When an economist publicly rues, at a literature festival, the neglect of “classical education” in India, then more is at stake in reviving the issue than the learning of dead languages. For Amartya Sen, a classical education is not just the study of Sanskrit (or any of the other classical languages), but also embraces classical literature, music and the arts. It is tied, in his argument, to a necessarily “imprecise” concern for a “balanced education” that would correct a functional or “business-oriented” privileging of science and technology at the expense of the humanities. In an over-populated country grappling with poverty, illiteracy and inequality on an epic scale, the idea of making Sanskrit and Hindustani classical music compulsory elements of basic education might sound utopian, to say the least. No one is more aware of this reality than Mr Sen himself, as the rest of his lecture makes amply, and ironically, clear. But it is worth risking the imprecision and apparent disproportion of such an idea to make a case for the revival of a rigorous classicism in the Indian education system. This could only be radically beneficial for both students and teachers — starting at the primary level, and then at every stage until well into higher education, when these studies might continue more formally at advanced or specialized levels.
Apart from the linguistic and literary benefits of knowing a classical language, learning a language that one does not ‘use’ in one’s everyday life focuses the mind, early in one’s education, on language itself — that is, on the structure of the language, how it was put together, and how it worked. This is also to learn about the fundamental structures of thought and expression, and, just as importantly, to be taught to recognize, create and value ‘structure’ itself, be it in mathematics, physics, architecture or music. Such a form of learning becomes more than a way of amassing information or knowledge. It is to know how to know, and learn how to learn — hence, invaluable to the teacher as well as the student, and of direct practical benefit to the most ‘applied’ of skills, even if the idea sounds abstract or exclusive when put in these terms. To be introduced early to the structures of a classical language is to be made aware, by extension, of the structures of the mind and of experience itself, together with their various representations, literary or musical. It is to go to the roots of thinking, knowing and being.
This was the principle behind the teaching of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, in the Middle Ages, before moving on to the traditional subjects of learning. So, learning to think rigorously and independently will equip the student to take on a subject when the time came for making a choice. Such a principle could be the common ground upon which an approach to the humanities might converge with, rather than diverge from, an approach to the sciences and technology. This is a medieval idea, but it could be turned around to realize an essential and modern balance.