Learning to Unlearn|Feb 4, 2007 7:08 AM| by:

Changing Concepts of Education

Hitherto education was a subject by itself and tended to be developed in isolation from other factors which are indeed very relevant to it. True education is intended to learn to exploit the human resources, individual and collective. For the individual is not just a mind to be fed with graded information according to a fixed syllabus imposed uniformly on everybody; he is much more. He has his emotions, his life-energies and his physical dynamism. There is more than is obvious on the surface. Now education to be meaningful has got to take into account all these aspects of the human personality, develop them, draw out their respective potentials and integrate them methodically. It is only thus that man is educated in the true sense. And that is not all. He does not live in a vacuum. He lives in a society, a member of the community. And education has to put him in the right relation with others, teach him his responsibilities to the collectivity and help build a fruitful interchange between the individual and the community. There is more. The community itself is part of a larger collectivity, the nation. Each nation has its mores, its ideals, its working structure. The student has to be trained to participate in the development of his nation, become a useful citizen enriching in whatever way the common heritage and culture of the country. In other words education is something more than a developmental project. It is to help the individual to find his cultural identity and enable him to participate in the all-sided growth of his country.

A notable futurist thinker has observed that the present system of schools all over the world is a product of the Industrial Civilisation that arose some three hundred years ago and is now on its way out. The factory was the main unit in which raw materials were received and processed by the workers; these mass-products were handed out as finished wares for the market. Similarly the school is the factory, the teachers are the workers and the students are the raw materials which are processed and handed out as finished products to the society. Happily this state of affairs is ending and there is a good deal of rethinking everywhere on the concept and role of education. Certain researches in U.K. have revealed remarkable trends which may be summed up: the age of the classroom is over. With the arrival of the latest media equipment and technological developments, each home is developing into a place for study. Children have begun to learn in the congenial environment of the home. Homes in each locality pool their resources and divide their responsibilities. History is being learnt effortlessly at home; the grandma is coming back. It is confidently expected that within twenty years the existing college buildings and university premises will become empty for all purposes and will be resorted to by the young only for entertainment and such purposes as need specialised arrangements.

In this connection I cannot help recalling how when the first elaborate school building was completed by the architects in Auroville, and the Mother was approached for a name for the building, the name she chose to give was LAST SCHOOL. It was her conviction that in the age to come the school will no longer be confined to the four walls of the class-room.

The real school is life itself. And the art of fronting life most fruitfully, learning to act and react in life-situations in the right manner, is true education. In this context education ceases to be a preparation for life. It is coextensive with life. Our academic education forms only the first confused steps of the process. What now passes for education is to pump information from all sides into the minds of the young. Well might Eliot lament where is Wisdom in all this profusion of knowledge, where is Knowledge in the crowd of information! Education does not cease with the getting of a degree from the university, nor does it stay restricted to the interchange between the student and the teacher. The whole community is involved in it, directly and indirectly. There are three or four parties to the project: the student, the teacher, the parents, the funding source – mostly the government. Now each one of these has a part to play. The teacher has to develop links with the parents and make them partners in his effort. They are to be involved and feed-back must be given by the parents to the teacher. Happily in these days the parents are more responsive to the situation than our parents were when we were children, some 50 years ago. Today they take interest in what the student has learnt, what he has failed to learn, what is the load of his homework, etc. They make time to spend with their children and the children feel enthused and look forward to making favourable reports on their doings in the school. We have tried this approach in our schools in Orissa and have found it to be rewarding. In the beginning there was indeed little cooperation. Later it was found that while men had more demanding calls, the womenfolk were more responsive. They would attend the Sunday meetings and communicate with the teacher. That way the teacher comes to know the environment in which the student has to work; the household realises what is expected of the student. There is now a rising tide of Woman-Power. It is for us to press it into service in the interests of the children. There are also other ways of involving the parents in the educational activities of the school, especially in the field of cultural movements. Medicine, nutrition, health are other areas in which cooperation of the parents must be cultivated.

Then there are the teachers who need to be reminded time and again that theirs is not a profession but a mission, a mission to make enlightened adults out of the innocent, young children entrusted to their care. In India today the economic status of the teacher is vastly improved from what it was some five decades ago. Teaching is no longer a consolation job. It is a respected and highly responsible post carrying with itself a badge of social honour – at least it should be so. The role of the teacher is not just to be an instructor but to be a friend and guide, inspiring love and trust instead of fear and awe. The times are different and the gap between the teacher and the taught is now much less than what it used to be. That puts a great responsibility on the teacher. The teacher too must learn and learn constantly. Otherwise he forfeits the trust of the student. For him teaching must be a way of learning and he must be abreast of the knowledge-situation around.

