The misuse of learning

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D N Bezboruah

There seems to be some confusion even among some educated people about what kind of teaching-learning process can be called education and what cannot. After all, education is a teaching-learning process, but there are so many other teaching-learning activities that also take place outside schools, colleges and universities that can never be called education.
How does one make the distinction, and where does one draw the demarcating line? The task should really not be difficult if one is constantly guided by the principle that the kind of learning that is good for everyone and makes it better for the society should generally go by the name of education, and that the kind of learning that harms society and citizens should certainly not be called education. This is more easily said than done in a land where efforts are constantly afoot to harm society and citizens even though we may swear by education.
[Most of us are perhaps familiar with the practice of many girls and women who grip their necks and say “bidya” when they attempt to convince their listeners that what they have just said is entirely true. This practice is still in vogue, even though the word bidya may have been replaced by Maa kasam or a kasam on someone else dear to the speaker. I have not yet been able to make out with any degree of certainty whether bidya is the word used to take an oath in the name of Saraswati, the goddess of learning.] In India, it is getting to be increasingly difficult to predict what kind of learning will get to be regarded as education, because so many of our leaders have not had the benefit of formal education and might well be inclined to regard all forms of learning that helps them to function (not always honestly) as education. And that is why some rule-of-thumb definition of education might be in order before I proceed any further.
There are several definitions of education, but the one that is appropriate and adequate for our purpose is that education is a process that brings about desirable behavioural changes in the individual. The key phrase, of course is desirable behavioural changes. When we are talking about education, we are concerned with not just any kind of behavioural changes but only desirable ones. Naturally, this begs the question as to who is to determine whether certain behavioural changes are desirable or not. There was a time when it was perfectly in order to leave the task of determining whether a behavioural change was desirable or not to a vague and nebulous entity called society without specifying specific individuals or official designations. This is probably no longer possible in India because so many of those in power are themselves victims of undesirable behavioural changes that they cannot be regarded as suitable persons to determine whether certain behavioural changes are desirable or undesirable. But about this, a little later.
A child’s formal education should start at the age of 5. But there are many ambitious parents who want their children to have an earlier start. So we have a lot of children who are in nursery schools by the age of 4. There is a certain rigidity about what children should learn in their primary and secondary schools. There is naturally the desired emphasis on the 3 R’s and the hope that every child will eventually acquire good handwriting and be able to do at least simple arithmetic. Unfortunately, today many teachers do not have good handwriting and are in no condition to impart it their pupils. And I have come across a lot of adults who are unable to apply learning to the many situations that call for a bit of arithmetic.
I am not talking about calculus or trigonometry or even simple geometry. I am talking about simple arithmetic taken to the level of calculating percentages. This is an ability that adults are constantly in need of in everyday situations. But there are not too many adults who can carry out simple calculations of percentage that they need for their day-to-day business dealings. The advent of the cell phone or calculator has been a great boon to them, but the two devices have made sure that they will never learn how to calculate percentages without such aids. One cannot help wondering what such an ‘educated’ person would do in a situation where he has left behind his cell phones and is required to make simple calculations that might include the calculation of percentages. He would have to borrow someone else’s cell phone. But what if he cannot even borrow a cell phone or calculator? In such situations the dhobi, milkman or the fish vendor is perhaps better off than many educated persons since their proficiency in mental arithmetic is decidedly better.
All true education teaches us to accept the truth and reject what is either untrue or cannot be substantiated by the relevant facts relating to any situation. This is about the best way in which we can derive the required benefits that education imparts – by accepting what is true and rejecting what is false. However, the truth is often inconvenient for people in politics. That is why it often becomes necessary for politicians at least to avoid the truth if they cannot cope with the fallout of the truth in individual cases. Fortunately, this is not an escape route available to lesser mortals, and they have to be dealing with others in ways that are universally accepted.
A few examples should suffice to tell us how even grown-up souls tend to opt for lies and half-truths or total silence at times when the truth makes things difficult. Take the case of the of the recent Rafale deal. During the UPA days, the stated requirement for India’s security was 126 fighter aircraft. At that time, the cost of 126 Rafale jets was Rs 79,000 crore, with the unit cost of Rafale fighter jets being Rs 629 crore. The deal did not get through during the UPA regime.
Now the deal has been revised with the total outlay at Rs 58,000 crore for only 36 Rafale jets with the unit cost being Rs 1,611. We now have fairly educated people having to explain to the people of India (a) why the need for Rafale fighter jets has come down from 126 planes to just 36 jets; (b) why the unit cost of the planes has gone up from Rs 629 crore to Rs 1,611 crore; (c) why the Government should now pretend that the unit cost of a Rafale fighter jet should be such a carefully guarded secret; (d) why the unit cost should have become 2.56 times the unit cost of what was negotiated during the UPA regime; and (e) why Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman should have taken about 2 hours of costly Parliament time to talk about the Rafale jets without answering specific questions on their unit cost.
Nor has there been any satisfactory answer to the question as to why it was necessary to have Reliance as an offset partner when it was possible to have a direct deal between France and India on the Rafale jets. We have a situation created which should not have been countenanced by any educated person. This is the kind of misuse of education and learning that has been to the detriment of the country. Then there is the senseless determination of the Union Government to push through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 despite the great harm it will do to Assam and despite the strong opposition of the people of Assam to the passing of the Bill in Parliament. We have spent over 7 decades as an independent country without need for any amendment to our citizenship laws.
But now there is this black law that not only runs counter to our secular commitment by being based on religion, but threatens the very existence of Assam that has already been turned into a dumping ground of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Here is a clear case of the misuse of learning merely to extend the size of the existing vote bank for mere electoral gains of the ruling party because it is painfully aware of being unable to win general elections through performance. The Prime Minister talks rather glibly and thoughtlessly about upholding Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. Why does he fail to understand that the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 goes totally against the provisions of the Assam Accord? Clause 6 of the Assam Accord cannot be upheld if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 becomes law. Quite obviously, this is yet another instance of the misuse of learning, since the very credentials of a secular country are being challenged by the enactment of the aforesaid Bill. What greater misuse of learning can one adduce? (Courtesy: The Sentinel)