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Nicholas Dirks is a scholar of South Asian studies and the former chancellor of University of California, Berkeley. He is currently engaged in building a modern worldwide educational platform with the expressed aim of enhancing exchanges among different countries to better help understanding between different cultures. [Photo / courtesy of the preparatory committee of the Whittle School and Studios]

Having intermittently visited Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, since he was 12 years old, Nicholas Dirks, the former chancellor of the University of California, (UC) Berkeley, was always moved by the exotic beauty of the location.

“At 12 years old, I was very excited to be going to Asia for the first time and was told that there were leopards and cobras,” Dirks said during an interview with China.org.cn on December 4.

Dirks came to China several days ago to attend a forum regarding future education, where he is publicizing a new education network called the Whittle School and Studios, which will be opening its first campuses in Shenzhen, China’s Guangdong province, and Washington D.C., next year.

From kindergarten to high schools, “the Whittle” is projected to set up 36 campuses across 15 countries over the next 10 years, including India, Singapore, Mexico, Australia and Japan.

It is also expected to launch a global rotational program which will send students to different countries, for a duration of one semester to a full year, to allow them to experience different cultures and social practices.

To better illustrate the idea, Dirks exemplified the academic exchange between China and India, which, according to him, still needs improvement.

Based on his observation, when scholars from either China or India conduct research on each other’s countries, many of them will circumvent the targeted country and visit either Singapore or the United States instead to collect useful information and documents. Therefore, he hopes his school will help make a change.

“I hope there will be many students from China who will go to India and vice versa. I also hope the universities can do more of that,” he said.

The lack of exchange between the two major Asian countries has always drawn Dirks’ immense concern as a result of his expertise in the history, culture and the social norms of South Asia.

Critical of British colonialism, Dirks states that India’s rigid caste system, which has impeded the development of the country, results mainly from British colonial rule.

“The caste system became more rigid under British rule, and they almost strengthened the caste system.” The professor explains that, “there are complicated reasons for why India has been slow to develop, but I think the nature of British colonial rule was not helpful for Indian economy.”

However, since India’s independence in 1947 and more recently with the end of the cold war, new relationships are being fostered between China and India, the two major developing countries in Asia.

“When China opened itself to the west and to trade, it did so in a very different way: it opened doors, but it opened doors that China itself was opening, instead of having those doors opened from the outside,” Dirks said.

“And you know China has been a great example of how quickly development can take place and wealth can be created.”

The professor states that, despite a parliamentary political system, India is still struggling to achieve the results that China has achieved. It did not adopt a free market economy until 1991, more than 10 years after China’s adoption of the reform and opening up policies.

“Even though India is a democracy, it was a closed economy, it did not allow foreign investment to take place in any major way and it controlled trade, currency and all different kinds of economic relationships until the liberalization of India in 1991,” Dirks said.

“China is bigger and China’s wealth is greater than India,” he said. “China also has a very stable political history, with the Ming Dynasty, Tang Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, and is consequentially more strong and stable than the previously divided states of India. It is very interesting to contrast and compare India and China.”

However, it is important to appreciate the invaluable legacies of India’s history that have exerted great influence on modern societies, such as Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to British rule during the 1940s. According to Dirks, the statesman was also a source of inspiration for Martin Luther King Junior and the civil rights movement that swept the United States from the 1960s to 1970s.

“I found him [Gandhi] very captivating as a figure,” the professor said, “he had a great influence on the civil rights movement in the United States and particularly on Martin Luther King Jr.”

“India became a place that I thought of as not only very different, but as the inspiration for some of the most important political movements.”

With his intense interest in India and his optimistic views about the development of China, the headmaster of the future international school hopes the exchange between China and India, among many others, can help foster mutual understanding for generations to come.