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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 34 New Delhi August 11, 2018

Rethinking Our Education

Sunday 12 August 2018

by Saumitra Mohan

There was a time when the Indian students pursued education for learning life-skills and acquiring knowledge. The pursuit of learning then was not about mugging facts and information, but was directed to lead the learners to wisdom thereby enriching the entire society. It was a time when none needed government permission for opening an educational institution and when no formal degrees or diplomas were awarded to students by the renowned Gurus through the once famed ‘Gurukul’ system of education. The willing parents sent their wards to the concerned Gurukuls where there was no screening test for admission. The students’ sole criterion for acceptance as a learner by the Guru was their penchant for acquisition of learning and knowledge.

The knowledge acquired at such Gurukuls was never linked to particular jobs or services as is mechanically done today. The number of such Gurukuls was less, yet there was no hue and cry for admission into those institutions because the concept of education was never confined to the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic). Those interested in trade, business, commerce, arts and crafts learnt the same directly on the job through the practitioners of the respective professions. The caste and class system in the Vedic Age is said to have been open and afforded lateral movement for people depending upon their trade and profession.

Knowledge was pursued for the pleasure of learning depending on the interests of the learners. Trades and professions were learnt mostly on the job through practical experience. Those pursuing education derived pleasure in sharing the same rather than using their knowledge to earn their thirty pieces of silver. Education was never deemed as a product or a means to earning one’s livelihood only, but was more of a way to nurture one’s creative muses and faculties. Perhaps that is why India of yore was much more advanced economically, socially, spiritually, materially and intellectually. Ancient India excelled in science, metaphysics, literature and commerce. Our ancient thinkers are still much more revered for their originality and path-breaking discoveries than the neo-Indians as the product of the modern education system are known today. In fact, many of us have made their marks after they have crossed geographical boundaries and reached foreign shores.

But today we have come to a point where schooling and pursuing education have become tedious, mundane and joyless even though our numerous educational policies over the years have emphasised the need to make education joyful while linking it to the acquisition of life- skills. However, we are still far way from realising the hallowed objectives. As a country of over 1300 million people where about two-thirds of the population is below 35 years of age, we have millions of degree and diploma holders without any worthwhile life-skills, without any employability or without any confidence to think of a career beyond the formal, organised or classical sectors of livelihood. It is these directionless youths without a vision and self-belief who have become a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode, thereby also nixing our entire demographic dividends. They are often used and abused by different vested interests as they, despite acquisition of formal education, don’t have the capacity or ability to tell the chaff from the grain and hence, become a cannon fodder for nefarious and negative activities.

It is here that we need to pause and ponder about the way we are evolving as a society and a polity. If we immediately don’t intervene and take corrective measures to bring in the desired changes in our education system, we will continue languishing as the world’s back office for doing the menial chores for the rest of the world and by also becoming a supplier of skilled labour/brain power. We need to wrest the initiative to retrieve our intellectual leadership position in the comity of nations by reworking our education system by carefully nurturing creativity and originality among our children by acting on the myriad recommen-dations based on the problem diagnoses made by the various experts and specialists on the subject.

It is notable here that the National Curriculum Framework 2005 conceived of evolving a National System of Education ‘capable of responding to India’s diversity of geographical and cultural milieus while simultaneously nurturing our common values’. Our National Education Policy, as changed from time to time, has always endeavoured to make school education comparable across the country in qualitative terms in sync with the constituti-onal values and also make it a means of ensuring national integration without compromising on the country’s pluralistic character.

While many changes have been introduced over the years into our education system, more often than not they have been cosmetic and piecemeal in nature. Our education system, like any other, has been status quoist, trying to sustain the age-old societal consensus and wisdom on different aspects of life. So, even though we have more schools, more class rooms, more playgrounds, better infrastructures, better facilities and services, more teachers, more training, more students in the schools in keeping with the parameters laid down in the Right to Education Act, 2009, we don’t have quality and class in our education system.

Our youths often have degrees and formal qualifications, but they don’t have the skills required to survive numerous life-situations and ergo, expect to be spoon-fed by the government through doles, patronage and other populist government programmes like parasites. Where our education policy should be such which could equip our youths for facing every life-situation confidently to see every challenge as an opportunity, on the contrary, because of contorted priorities, the emergent difficulties and hardships of life often break them to resort to negative paths including increased alienation and frustration.

The increasingly developing (economically) India has also seen a vertical split in our society what people like Andre Gunder Frank would call ‘Core’ and ‘Periphery’ or ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Satellite’. So, while people from the ‘Core’ are no longer dependent on the government for their needs and comforts, those from the ‘Periphery’ are completely dependent on the government for meeting their basic needs including education. So, the children from the two backgrounds have different cultural capital of their respective sub-cultures and have access to two different education services: one in the government sector and the other in the private sector even though both are informed by the same educational policy. The expectations and priorities of respective clienteles also vary due to differential backgrounds. Hence, the differential outcomes in their educational attainments.

Most of our children are disadvantaged or handicapped right from the inception because of the accidental births in inferior or lower sub-cultures with value systems other than those of the mainstream or dominant value systems. So, those from the private schools do better in a highly prejudiced social pecking order, while those from the government schools often fall by the wayside unless their motivational capital nudge them enough to break through the glass ceiling of status and class. But all said and done, the basic thrust or thread running through both kinds of schools remain the same as they are both guided and informed by the same educational policy and social consensus on education. Hence, even the youths with the superior cultural capital have a utilitarian and instrumental view of education.