Both parents and teachers must realise that to teach the three ‘R’s and feed the mind with facts in different subjects does not fill the bill. The whole of the individual must be kept in mind and the student helped to grow in all the different aspects of his being. In other words the perspective must be a total one. The present approach is fragmented, the process narrow and the objectives limited. The modern stress is on imparting an integral education: it involves all the parts of the being and ensures a maximum coordination of their development around the soul, the true centre of each person. This calls for repeated integration in the course of development.

This personal aspect is not all. There is, side by side, the social aspect. As the student grows he is called upon to interact with the society of which he is a member. His responsibilities grow as he himself develops in stature. Those who plan his education need to keep this fact in mind. While each one draws upon the collectivity for his own growth, he also incurs an obligation to the community to contribute to its health.

And then there is the national aspect. Each nation has its ideals. It is a part of history how Sparta of ancient Greece looked for a brave man who would not utter a lie, while Athens celebrated the ideals of beauty and joy. To a certain extent these traits of the national character are embedded in the aims of education and the national soul demands fulfilment of its cherished truths. Luckily the national is not the ultimate. With the growth of human consciousness, the religion of humanity is claiming the higher mind of all nations and the world is steadily moving towards a universal order, with whatever seeming obstructions. The educationist of today has to keep in mind this truth of universality of man, oneness of life and unity of the race.

It is in this broad context that we ought to face the problems of education and attempt to solve them. The progress of Science in the various fields has caused a veritable explosion of knowledge but has also developed techniques of bringing it to the door of the common man. These aids must be fully utilised to radically alter our systems of communication. The coming of the computer particularly has been effectively utilised in the West to reduce the need of man-power in the area of teaching. Students in several groups, in different locations, can be served by a single teacher who operates the computer from his room and the lessons are flashed on the screen before each group. This is just an illustration to show what revolutionary possibilities are opening in the field of communication with the popularisation of media like the TV, Video, satellite and so on. Such an explosion has never taken place in the history of man; such a wide access to knowledge has had no parallel. But of course there has to be a very discriminating use of these means. As things are, there is more misuse than right use of the TV. Parents complain that their children stay glued to the TV to the detriment of their health. It has been pointed out at an educational seminar in USA that two hours of TV is equal to eight hours of cinema: so much energy is sucked in by the TV. Similarly in using machines like calculators care must be taken to preserve the memory faculties and calculative capacities of the mind.

Many factors today are favourable for developing a holistic education which comprehends the whole personality of the individual, relates him to his expanding environment. The education has to be life-long and worldwide in its range. It is with this background that we approach the question of restructuring our system of education in India. It is, of course, understood that any meaningful reform in our educational system is bound up with a wholesale change in the orientation and structure of our society.

Sardar Patel once observed that the greatest casualty of the Second World War in India was character. Indian character has suffered deeper inroads since then and the disease of politicisation has infected almost every field of activity, not excluding Education. But it will not do to sit and complain. We have to tackle the malaise at its roots and that can be done most effectively in the sphere of education. It was some years ago that during a visit to the University of Baroda I was plainly told by the Dean that character-building is no part of education; the role of the teachers is only to communicate the information and teach techniques where they are called for. I do not believe that most of us share this approach. Education has got to be value-based, at any rate in a country like India where the spiritual view of man prevails and not the biological view as in many places elsewhere. The values we speak of – fealty to truth, courage, honesty, self-giving, respect for life – are innate in the human being. They only need to be tapped and given room to express themselves, organise themselves in life. They cannot be inculcated by classroom instruction. Formal teaching of morality and ethics breeds only cynicism and hypocrisy especially if precept is not supported by example. Moral or spiritual education which aims to draw out the deeper and higher potentials of the being has a subtler character. It cannot be a subject taught in a particular period. This communication, implantation of the aspiration to develop the higher qualities, should be done in an unseen manner. Students must be encouraged to project these ideals in their cultural and outdoor activities, plays, poetry, games, tournaments, community festivals and the like. Sri Aurobindo points out how as a result of the spread of the western, utilitarian type of education since the days of Macaulay, the finer instincts of students have atrophied. The artistic sensitivities, aesthetic perceptions have been put out of court as irrelevant. These elements which formed an integral part of the ancient ideal of education, must be revived and students helped to breathe the spirit of aesthesis in all fields of life, thereby elevating the quality of their existence. This task shall not be left to the Drawing Teacher with one period a week. The cult of Beauty must form an integral part of the temple of learning.

