Learning to Unlearn|Mar 4, 2007 8:13 AM| by:

The Purpose of Education

The aim of education is always twofold: there is a collective aspect and there is an individual aspect.

From the collectivity point of view, education is expected to turn the individual into a good citizen, i.e. into a person who has harmonious relations with the other members of the community, who is useful to the society and who fulfils with zeal his obligations as a citizen.

On the other hand, it may be expected that education will give to the individual a strong and healthy body, help him in building up his character and attaining self-mastery, and supply him with good opportunities of discovering and developing harmoniously his natural abilities.

It is evident that both expectations are justified and we should take them into account while aiming at their reconciliation. We can achieve this only by a correct understanding of the relation between the individual and the society. We shall see later that the individual and the society can grow together and help each other in their growth. Sri Aurobindo has indeed shown how such a harmonisation is possible, although it has never yet been really achieved – and it may be very long before the human race can attain to it.

In its imperfect vision of things, the human mind tends always to emphasize one aspect to the detriment of the others. Thus, the recent trend in social thought is to give more importance to the society and to regard the individual as a subordinate unit. Some doctrines go so far as to deny to the individual any legitimate right and aspiration except what the collective sees and decides. Even when such an extreme position is rejected, it is certain that nowadays the collective aim in education has overshadowed the individual, so that the problem of education becomes almost exclusively how to fit the individual to the needs of society?

This is evidenced by the change we witness in education programmes in answer to the growing demand for scientists, engineers and technicians, and by the numerous new institutions that are created to satisfy this demand. It is also clear from the scanty attention that is paid to the individua’sl development along the lines which are not officially encouraged, with the result that there is an over-specialization, while a balanced all-round development would be more beneficial for the individual.

By the needs of society is meant what society thinks it requires. Temporary necessities may arise (war, new discoveries, geographical or political changes) which may for some time reflect themselves on education. But it is clear that the formulated requirements of any society, as far as education is concerned, depend on the aim of human life as it is conceived largely by the ruling class at the time. It may be general culture and adornment of life artists of all sorts will be encouraged and become the favourites of the princes. It may be military aggrandizement and adventure – then soldiers and sailors will be needed. It may be industrialization as a means towards material well-being – the need will be for engineers and technicians.

There are other ways, less direct but equally powerful, in which the social outlook influences education. For instance, our society is still a competitive one and, in so far as students are concerned, they are simply thrown into life after completion of their studies, and have, with whatever help they can muster from family and friends, to find a job and elbow for their place in society. Many find themselves in great difficulty, like a person who hardly knowing how to swim is thrown abruptly into a river. This state of things is partly an outcome of the disappearance of the old system of hereditary occupation. Children are not expected nowadays to follow the trade of their parents. More freedom and scope are given to the individual than in the past, but with a feeling of insecurity as counterpart, and consequent mental tension. One may say that the future is open, but, when unemployment is rampant, for many the future is ominous and fraught with worry, depression and frustration.

It may be maintained that competition has a stimulating and invigorating effect, that it helps the strong and brilliant, and gives them access to key positions where they will be most useful, and that, after all, it is an aspect of the struggle for life, whereby the strong survive and the weak are eliminated.

The trouble is that the weak are not eliminated from society. They are simply demoralized and sometimes broken down, filled with despair or rancour. The minor but useful contribution that they could have brought to society is certainly not enhanced by the sense of frustration that will accompany them all through their life. And society will have to accommodate them, to help them in spite of their increased deficiency.

We must combine this with the part played by money in modern society. Money is not only a convenient means of exchange whose function is to ensure the transfer of goods and services from the producer to the consumer; it is also the means of bringing scientific discovery to translate itself into technological progress and increased productivity by investment. Money is therefore in great demand and, becoming scarce, is in a position to dictate its terms and to exact an interest in return for its loan. Thus, money has become the indispensable condition of material achievement and the gauge of success, with the result that everything is evaluated in terms of money. Even the few who are most ready to work disinterestedly for a good cause are in practice obliged, if not for themselves at least for their wives and children, to reckon with money and the salary they will receive.

Moreover, money has become a corrupting agent. It is not the honest and capable who get it most, but often enough the clever or crafty. It is well-known that great financial wizards go walking on a tight-rope with the risk of downfall at almost every step.

The result of this combination is obvious. For the students it is a race for diplomas, with its well-known bad effects on education itself: cramming and cheating. And afterwards, in life, it is the continued elbowing for jobs and the widespread use of immoral means, leading to nepotism and corruption.

The pros and cons of examinations and diplomas have long been debated. The cons are generally felt as outweighing the pros, but nobody has yet found out how to do without the current system. It seems unavoidable until the spirit of competition is replaced by the spirit of co-operation. There is an awakening to this need, but true co-operation is a superhuman task.

Every society has its bright and its black spots; there are times when the sores become apparent. It is a sign that a change is necessary or imminent. If the defects of education have recently come so much into the limelight, it is because our society itself is in a state of transition, because it has been thrust into an accelerated process of change and has lost its old moorings.

Such a picture, with variations of course depending on the social environment, will present itself to the young people when they try to conjecture the kind of life that is awaiting them in society. For a few the prospect is bright; many will have to accommodate themselves to a life far different from their cherished dreams; almost all are anxiously looking for a principle of action that would at the same time satisfy their conscience and ensure the security of their life.

It is often said that as education is the building up of the thinking elite of the nation much of the nation’s future depends on its system of education. This is true to some extent. But conversely the general outlook of society has also a strong bearing on education itself so that education can only be reformed when a corresponding change has already begun in society, or at least when the necessity for such a change is being felt. This is the case especially in a period of crisis, when the established order of things is crumbling, when the ancient ideals have lost their holds, and youth is desperately in need of a guiding light, an ideal that can sustain its enthusiasm and carry it through the strenuous tasks of life. At such a time, when a reassessment of the fundamental values is essential, the importance of education is ten times greater – it may be decisive if the educational body is able to discern the evolutionary trend and perceive the ideal of the new age.


(P.B. Saint Hilaire studied at the ‘Ecole polytechnique’ in France. His spiritual search took him to Japan, Mongolia and finally to the Ashram at Pondicherry where he was given the name Pavitra. He was the Director of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.)

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