The insistence on learning by rote, cramming of facts and passing an examination often numb the thinking faculties of our children as they are all made to run the rat-race of landing a gainful employment. As one can gather, often the syllabi of the formal education and requirements of an employment have no practical relation to each other. Most of the jobs, including civil services, running a business or a profession, require certain basic skills including linguistic, numerical and common sense with a dash of ‘good character’. If one has good command over language, know basic maths and have some common sense, one can do most of the works required for the day-to-day life. If specialised jobs like engineering, medicine etc. had more of the practical and empirical components than the formal, theoretical components, we would not have the instances of buildings or flyovers collapsing.

In his celebrated work, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations in fluid informal arrangements. He believed that the pedagogical alienation in society is worse than the alienation of labour as suggested by Karl Marx. He further said that the schools condition people to be consumers of packages produced by other people and to accept ideas of endless progress, thereby bringing us to a precipice of an environmental catastrophe. Illich thinks deschooling central to the adjustment to bring society to a more humane level.

Illich’s practical vision for learning in a deschooled society is built around what he calls ‘learning webs’. Illich envisages three types of learning exchange; between a skill teacher and a student, between people themselves engaging in critical discourse and between a master (a master practitioner like Dronacharya) and a student. This latter kind of relationship, which can occur in intellectual disciplines or the arts, but can also materialise in crafts or skills such as mountain climbing is stifled in a schooled society where non-accredited (read non-formal) learning is looked at askance.

So, our education system should be suitably transformed to regain our leadership position in the world. Instead of aspiring to be an economic or military superpower, India should aspire to be a knowledge superpower, a position now occupied by the United States of America and the rest would automatically follow. But for that, we need to get away from the sundry inflexibilities suffused in our institutionalised school practices which neglects the present of a child for future, while also neglecting different ways to help the child evolve into a complete person. For this, we need to adopt a holistic approach through a child-centric pedagogy by connecting knowledge to life beyond schools. Such an education system should have a sufficiently reduced curriculum load which ought to nurture creative thinking and originality among our children.

The inclusive, friendly, peaceful and democratic school environment should be made accessible to learners from all sections of our society. Our schools, both government and private, should also have adequate room for pushing a child’s imagination and thinking, for inciting her inquisitiveness and questioning faculties during instructions. Children should not be made to simply accept things as in books or as told by the teachers. They should be made to learn through active questioning about the rationale or correctness of a concept or an idea. Had Raja Rammohan Roy or Vidyasagar accepted the given wisdom, we would still have a heinous ‘sati’ custom continuing or ‘widow remarriage’ would not have been possible.

We should also ensure provisioning the same quality of education in government schools as in the private schools. The quality of education imparted in European and American government schools is much better than those in ours. Unless and until we realise it, we would be missing to reap our demographic dividends.

The learners should actively construct their own knowledge with help from the teachers as facilitators and coordinators by relating new ideas to existing ideas and the same should happen through collaboration, negotiation and sharing of views.

Also, as and where needed, participation of community members for experience and know-ledge-sharing should be encouraged. The teachers and instructors should engage learners through experience, making and doing, experimenting, reading, discussing, asking, listening, active thinking and listening and by encouraging them to express themselves. Teaching should be contextualised with the local knowledge, with real life socially relevant examples. Respect for differing viewpoints in open discussions should be encouraged, something which has been on discount in our country these days.

The curriculum should be carefully crafted and so should the related textbooks. Such curriculum should be in sync with the universal human values of a civilised society rather than confining children to a parochial nationalistic discourse, away from our philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is a family)’. Love and respect for fellow human beings should come first and foremost than narrow, primordial identities. The examination system should be accordingly customised to be more flexible and integrated with classroom-life without creating situations of stress or pressure for the students.

Our education should also somehow be linked to spirituality. After all, if we all have to die one day, why do we need to be chasing life’s goodies and comforts beyond one’s need. A highly religious society which believes in rebirth, Karma theory (Doctrine of Just Deserts), peaceful coexistence, principle of Nar Narayana (where every human being is perceived divine) and where the divine is supposed to pervade any and every dimension of our life, India today is bursting at the seams, moving far away from its historic and philosophical moorings. We are getting more used to perceive things in duality of ‘we’ versus ‘they’, something which repudiates our civilisational heritage and eclectic wisdom.

Demonising others, hating fellow human beings, anomie and lawlessness, violence and other negative developments cannot be the outcomes of a healthy education system. Hence, our education system should also help the learners understand and appreciate the purpose of human life which is nothing but continuous spiritual development of each human being by going through the countless cycles of births and deaths. Emphases on formal education and degrees should end to link education to practical life requirements to make it socially more relevant. The time could not be more opportune for further pushing the boundaries of our education system when Rightist and revanchist forces are on the rise across the globe and when Quantum Physics and spirituality are converging. Indian leadership need to synergise their efforts with likeminded leaders of the world to build a consensus on protecting the universal human values through a humane education system promising a more fulfilling life for everyone.

Dr Saumitra Mohan, IAS, is the Commissioner of School Education, Government of West Bengal. The views expressed here are his personal and don’t reflect those of the government.

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