CAN LITERACY AND PRIMARY EDUCATION

SPUR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?

By Arvind Banavaliker

In an interview given to the Straits Times of Singapore in August, 1999, Prof. Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Winner for Economics for 1999, spoke of the "Eastern strategy" which benefited the region enormously and why it should not be abandoned. He said that what had been achieved was absolutely astonishing. The region had introduced "a new concept of development" – the idea of "developing human capability as a process of economic development". He said that earlier education used to be thought of as a luxury which one could afford to have only after one got rich and that in some countries including his own, India, the lack of expansion of elementary education was perhaps the single most important factor in keeping the economy in a state of backwardness.

But is this really the answer to our present problems in India? Can literacy and expansion of elementary education automatically lead to economic and political growth? In the interview, Prof. Sen gives the example of Japan:

"It’s not often recognised that even at the time of the Meiji Restoration, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan had a higher rate of literacy than Europe, even though Japan had not yet experienced any industrial development whereas Europe had a hundred years at that time."

But if this was the case, then it becomes necessary to ask why Japan had not experienced industrial development. One must ask why Japan lacked modern science and technology at that time? Why did it have to import modern science and technology from the Europe and the United States of those days? Although ahead in literacy, why was modern science and technology independently not born in Japan, ahead of Europe or concurrently with Europe ?

If literacy and primary education were enough to start a nation on industrial development, why does the Philippines even today lag behind although more than 95% literate for a good many years. Why are African nations like the Congo and Zimbabwe behind even India in development although ahead in literacy? Why do people , both menfolk and womenfolk from Kerala and Goa - our most literate states – still have to travel elsewhere for jobs? Are our own millions of graduates and double-graduates not literate? Why are they then still desperate to be offered jobs of mere clerks and peons?

More than even the South East Asian tiger nations, it was Japan which indeed blazed the trail – but not for the reasons outlined by Prof. Sen. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan was the first and only nation in the world which manfully acknowledged that it lacked modern science and technology – and then actively set about getting it. One of the essential ingredients of modern science and technology is, of course, literacy. But it doesn’t work the other way round. Mere literacy or primary and secondary education is not enough - unless one clearly understand the importance of and then seeks out modern science and technology.

By way of comparison, take the case of India. We actually had the British swirling all around us but we never really understood what brought them to our shores in the first place or what gave them the qualities they had which enabled them to prevail over us.

Instead, at about the very time that the Japanese were readying themselves to take their first steps towards development, we went to war with the British on the question of bullets covered with animal grease! After the Japanese got started, the Western nations refused to credit them with progress and firmly believed that an Oriental nation, even though a practitioner of modern science and technology, would never make the grade.

But Japan showed that science and technology could work. Growth in our own times of the South East Asian nations like South Korea, Taiwan, Hongkong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and even China was only possible because they took the route already pioneered by Japan. In addition, the following factors made it possible:

  1. large scale exports from these nations – this presupposes other prosperous, developed nations able to buy such exports
  1. huge portfolio investments, because of globalisation, made in these countries by such nations
  2. fast communications because of the fax and computers and now the Internet

Mere literacy without science and technology would have got these nations nowhere.

Prof. Sen says in the interview :

"By the early 20th century, the Japanese had achieved near-complete literacy, which made a radical difference to the process of economic development in the country. By 1913, Japan, though not yet economically advanced, was publishing more books than Britain and almost twice as many as the United States. It was winning a different game even before it won the game of economic development. It was winning the game in basic education and I think that the victory that came in the process of economic development followed that cultural and education victory"

There is literacy and there is literacy. The pre-Meiji Restoration literacy which Prof. Sen speaks about – a clear 100 years’ advantage over even Europe notwithstanding – was of no practical value. It did nothing – nor could it do anything – to help Japan resist political or military pressure from other countries, notably the USA, Britain, Russia, Holland, Portugal and so on. It was the kind of literacy that adorned the sword-carrying, top-knot wearing poet-samurai. It was roughly literacy of the kind still practised in our Hindu patshalas and our Muslim madrassas. Japan may have had this literacy but it had still not seen manufactured ice in summer, had not experienced railway engines, could not make motorcars and did not even have decent fountainpens. (all examples from Yukichi Fukuzawa’s memoirs and other sources). Knowledge of how to build these as well as the general economy could only come with the literacy of the kind that goes with modern science and technology. This kind of literacy was first acknowledged by the Japanese as being essential for development and then imported wholesale into the country after the Meiji Restoration – from 1870-1890 onwards.

Therefore, it is difficult to understand what kind of Japanese "cultural and educational" victory Prof. Sen is referring to. It is a fact that the wholly new industries of the last 150 years – the automobile industry, the airline industry, the oil industry, the entertainment industry, the computer industry and the Internet – are all American in origin.

So what does all this require from us in India? The call has gone out for more literacy and primary education. But merely turning out more people who can read and write and later even obtain degrees without simultaneously providing employment opportunities for them is a sure invitation to polarisation and destabilisation of our already fragile political and economic order. Instead, the emphasis must be on bringing modern science and technology to the nation and particularly the attitudes that go with it. Literacy and education, both primary and secondary, then automatically become necessary but we must explain to the people what science truly is and what technology truly does. Modern science and technology does not stop at merely providing consumer goods or other products of science. They are culture determinants. "Human capability" comes to all developed countries through such science and technology and in no other way. Together modern science and technology constitute a pervasive cultural climate or civilisation which alone, in the final analysis, will uplift our country as it did Japan and the South East Asian tigers.