Learning to Unlearn|Jul 13, 2004 11:15 AM| by:

Education for the Global Citizen: Agenda for Change

It seems obvious to most discerning observers that there is an urgent need today for thinking through a new system of national education, commensurate with a globalized world.  In most quarters, this need is seen in terms of the newly available job markets and rising economic opportunities for a mobile work force.  It has logically meant the devaluation of traditional systems of knowledge such as the liberal arts, humanities and social sciences in favour of disciplines seen to drive the newer engines of techno-economic change.

Such a course, attractive but short sighted, will be a colossal error.  There is a gross inadequacy of thinking today regarding the current trend in globalization.  A proper understanding of the present challenges would require a critique of development models geared to the promotion of an oligarchy, clearly a prospect that has disturbing life-style consequences for large masses in post-colonial societies.

The right education for the global citizen, I argue, could come by eschewing the so-called “global” models, uniform in approach.  Rather we need pedagogic methods and tools that are pluralistic, sensitive to the needs of regions, societies and cultures.  Finally I suggest that one way this could be accomplished is by the use of some of the key tenets of spiritual thinkers like Sri Aurobindo based on his philosophy of learning in the context of the emerging international order.


The traditional systems of education in the East or the West, had generally seen merit in creating a context for learning that was free from the pressures of immediate social or political exigencies.  Although largely class bound, catering to the elites of different kinds, the best systems always prided themselves in being idealistic.  The Athenian Model of Lyceum or the Gurukul system in ancient India, although rooted to radically different principles and philosophies of education, gave allegiance to this idealistic drive.  The Socratic method promoted the dictum “know thyself”, just as the Upanishadic parables of a Bhrigu, Nachiketa, Satyakam, Gargi or Maitreyi affirmed the supreme importance of the quest for knowledge by the individual seeker.

In contrast, military societies such as Sparta or those of the Amazons that saw virtue in discipline and austerity for the sake of conquest and subjugation consciously downplayed or disregarded the idealistic aims of education. There was no place in such a scheme for the weaklings, the infirm, the physically and mentally handicapped.  However, despite such professed pragmatic and utilitarian goals anchored to the promotion of collective glory, most of such societies perished early, often due to internal contradictions, but more vitally, due to the neglect of the very idealistic base of the system of education.

In contrast to the pragmatic, the so-called idealistic systems also embraced a measure of the practical.  The children of Dhritarashtra and Pandu spent time in the idyllic hermitage, as a necessary prelude or preparatory stage for facing the battles and ordeals of life.  The anonymity and ordinariness of the experience of the princes in the forest was meant to offset royal arrogance and absolutism in later life.

This idealistic – pragmatic balance that I have referred to so far worked fairly well till the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the early part of the 19th Century in Britain and in the continent.


What then are our options in an era of late capitalism which has exacerbated the idealistic-pragmatic divide and effectively witnessed the dethronement of all socialistic experiments.  What system shall we in India fashion out that could effectively challenge the neo-colonial and hegemonic West?  The optimists believe that the ‘India Shining Campaign’ is not entirely bereft of truth; that today Indian intellectuals straddle across the globe in influential departments of study, that the Indian IT industry has outpaced the Chinese.  The sooner the Indian education gears itself to match the international expectations it is said, the better it is for our children!

But is this true?  Aren’t we at the risk of being part of the service industry of the advanced West which has begun to block outsourcing from the so-called third world even while singing the free market tune as a manna from heaven?  I believe it is here that some of the tenets of thinkers like Sri Aurobindo could help us face the crisis.  Merely opposing the West in all fields, including education, is clearly not going to take us far.  We need to work out an effective philosophy of education that is dynamic, forward looking, matching the needs of technology with the cultivation of the heart.  In this sense, the UGC’s newly introduced concept paper regarding the model University Act appears to be flawed.  It is partial in thinking and lacks conceptual clarity and an integral vision.

Paradoxically enough, today even as we hear the rising refrain of India as a Super Power, it is worth recalling what Sri Aurobindo had said in his message to the Andhra University in 1948 as a word of caution:

“There are deeper issues for India herself, since by following certain tempting directions she may conceivably become a nation like many others evolving an opulent industry and commerce, a powerful organization of social and political life, an immense military strength practising power politics with a high degree of success, guarding and extending zealously her gains and her interests, dominating even a large part of the world but in this apparently magnificent progression forfeiting its Swadharma losing its soul.  Then ancient India and her spirit might disappear altogether and we would have only one more nation like the others and that would be real gain neither to the world nor to us… It would be a tragic irony of fate if India were to throw away her spiritual at the very moment when in the rest of the world there is more and more a turning towards her for spiritual help and a saving light.”(1)

As Sri Aurobindo explains, spirituality is a principle that integrates all parts of our being and leads us to a holistic experience.  The first approach to the national system of education therefore is to create a radical alternative to the corporatisation of schools, based on a crass-commercial drive.  The goal should be to promote all-round excellence among the meritorious, across class, caste, creed, gender and ethnicity.  Simultaneously, we must pursue the goal of universal literacy as a pressing national imperative.

