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Connecting through Education

December 15, 2006


In an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, the former dean of Yale’s School of Mangagement, Jeffrey E. Garten, talks about the importance of higher education for the promotion of knowledge as well as for increasing cultural understanding [“Really Old School,” 9 December 2006]. The principal focus of Garten’s comments is a scheduled summit meeting of leaders in the Philippines, involving senior officials from India, Singapore, Japan and perhaps other countries to discuss the revival of an ancient university in India called Nalanda.

Founded in 427 in northeastern India, not far from what is today the southern border of Nepal, and surviving until 1197, Nalanda was one of the first great universities in recorded history. It was devoted to Buddhist studies, but it also trained students in fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and the art of war. The university was an architectural and environmental masterpiece. It had eight separate compounds, 10 temples, meditation halls, classrooms, lakes and parks. It had a nine-story library where monks meticulously copied books and documents so that individual scholars could have their own collections. It had dormitories for students, perhaps a first for an educational institution, housing 10,000 students in the university’s heyday and providing accommodations for 2,000 professors. Nalanda was also the most global university of its time, attracting pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. The university died a slow death about the time that some of the great European universities, including those in Oxford, England, and Bologna, Italy, were just getting started, and more than half a millennium before Harvard or Yale were established. Its demise was a result of waning enthusiasm for Buddhism in India, declining financial support from successive Indian monarchs and corruption among university officials. The final straw was the burning of the buildings by Muslim invaders from what is now Afghanistan. … The original Nalanda might have been the first to conduct rigorous entrance exams. The old university had world-class professors who did groundbreaking work in mathematical theorems and astronomy. It produced pre-eminent interpreters and translators of religious scriptures in many languages.

Garten notes that participant countries are considering investing up to a billion dollars to create a new Nalanda University near the site of the original.

The rebuilt university should strive to be a great intellectual center, as the original Nalanda once was. This will be exceedingly difficult to achieve; even today, Asia’s best universities have a long way to go to be in the top tier. In a recent ranking of universities worldwide, Newsweek included only one Asian institution, the University of Tokyo, in the world’s top 25. In a similar tally by The Times of London, there are only three non-Western universities in the top 25. … The new Nalanda should try to recapture the global connectedness of the old one. All of today’s great institutions of higher learning are straining to become more international in terms of their student body, their professors, their research and their course content. But Asian universities are way behind. A new Nalanda, starting as it will from scratch, could set a benchmark for mixing nationalities and cultures, for injecting energy and direction into global subjects and for developing true international leaders.

Garten is right about the importance of “global connectedness,” even in education. It is an important part of the movement of people necessary to make globalization work. For Asia, a world class university that can rank among the world’s top institutions would foster cultural pride as well as new knowledge. Among the billions living in Asia, there are undoubtedly new Pasteurs and Einsteins waiting to have their intellects unlocked.

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