Superior intelligence is the only human ability that enables us to overcome all other species. We use our intelligence to gain knowledge of all the living and non-living things in the world around us. As we gain more knowledge we also develop wisdom that guides us to carefully use the power that comes with knowledge. These are the only trait that sets humans apart from all the other living beings and allows us to tame the most ferocious beasts and make medicines from snake venom.
A very important advantage we humans have is the capability of beliefs and opinions; animals are only capable of emotions and intuition. As we acquire wisdom, we understand that our lives are temporary and everything changes with time. Our health and abilities, possessions and power will cease to exist sooner or later. Governments, cultures and civilisations will rise and fall over time just as the great civilisations of Indus and Nile have long disappeared. But the only thing that continues to flourish and pass from one generation to other, from one civilisation to other is knowledge. For example, the people who first invented the wheel are now in complete oblivion, but wheels are used every day in bullock carts, the smallest toys as well as the largest power stations.
Knowledge, unlike myths, cannot be fabricated but only acquired after careful study. Since the dawn of civilisation, humans have tried to organise and acquire more knowledge and impart it with discipline. The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia had scribal schools about 5,000 years ago which trained children during the day. Education is perhaps the greatest utility in history that mankind has been developing continuously. Peaceful societies cannot exist without good education and a country that patronises scholars and reformers will eventually reach its zenith. The Supreme Court of India had observed in September 2012 that democracy, though cannot be flawless, depends for its very life on a high standard of general, vocational and professional education. “Dissemination of learning with search for new knowledge with discipline must be maintained at all costs”, said the apex bench.
After fighting two devastating world wars, the great powers of the world realised that mere political and economic agreements are not enough to build a lasting peace. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was thus created in 1945, to build networks among nations that promote knowledge, build intercultural understanding and pursue international cooperation. “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. Peace must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity.”
Good quality education, however, has mostly remained a privilege of the dominant classes, since it requires well qualified and methodically trained teachers. It is therefore the greatest necessity of mankind to educate the coming generations besides fostering such moral values and intellectual growth in society which will enable better access to good education. The most important uses of education are building a sound intellectual environment, fostering social and cultural values and equipping youngsters with disciplined knowledge to achieve a just and sustainable development for society.
Education in schools and colleges is not for memorising certain disjointed pieces of information, concepts and methods. Education is to unleash the best intellect and aptitudes in humans, and train those abilities in a manner that can be best utilised for the welfare of society simultaneously giving a wholesome satisfaction to the individual. The success of education lies in its ethical energy to coordinate all aspects of human life, instead of compartmentalising them, and in the integration and upliftment of all sections of the society. Education would remain only an administrative or economic tool if remains a prerogative of the mainstream and privileged classes.
Education in India
Education in the sense of learning is undoubtedly a life-long process, both individually and collectively. Both formal and cultural education in India still have a long way to go. While it’s a well known fact that no Indian citizen has won a Nobel Prize in science or literature after 1930, other indicators are quite depressing. The reader might be surprised to learn some bleak realities of education in India. The following passage can be potentially disturbing, reader’s discretion is advised.
- The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) publishes rankings of countries based on an indicator called Human Development Index (HDI). It’s a summary measure of three key aspects of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and having a decent standard of living. Unfortunately in this arena, India is behind some countries struck by civil wars like Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Sri Lanka and Lebanon. India is a member country of international associations like G20 and BRICS. Except India, all developing members of the two associations like China, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Turkey and Indonesia belong to a different league of High Human Development. India is slightly ahead of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the three neighbours have Medium Human Development.
- The Times Higher Education Rankings are published every year by an independent audit, in which Indian universities show abysmal performance. In the 2016-17 rankings, 19 out of top 20 universities are British or American. There are 2 Chinese universities in top 35 and 3 from Hong Kong in top 80 (Hong Kong is a Chinese province). But there is not a single Indian university in the top 200 ranks. Indian media however projected it as some kind of a victory deserving praise.