The school must become a centre of learning and not a room for formal instruction. Education hereafter will be child-oriented, not teacher-centred. The teacher’s role has to be that of an awakener, a friend and guide. It is the aptitude of the student that should decide his line of studies and not the wishes of the parents or the availability of facilities (or seats). Examinations have outlived their utility and need to be replaced by some other system of supporting the studies and enabling the student to assess his progress. The best mode is a close contact between the teacher and the student; the teacher must have genuine interest in his ward and the latter a healthy respect for the teacher and trust in his judgement. It is often asked how in these days of mass education where each class has at least a hundred students, it is possible for the teacher to have a personal contact with the students. On the basis of experience I would say it is possible. It is possible provided the teacher takes genuine interest in the welfare of the students in his charge and inspires confidence on the part of the students in his concern for their welfare. I may cite the instance of my Teacher, the Mother. In our ashram, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, there are some two thousand inmates and Mother knew every one of them. She may not know everyone by name or pedigree but well enough to have a personal relation. Each one felt linked to her in a personal way. So too with the thousands of devotees outside. Even if she had seen a person for a minute or less, she would remember him after ten years. There was nothing aloof or impersonal about her relation with others. That was possible because of the interest she took in the welfare and progress of each, the love she gave to each who came to her. She identified herself with those who saw her. Even if the number of students runs into hundreds, if the teacher involves himself in the interests of the students and creates a confidence in them, his abiding interest forges a link. It used to be so in the olden days: the relationship was something more than a teacher-student connection in the classroom.

Another important matter that needs attention is the nature of the textbooks that are prescribed to the students. When the British were there, most of these texts were designed with an ulterior purpose of driving home the innate superiority of the ruling race. Now, after independence, the disease continues. In each state, the ideology of the ruling party reeks through the textbooks giving an altogether grotesque twist to the subject-matter. Textbooks need to be designed in a different spirit: to excite the interest of the student and induce him to use them as spring-boards for wider adventures in the realms of literature, history and so on. Especially in history books, the enumerative element must yield to an interpretative approach and the presentation must correspond to local history, local situations.

Coming to the medium of instruction, it is reasonable to teach subjects like Science, Mathematics in an international language which for us is English. These subjects have no national boundaries, their study demands an international language for effective communication. Next comes the mother-tongue, though it is a practical question why the student who learns his mother-tongue naturally at home should not be encouraged to learn some other useful language as is done at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. Then comes Hindi as a requirement under the Constitution. It is again an unanswered question whether left to itself Hindi language will not be picked up by large numbers as a matter of practical necessity, as it used to be in the pre-independence era. Anything imposed from above loses its flavour. It is sad that the subject of Hindi langauge has got shifted from its proper educational context to the maelstrom of politics.

Another question relates to meritocracy vs. mediocracy. Is it permissible in a democratic set-up like ours to maintain elitist institutions? Studied objectively, it is a question of raising standards instead of lowering them in the name of democracy. The generality of the public must indeed be provided with the necessary facilities for an all round education. But those who are endowed with special talent and intelligence must be catered to in a special way in the larger interests of the community. A hundred engineering colleges do need to be supplemented by a couple of I.I.Ts. It is a training in leadership. And not everyone has the capacities to become a captain in whichever field. Let us recognise the simple fact that there is no equality in Nature. Each leaf, each plant, each thumb has different features. Each is unique. The equality must be one of opportunity. The rest depends upon the intrinsic capacities of each one. A few promising ones do need a specialised training for which they are equipped by nature; the rest must be attended to at their level though the effort to raise their level must be kept up. In other words centres of excellence are a must.

Allied to this question is the relevance of the role of pioneering institutions which function as experimental stations, research centres, where new methods of education are being tried and perfected. These must be encouraged and helped to function autonomously without administrative interference. These are the schools or centres of learning which open up new horizons, demonstrate fresh possibilities. It is for the authorities to ascertain how far these proved methods can be applied, adopted or adapted on a larger scale. These are the real doors to the twenty-first century.

One last point and that is regarding vocational education. As things are practised it has acquired a bad odour: it has become a common notion that only those who fail to make good in the academic field are pushed into the vocational so that they may be helped to earn their living later on. This, I must say, is a wrong approach. Students must be encouraged to engage themselves in work programmes in order to discover their skills, promote them and enjoy them. The vocational engagement must lead to creative activity, not necessarily to commercially productive application. It is even suggested by observers that the vocational course should come in as late as feasible. After all the real aim of education is to enable one to be and not to do.
M.P. Pandit

(M.P. Pandit came to the Ashram at a very young age. He is the author of a large number of books and articles on Integral Yoga and the Indian spiritual tradition. He was the Chairman of World Union International.)