In earlier articles, I have stressed the robustness of Indian socio-cultural traditions rooted in resilient institutions such as the family. Whether in businesses or political parties the influence of the family on modern India runs deep. What about modern developments driven by the concerns of the nation-state, where India doesn't have much of a tradition and where our families and communities do not give us much early training?
Science and technology are perhaps the most prominent of these unassimilated modern incursions. And not surprisingly, the Indian science and technology establishment has a dubious record of serving the nation's needs. I think the failures of science and technology in India have everything to do with the imposition of a scientific temperament from the top-down as part of a rapid nation-building exercise. In my previous article, I talked about Macaulay's vision of creating a class of Indians who were British in their thinking. The post-independence drive to create a scientific mind-set is part of Macaulay's legacy, now managed by Indians sitting in Delhi rather than Englishmen sitting in Calcutta.
However, this article is not a critique of Macaulay's purposes, but rather an analysis of its outcomes. The education system that Macaulay put into place was incapable of preparing us for scientific research or technological creativity while leaving us with the veneer of modernity. People who have become Englishmen in spirit are no more likely to become good scientists than those who remained Indian. So why did we adopt the scientific worldview with such vigour?
When India became independent, there were two distinct visions of how to address the technical demands of the newly independent nation. One was Gandhian, which envisaged a bottom-up, local and low-tech approach to the needs of the Indian people. The other was to follow the lead of the West and the Soviets, where large-scale science emerged with a vast military-scientific-industrial establishment. The second vision won in India. Science and technology were integral to a twentieth century dream of nationhood which the first rulers of India shared with their counterparts in China and the Soviet Union (with the West as the model). Their goal was to create an efficient modern state with a rational citizenry who progressed from one success to another in controlling and using nature according to their needs.
What mind-set does this formal education deliver? The Macaulay-inspired education has always suited the ambitions of the emerging non-westernised middle class, the accountants and the managers who gained their views about science and other western ideas from rather meagre resources. The middle class internalised a cautious and fundamentally conservative worldview, where western ideas are bread-winning devices rather than sources of knowledge. Consequently, the Macaulayite programme has reinforced a conservative worldview with a scientific facade. Our scientific institutions are pedestrian in practice because of their demographic composition. Macaulay's true followers are not the Indian elite but middle class professionals who took advantage of the new opportunities offered by the colonial state.
I recall an uncle, who, when I was still a child, told me that since I was interested in science, I should become an engineer when I grew up. Engineering, he said, was a much better choice than becoming a scientist because science students didn't get jobs, engineering students did, therefore one must aim to be an engineer. With such a cautious mind-set, is it any surprise that we have been less than successful at doing creative scientific work?
I am sure that national planners were aware of this problem; they were trying to create a scientifically trained workforce out of a pool whose knowledge of scientific practice was poor. However, they had no choice but to follow through on the initial commitment. Once they decided that large-scale industrialization was the future, they had to create technical and scientific research institutions to support the larger task of nation building. Perhaps the seeming success of the Soviet Union in creating a modern state out of a feudal society could be replicated in India. If so, a pool of technically trained people with a "scientific temperament" would quickly spread its expertise to the rest of the population and rid Indian society of its various scourges.
In that hope they were wrong for two reasons, both closely tied to Macaulay's legacy. The first I have already mentioned â modern education is a job getting strategy for the middle class and does not have the capacity to make a social transformation. The second and more important reason has to do with the inherent drawbacks of the "scientific temperament" itself.
The Dr Watson problem
The second flaw is what I call the Dr Watson problem. If you remember, Dr Watson returns to London after having served in the Colonial wars. Like Macaulay, Watson is clearly a votary of imperial expansion based on a superior way of thinking. Then Watson meets Sherlock Holmes, who rapidly upends his certainties. While Watson is sane, rational and normal Holmes borders on the insane and esoteric. Watson makes the following assessment of Holmes's knowledge: "His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it."
In Watson's assessment Holmes does not have a scientific temperament, the larger rational view of the world that any 'civilized human being' should have. I think Holmes would not have met Macaulay's standard of a person who was "English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect" while Watson would have passed that test. However, as we know, it is Holmes who solves the detective mysteries, not Watson. As a young country with many technical problems, we need an army of Holmeses but unfortunately we are a nation of Watsons. While we can comment intelligently on scientific work, we cannot replicate it. Our education, when it succeeds, replaces traditional dogma with scientific dogma, where by dogma I mean information told and received as truth without any attempt at verification.
A typical Indian with a 'scientific temper' condemns traditional practices as superstition but has none of the skills that allow him to do good scientific work later in life. Learning to do science has less to do with picking up beliefs about the world (say, the earth going around the sun) and more about acquiring key skills. A competent scientist needs a 'technical sense,' a good instinct for applying the right techniques and the ability to invent a new technique when none of the available ones work. Our education does not help us learn a technical sense. At best, we are transplanting western science and technology into our soil (often in the guise of that rather misused term, appropriate technology) but that is a self-defeating process. Instead of appropriate technology, what we needed is a technical consciousness, a way of thinking that knows instinctively when to create and apply scientific ideas.
For technical consciousness to permeate our culture, we need a culture of technology in daily life and a tradition of mentorship that reproduces techniques across generations. The first of the two is about childhood exposure to technical manipulations. For that to happen, technical knowledge must become important in the Indian family environment. Without a revolution in the value of manual labour (suitably disguised as scientific learning) in family life, there isn't much hope for Indian science.
Second, scientific learning is much more like learning a craft than our education makes it out to be. Scientific knowledge passes from one laboratory to another and circulates among the scientific community much before it enters textbooks. In India science is part of book learning. Exposure to laboratory methods and theoretical techniques comes at the doctoral stage. By that time, it is too late to absorb a technical attitude. In a thriving tradition, children are exposed to technical skills early in life and then integrated into an adult community of mentors who further their talents. For that to happen, there must be continuity between local knowledge practices and the larger culture of high technology. But there is no link between our indigenous craft traditions and the scientific society that we are trying to create. If scientific ideas are not present in our families and communities, how can we be expected to solve any problems worth solving?
Much of the debate about modernity in India revolves around a false dichotomy between a traditional, superstitious worldview and a modern, scientific worldview. I think both of these are equally conservative choices and unlikely to solve India's technical problems. Swaraj in scientific ideas will come only when Indians are at ease with identifying, creating and adapting the technical tools that they need to solve their own technical problems. Gandhi's critique of modern technology is partially a rejection of scientific modernity. However, another interpretation is that by using the charkha and other seemingly simple technologies Gandhi wanted to create a technical consciousness in India with roots in Indian craft traditions. A high technology that started with the charkha as a base is more likely to serve up experimentalists and theorists that respond to India's technical needs. It might even be the Lego block of a thriving Indian technical culture.