Domestic statistics perhaps give some insights to understand the cause of such an abysmal situation.
- Due to the ever increasing costs of academic education, less than 12% Indians have completed matriculation and about 5.6% have completed graduation.
- In September 2015, over 23 lakh candidates, including 2.22 lakh engineers and 255 Ph.D. holders besides thousands of M.Com., M.Sc. and M.A. holders had applied for 368 peon positions in the Uttar Pradesh State Secretariat.
- This is in sharp contrast to the fact that the Uttar Pradesh Secondary Education Council had invited applications to recruit 6,645 Assistant Teachers a year before. Over 10 lakh posts of teachers are lying vacant in India today.
- About one-third of faculty positions in central universities are lying vacant. More than 53% positions of associate professors are vacant and most universities rely on ad-hoc, contractual and guest faculty.
- Only 20% of all the engineering graduates in India are employable.
- Over 4,400 students had dropped out of the prestigious IITs and NITs between 2012 and 2015.
- IIT Bombay, Delhi and Kharagpur have over 33% shortage of staff.
- India registered 8,048 student suicides across the country in 2014, with the highest cases in Maharashtra which also has a lead in farmers’ suicide and wine production.
The purpose of this assessment is not to express cynicism towards the educational system and policy makers but to take an un-romanticised account of the situation and contemplate some holistic solutions and reforms.
Perhaps one of the reasons for such abysmal education standards in India is the budget that the government allots for the education of its people. India is among the few countries that dedicate less than 4% of its GDP to education. Again, India spends the least fraction among G20 and BRICS countries on education. Brazil and South Africa, despite smaller populations and economies than India, spend more than 5.5% of their GDP on education. Scandinavian countries, known for their excellent education and HDI, spend more than 7% GDP on education.
Eventually, academic education remains substandard in India and youngsters are left unemployable. The problems of education are endemic and are entrenched in our socio-economic system. Dr. Craig Jeffrey, a former Professor at Oxford University is the Director of the Australia India Institute, Melbourne, Australia. In his book titled Time pass: Youth, Class and the Politics of Waiting in India, he calls Indian education as a ‘time pass’ for the idle middle class youth who are unable to get a decent job on the basis of their degrees. They take admission in a variety of courses for ‘killing time’ and look for a jugaad to get a government job.
In a society where teachers, parents and media perpetuate a notion that possessions and influence precede happiness, the primary purpose of the education system seems contradictory. Instead of sensitising virtues, cultivating intelligence and wisdom, the agenda of education becomes the creation of knowledgeable workers for a ‘service system’ and a citizenry that is socially passive and intellectually mediocre. In this framework, the pedagogic enterprise is to prepare human capital for the labour market and the central thrust of educational policy is to supply labour for industry and the free market.
As a result of this approach to education, hundreds of private schools and colleges have cropped up in the past 15 years which provide better education at exorbitant prices. Education is becoming privatised which is just one aspect of an increasing socio-economic segregation in India. It is a part of an entire privatisation system which includes housing, healthcare, security, electricity and an ever narrowing journalism.
The neoliberal lobbies propose better quality of education through free market policies. They promote corporatisation to evolve elite institutions that mostly serve the upper classes. They foster competition amongst students and between institutions. Neoconservative policies, as if to complement these efforts, attempt to shape the personality of students and teachers so that they become susceptible to the propaganda of the dominant social classes. The result is that mass education is turned into a commodity akin to fixed deposits or insurance policies, under which lower classes receive humble packages of education and upper classes receive premium deals. Education now serves as a sophisticated and pernicious tool to perpetuate social and economic stratification.
No wonder, even with all these educational problems prevailing, privileged Indian candidates do exceptionally well in Ivy League universities and multi-national corporations. The present education system thus promotes a self-perpetuating class system where the children of the rich mostly go on to rule over the children of the poor. Education thus defeats its very purpose of fostering social mobility and justice and goes into maintaining inequality in society.
