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The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, October 1910

University Ideals in India and Burma

page 9

University Ideals in India and Burma.

"The most noteworthy fact in the recent history of English University development is the gradual abandonment of two old ideals, namely, that of the Federal university and of the University which examines but does not teach " is the quotation with which the Director General of Education in India began his last quinquennial report. He goes on further, however, to show that, though such a state of affairs has necessarily come about in England, the conditions in our Indian Empire are opposed to such a change; in fact, the principle of a Federal University, which examines those whom it has not taught, received a new lease of life by the University Act of 1904. According to this Act the weakest of the affiliated colleges should disappear, and the ties between the colleges and the parent University should be strengthened by a system of University inspection. It further required that the senates of the five existing Indian Universities should draw up a revised scheme for the courses of studies to be pursued. In each case the result bas been much the same, and allowing for the essential differences due to national peculiarities, the schemes all tend to approximate to that which serves the University of London and the newer English Universities at the present day. In all cases there is at the end of two years an intermediate examination usually in some four subjects, and after the lapse of a second similar period a final examination in three of four subjects, one of which can be taken as an honors subject. Such is a typical course of study for a B.A. or B.Sc. degree in an Indian University.

The University of Calcutta approximates most closely to the London University, as is seen from the following scheme of subjects for the B.A. degree:—
2.Composition in the vernacular of the candidate.
3.-4. Two of the following, one at least from Group
  • A.— Group A includes History, Philosophy, Mathematics, Political Economy, Languages.page 10
  • Group B includes the Sciences.
For the B.Sc. degree any group of three Sciences, including Mathematics, may be taken. In both degrees any one subject may be taken with honours, when more advanced papers are set. The Bombay, Allahabad and Punjab Universities have on the whole similar schemes, whilst the Universities of Madras demands more specialization, requiring for the B. A. degree :—
1.English Language and Literature.
2.One of the following groups: Mathematics, Physical Science; Natural Science; History and Economics; Logic, Psychology and Ethics; two languages.

There is no B.Sc. degree. Honours in any one group of subjects may be taken after a further course of two years.

This brief summary will be sufficient to indicate the position and scope of Indian University education of today. There is yet to be discussed the remainder of the problem, namely, the human side of the question. Practically every student who comes to an Indian University College, does so with the intention of passing an examination, which will enable him to obtain some position in life, either in a private office, or preferably in some branch of the Government service. Most of them aim only at the Intermediate Examination, which generally secures them a clerkship or some minor post. The more ambitious and more highly gifted proceed further in the provincial Civil Service, with the expectation of rising eventually to a position of dignity and importance. This being the case, it is evident that there is a keen desire at all costs to pass successfully a series of examinations, so that even where there might have been an incipient desire to appreciate the value of learning for its own sake, this desire has been prostituted by the influence of the surroundings. Yet possibly the Indian student is the victim of other shoulders. If his school education has been in the hands of incompetent teachers, it is difficult even for the most conscientious and painstaking University Professor to counteract the overwhelming influence of this previous training, and he, too, must inevitably become a portion of the educational machine, page 11 doling out a series of artificially digested facts to be reproduced in the examination—hall with a specious air of understanding. And then, again, a considerable percentage of every professorial common—room has been nourished with the same medicine. The point has been raised whether the authorities could begin to combat this evil by reducing the number of lecture hours. In truth, the average student with his five lectures a day has little time to ponder over what he has heard, let alone even to examine sensibly his dictated notes, which, sadly enough, have not infrequently in places lost their very essence by errors in transcription.

There is, however, another point of view, whether some explanation is to be found owing to some fundamental difference in the workings of an Eastern and Western mind. The difference is elusive, yet nevertheless startlingly apparent, and this conviction becomes more deeply settled the longer one has lived in the Orient. It is a problem for future centuries to decide whether this is due simply to a difference in respect of inherited culture, which will tend to disappear in the course of time, as a cultures class, whose culture is based on European ideals, gradually makes itself evident in India, or whether even then there will remain an unfathomable gulf between the East and the West.