A massive overhaul of the system is not possible without a corresponding rise in budgetary resources for education.  This can be achieved by vigorously pursuing peace-making amongst our hostile neighbours. We could consequently cut our Defence spending and manpower, reorient the Defence to suit the newer requirements of our security environment and threat perception.

Secondly, we must involve the corporate sector for public philanthropy and welfare.  Today such philanthropy is largely religious.  Indian business and industry, through the CII or FICC must be made aware of their social responsibilities.  Ultimately this could come through political pressure generated through citizen groups.  Today organizations campaigning for better governance like the Lok Satta are in their infancy.  What we need are more such groups and their ability to influence the political and business class for national education.

The new policy of National Education should steer clear of all doctrinaire approaches: religious or spiritual. It shall affirm freedom, flexibility and creativity in embracing the totality of the human self as the pivot of the new system of education.  It shall eschew all artificial binaries like the sacred-secular and would seek to prevent the politicization of religion by promoting the spiritual view of life that is non-divisive, non-sectarian and transcends the barriers of human ego.

In practical pedagogic terms, what would be the contours of such a system? Here are some:

·         In all spheres, the new system should attempt to bridge the gap between the elite and common schools, the State supported institutes vis-à-vis the elite private universities.  The idea is not to pull down everything to a common level of mediocrity but to prepare vision documents, prioritize institutional goals within a reasonable time frame, fix rewards and disincentives and link the entire educational system to a national grid, while making adequate provision for regional/local variations.  This means, for instance, that while syllabus could be local, national level tests in various disciplines, commonly administered, could determine student skills and aptitudes for higher studies.

·         Secondly, the new system should focus on the local, the regional, the national and the international/global in that order.  Currently the process unfortunately is the reverse to the detriment of all.

·         At the school level, both in the State and private sector, the new policy shall suggest the strict use of the three language formula for all children from primary section onwards so that the elite is rooted to the ground realities constantly.

·         In the same manner, the school curriculum shall attempt a balance between the arts, aesthetics, music and the sciences.

·         At the College and University level for all the science, technology and business schools,  it could be a well considered option for students to register for courses in the humanities and social sciences.
·         Value education will occupy an important part in the new system.  This will avoid instructions through sermons or doctrines both secular and religious.  Instead, through imaginative modules, taught in a creative manner through student participation, children should be exposed to the nobility of human action, the virtue of selfless works, development of a national spirit free from jingoism or fanaticism, the importance of a decolonised mind, the growth of a national temper free from insularity and revivalism.  They will also learn the value of dialogue and the significance of cooperative action.  They will learn the importance of competitive spirit for the sake of all-round excellence.  But they will relate this spirit to cooperative endeavours through the performance of many group tasks and social campaigns such as the spread of literary programmes in the neighbourhood and districts.  This will free the present dominant mindset from greed for individual success anchored to a self-centered parasitical behaviour.  The children will, in this sense, learn of India’s rich pluralistic traditions, the Indic, the Islamic, the Buddhist, the Jain, the Sufi and the many orthodox and heterodox approaches, the Deshi and the Marga so that the achievement of the meritorious young is tempered by their sense of privilege, their responsibility towards the dispossessed many and their participation for the exciting nation building activity in India.

·         And finally the new system should actively promote physical culture as a co-curricular activity in school and college education.  The government and the corporate sector should be called upon to participate in the promotion of sports. Currently sports seems to be confined to the TV screen. This has to change if India is to have a trained manpower backed by all round physical fitness.  In this sense, Swami Vivekananda’s message2 to the Indian youth has not lost its relevance in today’s context.
In the foregoing discussion, I have tried to outline the main contours of a new policy of national education. This policy, as I have argued, is based on some of the principles Sri Aurobindo spelt out as part of his philosophy of education and his views on culture in much of his writing.  The policy suggested is also in accordance with the new world order envisioned by Sri Aurobindo in his social and political writings such as the chapter “Civilisation and Barbarism” in The Human Cycle.

Quality education has always been perceived as the preserve of the few.  We can ill afford this approach any longer. Promotion of islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity and ignorance will surely be an invitation for disaster. Only an education, truly national in spirit, and wider in reach, a spiritualised education can avert this.  It is time we put this into action for building a resurgent India.

Sachidananda Mohanty

(The author, a Fulbright Scholar at Texas and Yale 1990-81, is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Hyderabad. He is a former Senior Academic Fellow at the American Studies Research Center, Hyderabad and former Vice President, South India American Studies Network (SIASN). The opinions expressed here are his own.)

Works cited:
1. Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, 1972; rpt.2000, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
2. Swami Vivekananda’s message was to promote physical culture. We must be more rajasic, he said, in order to defeat the British! Indians, he rightly said, mistake their tamas for sattwa.

Sachidananda Mohanty