Educators and policy makers, therefore, ought to understand that the success of education does not consist in the acquisition of a great amount of material knowledge to be used for a life-exhausting career or amassing wealth through complex schemes of consumerism, exploitation and expansionism. Nor does it consist in the enthusiasts’ indulging in arts, aesthetics and addictions or the elites spending their wealth on luxurious mansions and aesthetical decorations, even as the living conditions of the public are deteriorating and man-made floods and droughts are on the rise.
A great problem of some education systems is that they tend to fit the world to their skewed perceptions based on limited knowledge, instead of being open to new perceptions and understanding the stupendous world better. As the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “It seems surprising at first, but is nonetheless certain, that our reason does not draw its conclusions from nature, but prescribes them to it.”
The problems of education seem similar in developed countries, and sooner or later will also affect the privileged classes. Robert Putnam, a Harvard Professor of Public Policy, published a book titled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis in March 2015. The book presents ground-breaking research on the decline of social mobility in the United States over the past 50 years. Putnam finds an alarming “opportunity gap” in the American education system and warns that the United States could soon cease to be a “land of opportunities”. Independent incidences have also revealed a racial bias in the curricula and examinations of America’s most prestigious schools. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a commonly used exam for college admissions in USA and many other countries, tends to be biased against Black and Hispanic candidates while most universities in USA clearly show racial and economic marginalisation. John Goldthorpe, an eminent sociologist in the United Kingdom, warns of a new situation emerging in Britain. He says young people entering the labour market today are far unlikely to move up economically than their parents did. He appeals to radical changes in educational policy besides a whole new range of economic and social policies.
The first step towards solving a crucial problem is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the problem and its various facets. The union government in India has taken many initiatives like National Curriculum Frameworks by NCERT, National Policy on Education (1986), Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (2000), Midday Meal Scheme, Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009 and many others by state governments. The syllabi of National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) books are also designed in order to discourage rote learning or confining studies to the prescribed textbook, erasing compartmentalisation of subjects, and to encourage children to reflect on their own learning. There are a few “islands of excellence” where some schools and educational societies have shown impressive results.
All the above efforts, though encouraging, lack a proper implementation with a wholesome approach. The Indian Republic is still far from achieving the Directive Principles of State Policy under the Constitution, like
- “to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.” (Article 45)
- “the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment” (Article 39(c))
- “promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” (Article 46)
Good education and opportunity to undergraduate courses is still a privilege of less than 5.6% Indians. It is therefore indispensably urgent to rethink education and revive the system with a comprehensive outlook.
From the crudest words uttered by a toddler to the most enlightening words spoken by a luminary, every form of communication has a purpose. The purpose of any action determines its real worth and its results. If education determines the future of society and democracy, it too must have a lofty purpose with far-reaching motives. An education system therefore, if designed merely to provide employment or serve the state’s workforce requirements, would fail its purpose. It would be great injustice to the populace who pay taxes and trust the government and intellectual classes with managing school and university curricula.
There are some ideas about formal institutional education that are well accepted in academic and intellectual circles, viz. education is supposed to encourage the students to analyse and evaluate their experiences, to doubt, to question, to investigate, to be inquisitive and to think independently. New and unfamiliar experiences must enable us to question our old ways of thinking. Education must enable the learner to analyse preconceived notions, formulate new concepts and new ways of looking at the world and life. Natural growth of human rationality must be promoted and give the young mind enough courage to challenge established norms.
But education, time and again, tends to become overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is extremely harmful; it causes corruption of the best minds. Except at rare intervals of social or intellectual ferment, education becomes radically infected with inert ideas and stifles the growth of the very human traits that it verbally states to revive. It must therefore, be the primary and perpetual purpose of education, no matter how brilliant it is, to guard itself from inert ideas which lead to the corrosion of intellect.
