India Revives An Ancient University

At one time, Nalanda University was a prestigious center of learning that attracted scholars from all over Asia. But after it was destroyed in the late 1100s, it languished. Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon talks with Nobel economist Amartya Sen about plans to revive the ancient university as a collaborative school between several Asian nations.

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Long before - and I mean centuries before - Oxford was founded in 1096, or William & Mary in 1693, there was Nalanda University, a prestigious center of learning in northern India. Much of Nalanda was destroyed by invaders in 1193. But now, more than 800 years later, Nalanda is being revived. A special act of the Indian parliament and a dedicated group of individuals, and financial support from several Asian countries are working to make a new Nalanda rise and attract students from around the world. Nalanda doesn't have a campus yet but it does have a chairman - a very distinguished one - the Nobel economist Professor Amartya Sen. He joins us in our studios now. Amartya, thanks so much for being with us.

AMARTYA SEN: Thank you.

SIMON: You have said - I was intrigued by this quote, "that Nalanda will be Asian in inspiration, Asian in motivation but it is not Asian in terms of its knowledge or the range of expertise or personal involvement." What's that mean?

SEN: Well, that means that knowledge in the world, there's - at the university, there's no such thing that true in Asia but not anywhere in else. But what is really meant in this context is that we would try to achieve excellence in the way that excellence could be judged anywhere in the world. But on the other hand, of course, our focus on study will be more Asian history. And the fact that we are trying to do something which is international in spirit and global in outlook, (unintelligible) in India, inspired by not only our own past, which obviously we are proud, particularly in higher education, but also what has been achieved, especially in the West.

SIMON: Another question that is, I must say, prompted by some of your own writing. You have some of the most splendidly educated and accomplished people in the world who happen to be Indian, and then you have a lot of Indians, dare I say the majority of Indians, don't have anything near those kinds of educational opportunities. To what degree do you see Nalanda as being able to help?

SEN: (Unintelligible) delighted you raised that because, you know, Nalanda in itself would be completely open. There's no question we will be looking. Because the whole idea is not to charge high fees or anything like that. It will be quite easy to get in, which is one of the saving graces of the Indian main senior universities still. But I just have interest in the entire academia in India changing and in time (unintelligible). There's a whole lot of people who parents have never been to school. So, I think it's a challenge. But I think with determination and with clarity - that's really important - and there Nalanda might be able to offer something.

SIMON: I want to take advantage of the fact that we have you, one of the leading economists in the world, in our studios sitting right across the...

SEN: I can't say I accept that but thank you.

SIMON: Fix the world economy for us, please. What would you recommend to help the world, the industrial world out of the tailspin we've been in.

SEN: I will say that go back to 1776, the Adam Smith "Wealth of Nations", which people read the fact that he discussed why how the market economy worked. But the center to it was the market economy worked really well because by trade and specialization people can develop their skills. And that is the center of economic progress. I had (unintelligible) feeling that Europe and America broadened itself into more (unintelligible) trouble than they need have. So, I'm afraid I wouldn't say - I think Europeans and Americans ought to clear up their mess away. It's like saying that here's my dog, produce a huge amount of (bleep). How would you clear it off? I don't advise to the invitation. I would suggest that they ought to do it.

SIMON: Somehow, I wasn't expecting that metaphor from a Nobel laureate economist. But I can't say we don't understand it.

SEN: OK. Good.


SIMON: Amartya Sen is the chairman of Nalanda University. And the first class of students is expected to start in 2014. Of course, he's also one of the world's most quotable economists. You've given us a good one here too. Thanks so much for being with us.

SEN: Thank you very much, Scott.

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