My own experience is limited to the province of Burma, where, though certain national characteristics distinguish the people, nevertheless the main points of difference between the East and West remain the same. I have been struck in the students generally by the extraordinary absence of any sense of proportion, a quality which should result from education in its best sense, and what is particularly noticeable in teaching a scientific subject, the lack of observational power, and I am speaking of students of three and four years' standing. But the psychology of the young Burman's mind, when he is beginning the study of a subject like Chemistry, is rather fascinating. The sudden shock it receives when, for example, there is seen for the first time the colour of a solution changing from blue to red, shatters for a moment the thin veneer of European education and the mind is reduced to its primitive state of jungle superstition. It is extraordinary what a difficulty is experienced in identifying substances by their smell. I have page 12 found students, who, after three years, could not distinguish such characteristic smells as those of sulphur di-oxide and hydrochloric acid. Then, again, they appear to have a great difficulty in distinguishing shades of colour, and this is all the more remarkable when one thinks of the pantochromatic nature of the " Silken East." It might be argued that this and other difficulties might be due to their incomplete knowledge of English; at the beginning of their University career this may be so, but towards the end of their course it should not be such an active cause.

At present those in this province who are interested in education, are being agitated by the proposal to found a University of Burma. But it is pointed out that as long as University studies are pursued merely with the object of securing some Civil appointment, the present affiliation to the Calcutta University is amply sufficient. It is replied that provision must be made for the Burmans to study such subjects as Medicine and Engineering, as it is hardly consistent with the welfare of the Burman nation that all the minor posts of this description should be occupied by natives of India. It is further insisted by others of more idealistic tendencies that one of the reasons for a University should be to encourage the study of oriental literature, especially of the classic language Pali, more particularly in the case of the monks, all the more since the elementary education of a great mass of the community is in their hands. And incidentally it will come as a surprise to many that the percentage of male Burmans who can read and write is higher than in many European countries, ranking, for instance, far higher than in Ireland. It is replied that the monks, nevertheless, are on the whole unintellectual, and that their knowledge off Pali consists of a number of lengthy prayers, which they can scarcely translate into Burmese. But to see them in the public libraries diligently tracing the faint outlines of the words of some Buddhist divine from a tattered fragment of palm leaf, inclines one to take a more optimistic view. And there is no doubt that among the monks there are many cultured scholars. May be forgiven for relating the following experience:—

Wandering one day round an old deserted pagoda in a small township not far from Rangoon, I was accosted in excellent English by a monk, who asked me if I should page 13 like to come and see his monastery. He showed me his treasures, the holy relics of the Lord Buddha, which he had collected in his travels, and his beloved library, where there were books in Sanskrit, Pali, Cingalese and Burmese, and in all of these languages he seemed to be well informed, reading to me with evident pleasure a fragment of Sanskrit verse and an extract from the Cingalese. Surely a strange depth of culture in these strange surroundings.

And, without doubt, if a University could have the object of encouraging research in the classic Pali and in Burmese itself, in whose literature there are many classics, gradually becoming forgotten and lost with the course of time, a University were to be desired. Unfortunately there is an added internal difficulty in Burma, namely, that in Rangoon there are two Colleges affiliated to Calcutta, one the Government Colleges, and the other a much smaller Baptist College,* to which the Government has from time to time given extensive grants. There is no doubt that the idea of a Federated University, however good results it appears to give in India, is unsuitable for Burma, as it is certain that University teaching will be centered in Rangoon. The most satisfactory arrangement appears to be to convert the Government as a model, as far as the general course of studies is concerned, knowing already from direct experience its virtues and its failings, and to give to the smaller college the right of giving lectures in certain subjects, and to its students all the privileges of the University.

The question presents itself as to what constitutes the ideal University. It must be answered that the ideal University is different for each educational community, and that an approximation can be found only by an application of the method of trial and failure, taking advantage of the experience of systems under similar or closely related conditions. But above all extreme care should be taken not to alter too suddenly or too fundamentally an existing institution; where the failure has been possibly only a limited one. It must be remembered that the ideal page 14 University is possible only for the ideal student. But the ideal student does not require an ideal university; which causes the conclusion to be drawn that the best University must be of the nature of a compromise, for the ideal University can not be the best.

P. W. Robertson.

* The students are practically all Karens, who are not Buddhists.