The great American reformer Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in one of his speeches on the purpose of education. He said that education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, King said, is to enable intensive and critical thinking. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but bad morals. We must remember that intelligence alone is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. A thief with a gun may rob a bank, but a thief with knowledge and intelligence can rob a stock exchange.
An essential purpose of education must hence be, to pre-empt the development of such thieves and imbue them with morals since childhood so that robbery becomes a rare phenomenon. Only then “a complete education would give not only the power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate”, King said. As the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras had said, “Educate the children and it won’t be necessary to punish the men”. If education and economic class remain the only differences between a pickpocket and Vijay Mallya or Bernard Madoff then the purpose of education remains unfulfilled. Societies, as in USA, will inevitably idolise Britney Spears and be brainwashed by intellectuals like Thomas Friedman, Bernard Lewis, Christopher Hitchens, besides mainstream media, who endorse neoliberalism or all the invasions and manipulations in the Middle East.
Life, in all its manifestations, is complicated and everyone must have the character and sense of moral purpose to succeed. The high standards of academic rigour and professional training are already being threatened with vice, dishonesty and prejudice. This in turn is worsening the long malignant cancer of corruption in every social domain. Corruption of state agencies and private businesses is not just an economic or administrative problem but the direct result of the moral and social corruption that plagues society. Character development, honesty and ethos must therefore be the urgent and indispensable aspects of the education system.
John Dewey, an American philosopher and educational reformer, strongly advocated that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place. The purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good. Dewey said that education and schooling are instrumental in creating social change and reform.
Education must enable graduates to acquire an eagle eye’s view of the environment in which they live. When college undergraduates look at poor people around, they must possess the insight that poverty is perhaps caused by some kind of inequality in society and mostly affects those who suffer from insecure work and low income, which may also affect their social life, personal health and individual psyche. If the educated class think that poverty exists because some people are lazy workers, come from ‘problem families’ and cannot budget properly because they suffer from low intelligence, then we know that education has largely failed. The educated class, then, has acquired skills but has neither acquired wisdom nor cultivated intelligence. Education must engage the human mind with enough enthusiasm for self and social reform, and cure the human fixations of possessions, power, fame and addictions.
René Descartes, considered to be the father of modern philosophy and mathematics, held that learning is a personal quest comprised of external worldly experiences and internal ponderings. It is very important to gain knowledge through questioning supposed truths, and this “enlightenment of cognition” is individual and personal. Students can generate new knowledge by engaging with the information passed on to them by their elders. It is therefore essential for school education to arouse and cultivate curiosity in students’ minds. There can be no mental development or intellectual progress unless the pupils are continually sustained by the evocation of interest, the acquirement of technique, and the excitement of success. The young mind will otherwise consider education as a burden.
Formal and general education must be well articulated so that every individual naturally approaches their inherent and unique aptitude. Humans can work most effectively when their thoughts, beliefs and actions are in tandem. The natural passion of the individual must go along with his everyday toil, only then can every person give his best performance. Education must facilitate students to discover their aptitude and build the right attitude to fully harness that aptitude. Universities have to serve as a connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old.
A robust working class and a thriving economy can be realised only by producing workmen and employers who enjoy their work. For example, it is impossible that a person, who has the talent of a teacher but ends up as a factory supervisor, will produce a large output of first-class work, however skilful his hands. He will inevitably limit his production, scamp his work, and be adept at evading inspection; he will be slow in adapting himself to new methods, be a focus of discontent, full of impractical ideas with no apprehension of the real working of trade conditions. If society is full of such anomalies of individuals, then it will deserve only inefficient organisations, haywire administration and demagogic leaders.
An important reason for such mismatches of talent and jobs is the upbringing of the young generation. Many parents do not raise their children to bring up a responsible citizen who intends to develop the community and society, but to produce youth who are professionally successful and can maintain if not raise the family’s financial status. The ideal of such parents is to purchase luxuries and flaunt their family before the community; very much like the farmer who fantasies a golden egg laying goose. Pressure is placed on students to take multiple advanced classes, participate in resume building extra-curricular activities, get super-high grades, and be admitted to prestigious universities.
