It’s time to rethink education : The Tribune India

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It’s time to rethink education

The existing system is giving birth to an unhappy generation with aggression, fear and psychic stress

It’s time to rethink education

Counterproductive: Standardised tests deprive students of the joy of reflexive and relaxed learning. File photo

Avijit Pathak


I often ask myself why I continue to write on education. Possibly, it is difficult for me to give my consent to what society regards as ‘education’. If you go by the dominant common sense of the age, education primarily means three things: (a) it is some sort of ‘training’ or a mode of ‘skill learning’ — the skills the market demands or the skills that fetch one a job; (b) education is a kind of graded learning one passes through, or it is a way through which one becomes an ‘expert’ in some sort of specialised academic knowledge; and (c) it transforms one into a ‘resource’ that can be used for economic/militaristic/technological purposes. But then, I am not comfortable with this narrow/utilitarian/technical approach to education. The reason is that if education fails to activate our humanistic/ethical/aesthetic/spiritual sensibilities, it remains faulty and dangerous, even if it produces the ‘skilled’ labour force for enhancing the ‘growth rate’ of the nation, trains ‘resource persons’ for strengthening the techno-militaristic state and manufactures thousands of research papers in order to hardsell ‘top-ranking’ colleges/universities.

Imagine the damage we cause to the mental health of children when we deprive them of the opportunity to develop an aesthetically enriched self.

Let me be harsh. I have no hesitation in saying that this kind of instrumental education has proved to be completely incapable of imagining and striving for a new world free from militarism, the psychology of war, environmental disaster, xenophobic nationalism, religious fundamentalism and utter commodification of life. These days, we have an abundance of experts and specialists without a conscience, technology without soul, market without ethics and human ‘resources’ devoid of inner richness and higher ideals. In a way, the prevalent practice of education transforms a young learner into a reckless warrior; it is giving birth to an unhappy generation with aggression, chronic restlessness, fear, psychic stress and spiritual dumbness.

Yes, it is this anguish that arouses my critique. I critique the hollowness of standardised tests like NEET, JEE, NET and CUET — tests that deprive our students of the joy of deep/thoughtful/reflexive/relaxed learning. I debunk the phenomenon called Kota, a town in Rajasthan which is the embodiment of the life-killing coaching factory or machine that robs teenagers of their wonder years and transforms them into robotic ‘exam warriors’ who know only one thing — how to solve a physics or mathematics riddle quickly, instantly. I loathe the corporatisation of higher education or the vulgar act of measuring the worth of education through the mathematics of a ‘salary package’. And yes, I am worried about the growing devaluation of liberal arts and humanities.

In this context, let me recall some of the forgotten ideals of education. For instance, sensitivity, Jiddu Krishnamurti repeatedly emphasised, is the highest form of intelligence — sensitivity to life or sensitivity to nature. Krishnamurti used to urge young students to watch the amazing sunset with absolute mindfulness and meditativeness. It is not idle daydreaming; it is not a waste of time; it is not a temporary relief from physics and mathematics. Instead, it is about becoming alert, developing awakened intelligence and nurturing a self that relates compassionately to the world. In a way, this aesthetic/spiritual dimension of education can also be seen in Rabindranath Tagore’s critique of regimented/oppressive school culture; and his plea for the development of artistic/aesthetic sensibilities of the young learner. Think of Devi Prasad — a great artist and a disciple of Gandhi and Tagore. His insightful book Art: The Basis of Education reminds us of the necessity of cultivating the innate creativity of the child. Imagine the intensity of the damage we cause to the mental health of our children when we deprive them of the opportunity to develop this aesthetically enriched relational self. They grow up with fear, anxiety and hyper-competitiveness.

I often draw inspiration from American feminist scholar bell hooks. Till the time she was alive, she continually inspired her students with a beautiful blend of critical pedagogy and ethic of care. Her pedagogic conversations with the likes of Paulo Freire, Erich Fromm and Thich Nhat Hanh gave her the strength to interrogate racism, patriarchy and all sorts of domination. And education, she demonstrated through her teaching and writing, should cultivate the capacity to love and heal the world tormented by all sorts of violence. But then, think of our collective decay, our fall. As parents and teachers, we are advising this generation only to think of their careers — their salary packages. We are asking them to run like mad horses and not to think of others — their pain, trauma and suffering. What we regard as education these days seems to be only reproducing the ideology of a violent/hierarchical/exploitative society.

And finally, I recall distinguished political theorist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s reminder: “Not everything is for profit; democracy needs humanities.” We see the primacy of techno-science and economics in our colleges/universities, and the resultant devaluation of liberal arts and humanities. As Nussbaum argues, it is like thinking that the primary goal of education is to teach students to be economically productive rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable, productive and empathetic individuals. And this sort of one-sided focus on ‘profitable skills’, says Nussbaum, is eroding our ability to criticise authority and reducing our sympathy with the marginalised. Looking beyond the act of reducing education to a tool of the gross national product, Nussbaum wants to reconnect education to the humanities in order to encourage students to be true democratic citizens.

It is indeed high time we began to rethink education. If education is not saved from the virus of market fundamentalism, technocratic/instrumental reasoning and the existentially destabilising rat race, we will cause severe damage to the mental health of the new generation. We will not be forgiven for this crime. 

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