We wonder why the Indian education system encourages rote learning and then go right back to glorifying the oral tradition that was used to pass down religious doctrines. A society will act in ways that it has been taught. We have always valued memorisation more than learning.
Learning is much more than remembering and reproducing data. It should not surprise us that a culture such as ours has confused the two with each other and that our idea of an intelligent person is someone who has managed to pass a ton of exams after memorising course material.
And naturally, because our idea of intelligence has to do with memorising and repeating, we also see obedience as a virtue. Just listen and obey - that is how you become worthy of respect. Our rote-powered education system literally fuels our devotion-based political system. It allows charlatans to pretend to be givers of knowledge, and because we are culturally programmed to listen and memorise, that is what we do even when the message is morally wrong.
I am of the firm belief that a culture must be defined according to what it is at the moment, not as per what it is imagined to be in some distant, glorious past. Many modern Indians have developed ways to justify the rote learning that has defined our education system for ages. They say it wasn’t religious alone, or that there were robust systems of debate and discussion in place as well.
What they fail to acknowledge however is the same old thing - caste privilege. The fact that all this talk of systems of debate and discussion is a cushion to soften the blow that is caste. Many people never got to these debates. Many weren’t allowed to. Many were punished (and continue to be punished) for trying. Many struggle their whole lives to enter these scholarly chambers and are unable to do so.
All this, while the mediocre manage to get ahead in life because they were born into privileged households. The halls of wisdom have been full of savarna children for ages. Many of them have neither the skills, nor the inclination for wisdom. But they have been trained to memorise wisdom and regurgitate it at random intervals.
And because the stupidity of such a system is self-evident, our entire culture has been trained to think of memorisation as something worthy of being emulated. Children memorise not only poetry, but also mathematics. Teachers mark students on the basis of how well they can remember something. In an atmosphere such as this, how can critical thinking develop? How can the ability to disagree thrive? How can dissent ever be respected?
Our schools are devotee factories. The occasional smart cookie that emerges from them is not because of the system, it’s despite it. And one of the purposes the cookie eventually serves is as a justification for the continued existence of the rote system. How can the system be bad if it produced that one genius?