Such upbringing of students can produce extraordinary stress in youngsters and create a mental health crisis in the community. Higher education, in such societies, is then reduced to a cultural exercise; you take a course because your community is taking it. Education and especially an undergraduate course then, is not a personal passion or inner conviction of the student but a dream of their family. The student who is taking the course has no idea about how the course will benefit him personally, morally or socially. If this is the prevalent purpose of education in a society then not only will the youth comprise of lethargic and under-qualified manpower but consumerism and social disparities will also prosper. Peace and solace will remain utopian dreams.
Wholesome development of students is of prime importance. In 2015, an American Superintendent of Schools of a high-achieving New Jersey school district located near Princeton University sent a letter to parents, stressing the urgent necessity of developing a “whole child”. In the year 2014-15, 120 middle and high school students from the district were recommended for mental health assessments; 40 were hospitalized. On a survey administered by the district, students wrote things like, “I hate going to school,” and “coming out of 12 years in this district, I have learned one thing: that a grade, a percentage or even a point is to be valued over anything else.”
Most students are too naïve to comprehend that they are lunging headlong into a purposeless maze. This is because they are told by their parents and teachers to confine their study just to the prescribed textbooks, which is especially true in the Indian subcontinent. Instead, students must be consistently encouraged to learn from a diversity of sources. The prescribed textbook is just a bare minimum necessity, it’s not at all sufficient to develop the personalities of future citizenry. Periodic assessments must be designed around judging and rewarding the students’ abilities to learn from such non-prescribed sources. Extra-curricular activities, besides reading literature, newspapers and encyclopaedias, scouts and guides, visiting museums and industries and going on excursions must be fully integrated with the mainstream textbook learning, all getting equal attention from the Boards of Education. Secondary level assessments by these educational boards must fully embrace the ‘peripheral’ education and give equal weightage as the state or nationally standardised exams. All knowledge is interconnected and wisdom comes by exploring those connections. This should be the guiding principle of every educational board. Knowledge will then be treated as a vast network of information, concepts and ideas instead of a concatenated string of uninteresting concepts.
Of course, these upgradations would certainly require a much better educational infrastructure, which is why the government must plan larger budgets for education, as do South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and other countries with better HDI. Otherwise, the Indian workforce will continue to be mediocre and passive and unemployment will remain persistent.
Contrary to a popularised notion, religion is not necessarily a hurdle in the process of scientific enquiry or modern education; the hurdle is rather ritualism or twisted doctrines. The greatest luminaries of modern philosophy, science, mathematics and education like Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Aquinas and Isaac Newton had strong beliefs in God. Abdus Salam, a Nobel laureate, was a pioneering proponent of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which seeks to explain matter and energy in the universe. As he spoke at the Nobel Banquet in 1979, he quoted from the Qur’an, “You will see no imperfection in the creations of the Merciful (God). Turn your vision again, can you see any flaw? Then turn your vision again, and then again; in the end your vision will return to you, worn out and frustrated !”. (The Dominion, 67:3-4). The Standard Model, though very successful, can explain only 4% of the known universe. The first Education Minister of independent India was an Islamic scholar named Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. He played a crucial role in India’s freedom struggle and founded India’s premier institutions like the University Grants Commission (UGC), Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) etc. Maulana Azad worked together with Dr. Radhakrishnan, who was also a great scholar of religion and philosophy. Both had presided over the UNESCO General Conferences in 1952, 1953 and 1956.
Technical vs Socio-Cultural Orientations
Education becomes effective if it is an integral part of the students’ culture. However, the prevalent culture in India is many times in conflict with the modern ideals of education system. On the one hand, most Indian students do realise that academic learning encourages them to challenge old ways and formulate better ones. But on the other hand, their elders at home often force them to adhere to the culture of their elders and even arrogate unconditional obeisance. Elders want their children to attend school but not bring their learning to home. Such a culture also discourages the students from taking seriously the values taught in the curricula.
