Renowned historian and Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at University of Cambridge, UK, Sir Christopher Bayly spoke exclusively to edex about his journey to academic success, and why India is an important player in the global education market.
As he narrates his story, Bayly sounds like a modern-day Indiana Jones. “My father was an officer with the British Merchant Navy and he travelled everywhere between 1930 and ’40. Naturally, I was inclined towards world history and travel. At Oxford, I met a young man who wanted to go over land the route taken by Alexander-The Great. I then visited Turkey, Iran, Baluchistan, Pakistan and India. I travelled around the country and we had a fantastic time,” he begins.
Bayly, who was initially interested in pursuing Russian history, dropped the idea after visiting India. “Since we travelled via land, we encountered the Indo-Pak war in 1965. So we had to change course and went from Karachi to Basra and up through Syria. It was a one-of-a-kind experience,” he recounts.
After meeting Sarvepalli Gopal, son of former president S Radhakrishnan, Bayly developed more interest in the country. “He told me that I should work in Allahabad because that was the centre of the nationalist movement. He was writing his biography at that time,” he says. An avid traveller, Bayly wrote The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad, 1880-1920 in 1975. This was soon followed by Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1780-1870 in 1983 and Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire in 1988.
Since Bayly has spent a large part of his life travelling, his interests are varied. His work on the relationship between the erstwhile British Empire and its colonies won him accolades in the academic circles.
Currently the director of Cambridge’s Centre of South Asian Studies, Bayly has also co-edited The New Cambridge History of India.
His vision for India is absolutely clear. It is a great country but education can turn things around for the better. “The top level of education is extremely good and it’s very open. A lot of that opening in recent years has been from the US and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s also been from Europe and Australia. So from that dimension and, of course, one of the strengths has been access to European languages. India has a skilled pupil body and could very easily become a global education player,” he says. “Obviously there are problems, as there are in any education system, and one of the problems is lack of resources. The other one is the tendency of parents to push their children into taking up subjects they might not be interested in. This is primarily driven by the desire for earning money in the longer run.” Arts and humanities are not viewed as career-driven courses. But Bayly offers a solution. “The critical thing is to link the study of humanities and social sciences to contemporary problems we need to solve. Economic, environmental or medical problems — all of those have a social context. So making people aware would require people to understand the social context. The biggest solution is to have good teachers. I had a wonderful teacher who taught French, Italian and Spanish. And he never got beyond two pages, because he would always ask us what we thought about each paragraph or line. We need an involved and engaging pedagogy.”
Bayly, who is the president of St Catherine’s College, says that education does not mean cramming facts, but the ability to ask questions and debate. “Students should be allowed to pursue what interests them. So that a history student has the option to also study anthropology,” he says.