Redefine learning as we know it

Visit Tagore, Jiddu Krishnamurti, once more, for inspiration

Redefine learning as we know it

In silos: We want our children to be smart strategists, exam warriors, or potential toppers. Success now is the thrill of defeating others. Tribune photo

Avijit Pathak

Sociologist

Even amid the pandemic and associated darkness all around, our sacred longing for life-affirming and emancipatory visions refuses to wither away. It was in May that this land gave birth to two great souls — Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861) and Jiddu Krishnamurti (May 11, 1895). And today, even though in May 2021 we are all broken and wounded, it is still refreshing to invoke them, feel the light of illumination, and rethink what goes on in the name of standardised and mainstream education. Well, in this age corrupted by the market-driven notion of 'productivity', ‘utility’ and ‘efficiency’, not many may be willing to walk with a poet and a wanderer. Yet, those who see the discontents of the prevalent form of education — oppressive schooling, utilitarian coaching centres, rote learning, exam obsession, hyper-competitiveness and spiritual dumbness, ought to converse with Tagore and Krishnamurti, strive for emancipatory education, and raise a dissenting voice — even if the Establishment and its techno-managers as policy makers devalue it as utopian.

Let us reflect on what modern schooling with its regimentation and techniques of discipline and surveillance has done to our children. It has created artificial armours, restrained spontaneity and creative flow of life energy, and denaturalised their existence. Huge walls, CCTV cameras, the tyranny of the clock time with the dissemination of discrete and fragmented knowledge capsules (physics at 9.30 am; poetry at 10.15 am, and clay modelling at 11 am) and the continual pressure to perform: schools are like prisons. Is it that this sort of schooling eventually transforms one into an alienated worker, or a reckless consumer? And now imagine Tagore’s poetic wisdom, his critique of regimentation, his urge to dismantle these prison-like structures, create a modern ‘tapovan’, and nurture a learning community in which children and their mentors evolve together through a deep communion with the abundance of nature. Nature heals; and the ways of seeing and relating to the whisper of trees, the play of monsoon clouds and the radiant moon give a new meaning to education. It is not like reading Keats (‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ ) in a closed classroom within the stipulated time period; it is like becoming a poem itself. In other words, it creates the ground for the creation of an aesthetically enriched and ecologically sensitive relational self. This, as the poet felt, is the real substance of education. It is sad that in a prosaic world, seldom do our headmasters see beyond English grammar and algebra.

Second, see the way the prevalent form of education has killed the spirit of being a wanderer, or a seeker continually transcending the boundaries of the conditioned mind, and evolving through a ceaseless process of learning and unlearning. These days, we want our children to be smart strategists, exam warriors, or potential toppers. And their schooled consciousness is conditioned to believe that knowledge is nothing but the official curriculum (or, for an IIT aspirant, physics is nothing but FIIT-JEE physics; or maths is essentially what coaching centres offer at Kota — the town in Rajasthan known for all that is black and ugly about our education system); it is a product to be consumed. For Krishnamurti, this conditioning limits the growth of consciousness; it makes one incapable of learning and unlearning from the rhythm of life — its freshness, its unpredictability and uncertainty. Truth, Krishnamurti reminded us, is a ‘pathless land’. However, our education makes us one-dimensional. No wonder, a conditioned mind of this kind is always fearful. It can’t take risks; it can’t see beyond the established pattern; it cannot walk through what Robert Frost would have regarded as ‘the path less travelled’. Furthermore, as the ritualisation of examinations is based on comparison, it activates the fear of failure, the fear of lagging behind, or the fear of being stigmatised. Through his life-long conversations with teachers, educators and children, Krishnamurti was urging us to see the worth of education as awakened intelligence, self-discovery, sensitivity to life, or a quest.

Think of the world we have created. Religion is a dogma; nationalism is some sort of hyper-masculine aggression; ‘good living’ is centred on the pleasure principle that seductive consumerism cultivates; nature is an obstacle to be conquered through techno-science; social Darwinism is the cherished mantra; and success is the thrill of defeating others. And what goes on in the name of education cannot take us beyond this ugly world. In fact, this education further reproduces this culture of violence. The ugliness of this sort of education manifests itself once again at the time of the pandemic. The academic bureaucracy refuses to be reflexive; it cannot imagine anything beyond ‘online teaching’, covering the official syllabus, conducting exams and grading students. Even at this moment of psychic and existential crisis, it wants teachers to be just data providers — supplying the required information to the higher authorities: students’ attendance and grades. There is hardly any serious reflection on the hollowness of this sort of approach to education when the taken-for-granted world has crumbled.

Yet, there ought to be people amongst us who dare to think differently. And as a teacher, I believe that they would contemplate, converse with Tagore and Krishnamurti, and reimagine a kind of education that teaches us to live and die intensely, gracefully and meaningfully.

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