Greater the gap between education and culture, greater will be the ‘generation gap’ which may also create a ‘class conflict’ or a conflict of cultures; since certain sections of the newer generation are increasingly exposed to ideas and knowledge that might be foreign or contradictory to the prevalent culture. In such a situation, it becomes the greatest challenge of educators to disperse reformist ideas in much faster and wiser ways. Since the middle-aged generation can no longer be directly educated, but continues to steer society, young generation has to be imparted with vast and superior knowledge which will enable them to reform the archaic culture at home while minimising the friction with their elders. It would be extremely beneficial in this regard if the elders are also exposed to progressive ideas through various kinds of media. Looking at the kind of soap operas and news channels broadcast on television today, it’s very clear that this social education, which must complement the academic education, is dreadful. Very few programmes like Satyamev Jayate are broadcast, because some media houses are scornful of awareness campaigns which focus on real issues.
Owing to a market oriented education system, the syllabus is inclined towards technical education. Perhaps because many people favour employment in the industrial and service sectors, topics such as quadratic equations, analytical geometry, metallurgy etc. are also taught in 9th and 10th classes. However, as fewer than 30% graduates in India are engineers, most Indian graduates will never use these concepts in their vocational lives. On the other hand, a majority of Indian graduates including engineers, doctors and managers, are unaware or callous of the crucial socio-cultural maladies and environmental degradation. In such a situation, it would be much better to reduce the emphasis on the purely technical topics, like polynomials and atomic structure, from secondary school education and advance the subjects of social studies and languages. Only those technical topics may be retained which serve to impart familiarity with abstract thought, its application to particular concrete circumstances, and the general methods of logical investigation.
If we can abandon the unnecessary habit of cramming young minds with recondite theorems which they do not understand, and will never use, there will be plenty of time to concentrate on really important topics. Literature and social studies go a long way in imparting moral and cultural education. It can also restore the balance of education between market orientation and society orientation. There can be no prospect of industrial peace with environment so long as the elite and working classes are engaged in a soulless operation of extracting money from the public. The policy makers and the people at large have to abandon the false hope of remediating social inequalities with technology-boosted markets.
Another improvement would be to scrap the “no detention policy” in primary classes, which is a way to whitewash the shortcomings of undertrained teachers, poor teaching practices and infrastructure. The results, as observed in the past few years, are undereducated pupils. For example, students of secondary classes sometimes struggle to answer basic questions or solve mathematical problems of primary classes.
A very controversial issue is the caste reservations in educational institutions. On the one hand it is perhaps the only hope for the discriminated classes to catch up with the mainstream working class and thought process, while on the other hand it can compromise the proficiency and skill of the working class. If the government and educational societies can provide special tuition and coaching of remarkable quality within the premises of institutions under a legal framework (like midday meals scheme), then social equality, justice and work quality may be achieved simultaneously. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has chalked out a scheme on these lines but it needs much more maturity, organisation and a full-fledged implementation. If the weaker sections successfully catch up with the mainstream, reservations can then be gradually done away with. Such methods can also be beneficial in districts (such as in North-eastern states) or countries (like USA) with ethnic discriminations.
Finally, it is the responsibility of educators, academics and intellectuals to step out of their closed circles and actively engage with the public; diffuse the truth and expose lies. They are the only class in society that can effectively keep the public policies and journalism from becoming narrow and discriminatory. They are also the backbone of the educational system that requires several reforms and upgradations. If they fail, or remain passive, then they will inevitably be ruled by demagogic leaders and inefficient bureaucrats; since the responsibility of intellectuals and the ultimate goal of education is to perpetuate wisdom and cultivate a society that acts on beliefs, opinions and understanding but not on emotions or intuition.