There was a time when the Indian students pursued education to learn skills and acquire knowledge. The pursuit of learning then was not about cramming by rote, but was directed towards the acquisition of wisdom and thus to enrich society at large.
It was a time when none needed Government permission to open 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 Gurukul where there was no screening test for admission. A student’s sole criterion for being accepted as a learner by the Guru was his eagerness to learn and acquire knowledge.
That knowledge was never linked to particular jobs or services as mechanically imparted today. There were fewer Gurukuls, and yet there was no mad rush for admission to 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 and depended on the interests of learners. Trades and professions were learnt mainly 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 only to earn one’s livelihood; was more of a way to nurture one’s creative faculties. Perhaps that is why, India of the past was far more advanced economically, socially, spiritually, materially and intellectually.
Ancient India excelled in science, metaphysics, literature and commerce. Our ancient thinkers are still more revered for their originality and path-breaking discoveries than neo-Indians, as the product of the modern education system are known today. In fact, many of us have made their mark after going abroad.
We have reached a stage in which schooling and the pursuit of education have become tedious, mundane and joyless even though our educational policies over the years have emphasised the need to make education joyful while linking it to the acquisition of skills.
However, we are still far way from realising the profound objectives. As a country of over 1300 million people and where about two-third of the population is below 35, we have millions of degree and diploma holders without any worthwhile “life skills”, or are largely unemployable, and lack the confidence to think of a career beyond the formal, organised or classical sectors of livelihood.
It is these disoriented youth without a vision and self-confidence who have become a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, thereby nixing our entire demographic dividend. They are often used and abused by different vested interests as they, despite the acquisition of formal education, don’t have the capacity or ability to tell the chaff from the grain and hence, become 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 don’t intervene immediately and take corrective measures to bring about the desired changes in our education system, we will continue to languish as the world’s “Back Office” for doing the menial chores for 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 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 recommendations made by experts and specialists on the subject.
The National Curriculum Framework 2005 had envisaged 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 Constitutional 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, more often than not, these 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 classrooms, more playgrounds, better infrastructure, 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 youth boast degrees and formal qualifications, but they don’t have skills required to survive during difficult situations in life. They expect to be spoon-fed by the Government through doles, patronage and other populist programmes… in the manner of parasites.
The country’s education policy should equip our youth to face every situation in life, to confidently to see every challenge as an opportunity. On the contrary, because of skewed priorities, the difficulties and hardships of life often breeds a sense of negativism, including increased alienation and frustration.
Thanks to a developing economy, there has been a vertical split in our society, of a kind that 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 can also vary due to different backgrounds. Hence, the differential outcomes in their educational attainments.
There are many children who are disadvantaged or handicapped as they belong to inferior or lower sub-cultures with a value system that is different from the dominant one.
Students from the private schools do better in a highly prejudiced social pecking order, while those from Government schools often languish unless they are suitably motivated to break through the glass ceiling of status and class.
But all said and done, the basic thrust or the thread running through both kinds of schools remains the same as they are both guided and informed by the same educational policy and social consensus on education. Hence, even those 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 the employment market 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 along with ‘good character’. If one has a good command over the language, with a knowledge of basic mathematics and common sense, one can perform most of the tasks that are required in day-to-day life. If specialised jobs such as engineering, medicine etc had more of the practical and empirical components than the formal, theoretical components, we would not have encountered such accidents as the collapse of highrise buildings and flyovers.
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 that deschooling is 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’. He envisages three types of interactions in terms of learning ~ between a skill teacher and a student, between people themselves engaging in critical discourse, and between a master (a practitioner like Dronacharya) and a student. This kind of relationship, which can happen in intellectual disciplines or the arts, can also materialise in crafts or skills such as mountain-climbing, but is stifled in a schooled society where non-accredited (read non-formal) learning is looked at askance.
Therefore, 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 in our institutionalised school system, which neglects the task of helping the child evolve into a complete person. For this, we need to adopt a holistic approach through child-centric pedagogy, indeed 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 encouraging a child’s imagination and thinking, for inciting his/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.
We should also ensure provisioning the same quality of education in Government schools as in the private schools. The quality of education imparted in state schools of Europe and America is much better than in ours. Unless we realise the shortcomnings, we will miss out in terms of demographic dividend.
The learners should actively construct their own knowledge with the help of teachers as facilitators and coordinators by relating new ideas to existing ones and the same should happen through collaboration, negotiations and exchange of views.
The participation of the community for experience and sharing of knowledge should be encouraged. The teachers and instructors should engage learners through experience, experimenting, reading, discussing, asking, listening, active thinking 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 at a discount in our country. The curriculum and textbooks should be carefully crafted and ought to 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 be uppermost in the order of priorities rather 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 be linked to spirituality. After all, if we all have to die one day, why do we need to chase the good things of life and the attendant comforts. A highly religious society believes in rebirth, the Karma theory (Doctrine of Just Deserts), peaceful coexistence, the principle of Nar Narayana (where every human being is perceived divine) and where divinity is supposed to pervade every dimension of our life. India is bursting at the seams, moving away from its historical 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, 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 every human being by going through the countless cycles of birth and death. Emphasis on formal education and degrees should seek to link education to the requirements of life and to make it socially more relevant.
The present juncture could not be more opportune for extending the boundaries of our education system when rightist forces are on the rise across the world and when Quantum Physics and spirituality are converging.
The Indian leadership needs to synergize its efforts with leaders of the world in order to build a consensus on protecting universal human values through a humane education system which envisages a more fulfilling life for every person.
The writer is Commissioner of School Education, Govt of West Bengal. The views are personal and don’t reflect those of the Government. (Courtesy: TS)