers say the solution is to impart English education better in government schools.
India’s ancient gurukuls perpetuated the oral tradition much before Sanskrit acquired a script. To make it accessible today, introduce folklore in formal education. Include the Bhagavad Gita in textbooks. By evolving from recitation to understanding, the imagination of eternal India will be rekindled. That is the undying mrityunjaya mantra of education.